Best Anniversary Present

The Farewell courtesy of Tracy Stivers

It was the most beautiful and sad thing I’d ever seen and it expressed emotions that (at the time) I couldn’t put into words. It was 1992 and soon after our son was born, my husband and I were in Virginia visiting some friends and came across “The Farewell” in an art gallery. Larry had been enlisted for several years and was preparing to deploy for the first time since our baby was born. I was scared to say the least and not accustomed to that emotion. I didn’t know anyone where we lived and I just recently moved from Louisiana to Virginia to be with Larry. When I saw “The Farewell,” I started to cry. I just literally stood there and cried. Again, it was truly the most beautiful and sad thing I’d ever seen. My husband soon joined me and we stood there for a while and just admired it. Larry inquired about the price and found that we couldn’t afford it. Not even close. It was $1600.00. I think we lived on less a month at the time. It was such a disappointment. Needless to say we didn’t buy it, but on the way out the door the lady caught up to us and gave us the brochure from the showing that day. I just knew one day I would HAVE to own a copy.

Throughout the years of deployments, having children and moving around, we always said when we settled one day and built a house, we would get a copy. I had that brochure, worn and old, from the original gallery in my nightstand for years. Electronic Mail was fairly new to “common people” and we didn’t have one, so one day I called to inquire about “The Farewell”. After a few weeks the gallery called me back with the disappointing news that they could not find a copy and informed me that it would probably be impossible because of how popular it was. Only after I broke down did he give me a number where I could reach the artist directly. I spoke with Ms. Stivers, the artist’s wife, and explained our story and asked if it was possible for my husband to at least try to recreate the picture. She didn’t hesitate to agree as long as it was for our personal use only and we never intended to sell it. I was overjoyed! While it wouldn’t be the same, it would be close. After telling my husband she said yes, he still wanted to buy it for me and said that sooner or later one would come available and we would be able to afford it. He admitted that he seriously didn’t think he could capture all of the emotions and feelings from “The Farewell”. There was just something special about it.

Michelle Jester house model

When we did move back to Louisiana and started designing our own home, we literally designed the common areas of the house solely around a large wall that would one day display that painting. After several years of setbacks, we were finally able to start building. We were elated. Then my husband was called to deploy to Afghanistan after 9-11. During that year, I called every now and again to different galleries and tried to keep a tab on if any were for sale and the current cost. I also created a scale model Michelle Jester house model of our downstairs and cut the picture out of the brochure to put in its rightful place in the model. Following one deployment after another (War and Homeland) in 2005, we finally began building. I couldn’t find a print/lithograph anywhere. I didn’t know where the rest of the brochure from the original gallery was, and there were many galleries in and around the Fredericksburg area. I contacted several and had them looking for a print for me. However, 13 weeks later, all of them had come up empty-handed. Every avenue we tried turned out to be a dead end

We completed our house and the wall right when you walk in remained empty. We could truly only picture that painting there. Nothing else would do. Every now and again, we’d try to come up with an idea of something that could fill the space. However, in the end would agree that nothing else would work. That wall was made for that painting. So, it stayed empty for nearly two years.

Michelle Jester the anniversary gift 2.5

I’m going to take a step back; standing, staring at that painting in Fredericksburg, I was scared. I was in a new state, far away from a family I had never been away from. My husband was preparing to deploy. I had no close friends there. Internet wasn’t even a “thing”, mail and phone calls were. We couldn’t afford to talk to my family every day. And while they allowed me to call collect, I knew it wasn’t fair to call them every day either. When I saw “The Farewell” it truly took my breath away. The sadness. The closeness of the couple. The despair at their circumstance. But also the strength. Her strength. His strength. Their strength together. Finally, you see the recognition and the acceptance. It was that quiet moment just before. There was no changing fate. It was about accepting fate. About love and commitment. That deployment was mild and only one of many to come.

Michelle Jester the anniversary gift 4

Flashing forward nearly 15 years from that moment, my husband walked up behind me in front of that blank wall and said, “I know I won’t do it justice, but I’ll try.” I immediately knew what he was talking about. He was going to try! He went to the store, got the largest pack of pastels and largest drawing board, and got to work. Almost every night he’d come home from work, eat dinner and continue on it. He was frustrated many times throughout the process because when he would spray sealer to the pastels, the colors would fade or sometimes nearly disappear. But he kept at it, layer after layer. Thirty-seven layers and nearly four months later it was done. And a labor of love at that! It was beautiful. It almost seemed like therapy for him. I couldn’t believe he captured all the emotion that the original painting has… and more. And so on December 14, 2008, we hung that painting on THE wall.

Michelle Jester the anniversary gift 5

I can tell you “The Farewell” still sums up our marriage. It’s not quite the same as the first Michelle Jester the anniversary gift 5time we saw it together in that art gallery; it goes far deeper now than it ever could have nearly 22 years ago. It represents a great deal of sadness, closeness, despair, strength, recognition, and acceptance. That quiet moment just before deployment. There was no changing our fate. It was about accepting our fate. Ultimately, though, it is about our love and commitment.

Michelle Jester the anniversary gift 6

People often ask me what the “key” to marriage is. Aside from respect (if you don’t have respect for your spouse—find it!) I give several tips: never back your spouse in a corner because human nature dictates that they will come out fighting, don’t put them in a box because nobody wants to be like everybody else, and don’t limit their ability to grow because they will, whether you want them to or not, and either you’ll grow with them or they’ll outgrow you.

Michelle Jester the anniversary gift 7

I wanted to blog about this on this day, our anniversary. I always say that I have been married to three men in my life; the Larry I met in high school, the Larry that came back from Afghanistan, and the Larry that retired. While they are all the same, they are different in so many ways. I know he’s been married to a few Michelle’s as well. It isn’t about wanting or being what you married all those years ago, it’s wanting and being what you have now. With all the scars and changes, the wisdom and pain, sorrow and hope.

I guess that year, when we hung that painting on the wall, I thought my best anniversary present was the painting itself, however every anniversary since reminds me that my greatest anniversary present is the man that painted it for me.


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