“When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You just know that your name is safe in their mouth.” – Billy, age 4, defining love
If you were to come to a Red Tent dinner at my home, we would sit in my dining room. The table, purchased twenty years ago at an outlet store for $125, has a scar at one end and a few faint fork marks left by my two youngest children, and it seats eight quite comfortably. I would set the table with my signature red water goblets, and there would be a small card at your place with the prompt “The Woman in Red.” We would eat herbed ricotta-stuffed chicken in white wine-pan sauce, because it is my new favorite recipe, with roasted fingerling potatoes and a kale salad. For dessert, I’d ask my friend Cheryl to bring her amazing chocolate chip cookies because they are absolutely divine with cups of coffee.
When my turn comes to share a story prompted by the words on the card, I look up from my place at the end of the table and tell you the story of the paintings that hang on my dining room wall.
I bought the first one as a Christmas gift for my husband about fifteen years ago. We were coming out the other side from doing some really difficult work in our marriage, work that had been prompted by his desire for more for himself, for us, and for our family. I remember the day I saw the painting; it brought tears to my eyes as the scene provoked a clear memory of a day he and I walked on a cold and cloudy beach. He held my hand and promised me we were going to be alright, and then he spun me around on the sand.
“The Singing Butler” pictures a barefoot woman in a long red gown dancing with a man in a tuxedo on the beach as a storm is moving in. Nearby, the butler is singing.
I loved it because it feels like he is inviting her dance in the midst of an approaching storm, as if to say, “All is well; I’ve got you.” There is a defiance to their dance. It’s a bit absurd, and yet it is also filled with hope. The woman is lovely; her curvy form fills out her red gown, and somehow, even barefoot on the beach, she still looks so elegant. I wanted to believe I too could be lovely and elegant, regardless of the approaching storms of life.
Every marriage is built from “for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and health.” Whatever you imagine those words to mean as you stand toe to toe, young and hope-filled, they always mean something far deeper, more challenging. And, when you find yourself in the worse, the poorer, and the sickness, it feels so unexpected. Our story is no different.
A few years later I discovered that “The Singing Butler’ is one in a series of four paintings by Jack Vettriano, and I bought them all. The second one is called “Waltzers,” the third “Elegy to The Dead Admiral,” and the final one, “Dance Me to The End of Love.”
“The Woman in Red” becomes the Woman in White–at least on my dining room wall. The final painting of the series has an ethereal heavenly quality, the red dress exchanged for white gown as the elegant woman and her man seem to be dancing on the water along with other couples pictured in the distance. White is her forever color. In my imagination she started her life with him dancing in white and she spends eternity dancing with him in white.
The paintings feel deeply personal to me. They’ve been both vision casting and validating. They tell a story that my heart holds. They are a reminder on days when I start to lose my way. Our marriage, like many, has continued to get better; but the reality is there are still hard days that sometimes stretch into weeks. But the story is still being written, and the paintings remind me of that, gently and consistently. The paintings tell a good story, and I still believe in the good story being told in our marriage.
More and more I have become the woman in red, comfortable in my own skin, knowing my heart, and moving with more elegance in the midst of the storms.
It hasn’t come the way I imagined 34 years ago as we stood toe to toe, young and hope-filled. Marriage was a crucible before it became a haven. The fire burned hot, melting any illusions, any denial, any naiveté I had about myself or God. I had to come home to myself before I could truly find any real rest, security, or safety in my relationship with Mark.
By now the signature red goblets are empty of water, the coffee has cooled, and there are only crumbs left from Cheryl’s delicious cookies. We’ve all shared some tears because something about this prompt, “The Woman in Red,” has provoked particularly tender stories from us all.
Tracy Johnson is a lover of stories, a reluctant dreamer, and the Founder of Red Tent Living. Married for over 33 years, she is mother to five kids and a pastor’s wife. She loves quiet mornings with hot coffee, rich conversations, and slowly savored meals at her favorite restaurants. She is awed that God chose her to mother four girls having grown up with no sisters. She writes about her life and her work here.