Victoria Van Huystee
On every big day of her life, Viola could remember someone speaking softly to her as she drifted to sleep. For the first birthday she could remember, it was her mother and father. She couldn’t understand them, then, when they told her how they knew she would grow up and surprise the world one day. On the day before her older sister, Molly, went to university, Molly sat, holding her tight and reassuring Viola that she would come home. As she fell asleep, she heard Molly whispering, “Viola. I know you can do great things, even without me.” The day of her parents’ funeral, her uncle was there, combing her hair and trying to soothe her tears by whispering, “Viola, you are so strong.” When she graduated high school, her grandfather, gently holding her hand, was whispering, “Viola, I knew you could do it.” On the day before she herself left for university, there laid her little cousin, Elise, snuggled under the quilt beside her, asking why she had to leave when she had done so well already at home.
Three years later, she stood alone. Her last year of university courses would start in just a few weeks. Outside the glass doors of the gallery, Viola could see the early autumn rains trickling down over the streets of London. People mingled all around the room- critics, classmates, a few professors- looking at the photographs displayed on the walls. Photographs she had taken over many years and kept to herself. She wished these strangers could understand how it felt to look out at the gallery of her work. Her chest felt tight, but only because her heart had swelled so much when the first few guests walked in. Her cheeks hurt with stiffness, but only because she had not been able to stop herself smiling widely for the last couple hours. Her eyes went blurry every few moments, but only because she kept holding back the tears that she didn’t understand why she wanted to shed. These people did not understand what these photos meant. They didn’t know the faces that had stood on the other sides of those cameras- the faces that couldn’t stand there ever again.
From where she stood, tucked in a dim corner of the gallery, she could not see her family looking around at the work on the walls. Nor could she see the glow in her grandfather’s eyes, glistening at seeing the photographs of his daughter. She did not see the respect in her uncle’s stern brow as he observed the nuances in the lighting and angles of each photo of his sister and brother-in-law. Viola could not see the innocent admiration twinkling behind her cousin, Elise’s, shy smile when she looked into the bright, joyous eyes of her favorite aunt and uncle, printed on a large canvas. She didn’t see Molly, tucked behind their grandfather, trying to collect herself in the presence of their parents’ bursting smile and the curious eyes of those strangers. Viola could not feel the overwhelming warmth emanating from these people, directed to her and her work. These four people- people who would never leave her side if they could help it- were feeling exactly what she had always dreamed someone would feel for her… she just didn’t see it yet.
Viola did not realize yet that four people, let alone one, could feel so pleased with something she had done. She had never understood it before, what all those people meant when they whispered her to sleep. Maybe she was about to. When she finally spotted her family, clustered by the first photograph- a good sized portrait of a couple of young parents, sitting close to one another in a tree in a park- leaned against an easel by the door, something inside her felt like it glowed. She wondered if the other gallery guests would be able to see the light she was feeling, peeking through her skin and shining from her eyes. She thought it must be so bright for her to feel so full. And with each family member that hugged her, she felt more and more full, like they were scooping their love right into her heart. She hugged them back tighter, and she listened to them, saying what she had heard but never really heard: “We’re so proud of you, Viola.”
Now she thought she understood. “You will do great things”, “You’re so strong”, “I knew you could do it” were all her family’s way of telling her they were proud. She felt content when the gallery show ended and she drove home. She knew that no matter what the strangers thought, she was a success in the eyes of the ones who mattered. She just wished she could have known what her parents would have thought of the show. They were the subjects of every photograph after all; the prints chronicled her childhood and their love, as she had captured it through the lens of her camera when she was growing up. She wondered what they would have said if they had walked through the gallery too.
As she slept that night, she swore she could hear a whisper floating to her ear. Maybe from the doorway, or the open window, or beneath the bed. A whisper of soft voices. Mutterings of everything she had longed to hear that night, the voices of the ones who couldn’t be there. Sweet, gentle sayings drifted to her and nestled into her brain as she breathed deeply with slumber. And twirled amongst the admirations and spoken hugs was a flowing, summery trill, answering what she had pondered while she drove through the drizzling evening and climbed into bed- she heard her parents somewhere, whispering, “Viola… we love you, darling.”