Two weeks ago, I shared with you three of my favorite, nontrending stories of 2013. One of them included an elderly woman in a retirement home who had a surprise for me in her apartment: a wall full of paintings her husband had made — many of them of his wife — throughout his life.
Readers loved this story and wanted more details. So my husband and I went back to visit Dot last week and hear about life with her late artist husband, Milton.
Milt, as Dot calls him, always had an artistic streak. He had an eye for seeing beauty in ordinary things, and he had the hands for shaping those ordinary things into something spectacular.
But Milt didn’t take up painting until he was a prisoner of war in World War II.
After graduating from the University of Maine, Milt joined the Army Infantry and was sent overseas. He was captured by the Germans in North Africa and then held in Poland, on the Russian border, for 27 months. Back in the states, he first was listed as MIA, then later as a POW.
Dot didn’t know Milt yet. She was a young woman living in Georgia and helping with the USO and other support efforts for the troops.
The Germans didn’t care much about Milt’s prisoner camp. They mostly left the prisoners alone. This was bad in some respects (food was scarce) but good in others. People who sided with the United States often snuck things into the prison for the prisoners. One time, they brought oil pants and canvas.
A fellow prisoner from Chicago had taught oil painting before and started a quasi-college inside the camp walls. There, Milt completed his first painting. It’s a still life on a pair of sandals next to an open Bible.
When the Germans were eventually overrun and released the prisoners two years later, they “simply opened the gates,” according to Dot, and left Milt and his fellow POWs to find their way back to France. Milt rolled up his oil-and-canvas painting and carried it all the way to France on a broomstick strapped to his back.
After the war, Dot met Milt at an officers’ club in Georgia. They were married in 1946 and made their home in Maine, where Milt worked at a bank and painted in his free time.
One of my favorite paintings in Dot’s room Milt had painted at Dot’s mother’s home in Georgia. In it, a young Dot stands in a long, elegant gown. Behind her there is a mirror. In the reflection of the mirror, you can see Milt, standing in his suit, smiling back at her. Even now, it gives me chills to think of it.
Milt has been gone for many years now. He died shortly after their 50th wedding anniversary. But each day, Dot sits in front of that glorious painting, something that surely took time and effort to create and clearly shows his love for her.
“I guess I need to take up painting,” Dustin said.
But it doesn’t have to be a painting. The story of Dot and Milt is a story about things that last, tangible reminders of love that remains even after someone is gone.
How many of us in my generation even have actual printed photographs of our children? I know most of mine are stored on my computer, or worse, on my iPhone. Everything is so fleeting and easy today. We snap a picture with our phone, save it, and then transfer it to our computer.
When I look at Milt’s paintings of his wife, what is immediately apparent to me is the care that went into each one. It wasn’t a snap-save-transfer process.
But Dustin’s right: we can’t all be artists. (Although, I’d love to see his attempt!) Many of us, however, do have some craft — woodworking, knitting, sewing, writing, photography — that leaves behind a little bit of ourselves in each finished piece. On a very basic level, we can even write handwritten notes instead of emails for the messages that really matter. In a world that moves a mile-a-minute, we can slow down and create something for someone we love.
Dot said it was difficult moving from her home to the retirement apartment, mostly because she had to make tough decisions about what to keep and what to leave behind.
Obviously, Milt’s paintings came with her. And it’s clear as to why.
Those pieces of art speak to Dot and to anyone else who visits her room. They tell the story of a man many of us never got to meet and of a love many of us aspire to have.
Sarah Smiley is a columnist and author of “Dinner With the Smileys,” a memoir of a year of dinners and motherhood.