I awoke in a Vermeer painting. Watery afternoon light slanted through the high mullioned windows, creating shafts of golden bright contrasted with deep shadows of ocher and umber. I blinked and looked around, puzzled. My sister dozed in an armchair and I remembered.
It was Saturday, February 14, 1981, and I had just arrived in Amsterdam with my father and sister. We were en route from Wisconsin to our new life in Athens, Greece, starting with a visit with family. I was in the parlor at the top of Tante Françoise’ row house, which faced a canal and everything. I had been two years old the last time I had visited, but I supposed this room had not changed much since then — indeed, not since Vermeer’s days. The same light slanted through similar windows in his time.
My dad appeared, tall and handsome with his dark hair and beard just beginning to gray. He was clearly excited to be back in his home country.
“Good! You’re awake. Let’s go get flowers for our girlfriends.”
“It’s Valentine’s Day! C’mon, let’s go.”
I found a jacket and we headed out into the damp, chilly streets. Amsterdam is every bit as beautiful as you have heard it is, even on a cool, moist February afternoon. My dad strode swiftly and confidently along: he was in his element, his native environment. I wanted to gawk at every little thing, and felt like I was two again, toddling along in his wake, sometimes holding his hand.
Our girlfriends, huh? That was a touchy topic. As far as mine was concerned, a week or two earlier I had told her that it made sense to me to suspend our relationship while I finished high school overseas, and see where we were when I returned. She hadn’t responded at the time, but upon our parting the previous day, she had pressed a letter into my hand. I had read it on the plane. It was full of tenderness, and wistful hope, and no trace of suspended relations. Walking with my dad, I was still thinking it through. I had thought releasing her was the compassionate thing to do, but I was crazy about her, and giving a try at a long-distance romance seemed worth the risks. I knew flowers would signal acceptance of her counter-proposal. It was exciting and scary and I felt tremendously shy about it all.
Regarding my dad’s “girlfriend”, well… My parent’s divorce had just been finalized a few days earlier. There was a lot I did not understand about the disintegration of their marriage, but I knew my dad’s flirtation with my mother’s best friend played a role. I sided with my dad, fanatically and unreflectively. This talk about his so-called “girlfriend” did not jive with my preferred perception of him as the slighted hero, and I resented it.
Suddenly we were in a florist and my dad and the clerk-lady were chatting in rapid Dutch. I paid no attention. I considered waiting outside.
Abruptly he turned to me. “What do you want to say on yours?”
“Say? On my what?”
“On the card, on your flowers, for Lori. What do you want the card to say?”
Cripes, he was really doing it. What’s the first thing I wanted to communicate to my sweetheart after departing for an absence of almost two years? I felt totally on the spot, exposed. I blushed, stammered, looked around for an escape.
“‘Kims’?” He looked baffled. My sister’s name is Kim, and his hearing was just starting to fail.
“KINS. ‘From Kins’.”
He turned to the clerk and tried to relay this, spelling it out for her in Dutch, but apparently the pronunciation of the four letters, similar but different in the two languages, left them both confused. I tried to interject, “No, ‘I’ not ‘E'”, but it only got worse.
Lori liked to call me Glenny-Kins. No one in the world knew she called me that. Now two foreigners were arguing over its spelling, and one of the foreigners was my father.