“My sister Greta, and I were having our portrait painted by our uncle Finn that afternoon because he knew he was dying. This was after I understood that I wasn’t going to grow up and move into his apartment and live there with him for the rest of my life. After I stopped believing that the AIDS thing was all some kind of mistake.”
I”m fifteen now, but I was still fourteen that afternoon. Greta was sixteen. It was 1986, late Decmber, and we’d been going to Finn’s one Sunday afternoon a month for the last six months. It was always just my mother, Greta and me. My father never came, and he was right not to. He wasn’t part of it.”
“Nobody talked much on those trips to the city. It was just the smooth glide of the van and the croony country music and the gray Hudson River with hulking gray New Jersey on the other side of it. I kept my eyes on Greta the whole time, because it stopped me from thinking about Finn too much.”
“On the way home I asked Greta if she thought you could catch AIDS from hair. She shrugged, then turned and stared out the window for the rest of the ride. I shampooed my hair three times that night (June’s Uncle Finn has kissed the top of her hair when Greta had pulled out some mistletoe). I thought about how just for a second, just as he’d leaned into me, AIDS and Greta and my mother had disappeared from the room. It was only Finn and me in that tiniest of moments, and before I could stop myself I wondered what it might be like if he really did kiss my lips.”
June’s relationship with her uncle made Greta jealous and caused a rupture in the girls’ formerly loving companionship. “Greta knew the kind of friend Finn was to me. She knew that he took me to art galleries, that he taught me how to soften my drawings of faces just by rubbing a finger along the pencil lines. She knew that she wasn’t part of any of that.” “It’s hard to say exactly when we stopped being best friends, when we stopped even resembling two girls who were sisters. Greta went to high school and I was in middle school. Greta had new friends and I started having Finn. Greta got prettier and I got …weirder.” Greta accused June of being in love with Uncle Finn.
Uncle Finn took June to the Cloisters and it became their favorite place. They were “like a piece of another time right at the top of Manhatten. …made of huge chunks of French medieval monasteries that were shipped to New York and stuck together. ” June imagined being with Finn there and “illuminating manuscripts with the thinnest flakes of gold leaf” and not saying a word but gazing at one another across the room. “That’s the kind of love I imagined with Finn. That’s what I told myself.” Finn took her to movies like Amadeus and Room with a View and he talked to her about the characters.
June knew Uncle Finn was dying but the news was still a great shock. A man’s voice left a message: “I’m ringing about your uncle. Uncle Finn in the city. I”ll try back later.”
June had not picked up the phone. “Finn was gone. I knew Finn was gone. …I picked up the phone and dialed his number, which I knew by heart.”
The person who had called was seen at the funeral home and June begins to wonder who he is and what he was doing in her Uncle Finn’s apartment when he called. What a shock for June: Uncle Finn had a friend who might have even lived in his apartment where June and Greta went to have their portrait painted every Sunday. How could that be?
Here’s the first reference to the wolves (June has gone for a walk in the woods after a snowstorm and is lying flat out in the snow, looking up at the twisted patterns of the bare tree branches against the gray sky):
“Then, into the silence, over the top of everything, came a long, sad howl. For a second it felt like the sound had come from inside me. Like the world had taken everything I was feeling and turned it into sound….By the time I sat up, there were two howls. … The howls weren’t steady. Both of them had a kind of cracked-voice sound to them, and they were staggered. …The howls grew louder, and a picture of a big lunging gray wolf with tons of matted fur popped into my mind. For a single dumb moment it really did feel like I was in the woods in the Middle Ages, when wolves could take away babies or eat a person whole.
“I’m not afraid,” I called out across the hills. Then I ran, stumbling and tripping…out of the woods, into the school parking lot…doubled over, catching my breath.”
Then an article appears in The New York Times about the portrait of the two girls. In the article it is revealed that the portrait is entitled ‘Tell the Wolves I’m Home’. None of the family had known this was the title of the painting. June is convinced that only Toby, Finn’s friend, could have known this. She has learned his friend’s name from a letter he sent asking to meet her.
Ah…but that’s a good place to stop. An extremely good coming-of-age story full of relational wisdom for all ages. Fun literary references, movie titles, television shows. Also a rather unique adventure surrounding the portrait. Enjoy!