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Maria Espendez de Rivera -portrait in oils

This is a portrait of my former wife -Maria, the mother of my children Alex and Selina. She had just turned nineteen when it was painted. It marked the beginning of our three-year courtship. How this came about -in typical John fashion, makes for good storytelling.

I saw her for the first time during a religious service at the 'Iglesia Filipenses 4:13' on Cleveland's East 36th street. This was the church my parent's attended during their Cleveland years. I was notorious even as an infant. The pastor of the church, reverend Felipe Santiago, had nicknamed me "azuquita". It literary means: little sugar. But he was being sarcastic; I was a "terrorist enfant". Ah... My poor parents!

Stories of my escapades -which were many, are still sung at campfires. For example: when I was four I snuck into the deacon's room and drank the wine from all the little glasses waiting for communion to be served. On another occasion I bit the pastor on his shoulder when he committed the folly of disrupting "a mission in progress" by holding me up -which resulted in him uttering some very loud and unholy expletives in church!

There was also the time when I regaled worshipers with my version of "holy water" while hidden in the top balcony. For that occasion I had filled my water pistol in the ladies toilet. My dear father spent most of the services keeping an eye on me or searching for me through the large temple -belt in hand. Divine retribution! As a child he had been worse than me!

Sixteen years later, as soon as I arrived to the city of Cleveland, I started attending the church again. It was a family homecoming of sorts and I got very involved in church activities taking over the Youth Society as well as the production of religious plays. It was while preparing for a new production that I encountered by future wife.

After working all night building sets I kept falling asleep during the night service. Then in my slumber my ears picked a voice -a female voice, a female voice speaking Spanish with a very bad accent (the way most Americans seem to kill any other foreign language they attempt to speak). Slowly I opened my eyes and blinked them into focus. I couldn't believe what I saw.

Have you ever imagined what your ideal "dream-girl" (or "dream-beau") would look like? You know it will never happen, such people are not real, but it's nice to think she or he would look like this or that. Perhaps this is why so many fantasize about movie stars (I do it with Sophia Loren; one of my girlfriend's would kill for George Clooney). Anyway, my point is... that, standing there, behind the speaker's podium, was my dream-girl come to life! -And I was awake!

As soon as the service was over, I made my way through the crowd ignoring greetings from others until I was face to face with her. I extended my hand in greeting -as is our costume. She took it... but I did not let it go. Then she looked at me directly; I had her attention. This is what I told her next (in English to make sure she understood correctly): "Hi, I'm John Rivera-Resto, I think you're beautiful and I'm going to marry you." After an instance when I imagine she was trying to make sure she heard correctly, she pulled her hand back, and said: "I think you're crazy". Then she moved on. It would be another year before I saw her again...

The next encounter happened during another church activity, this time at her church. The yearly ‘Convención de Jóvenes (Youth Convention)’ was being planned and I was there representing my Church's youth group, which I presided. We were notorious –and not for our piety, but for our plays and presentations, and our devil-may-care attitude. I had simply transferred my showmanship from Puerto Rico to Cleveland (to read about my youthful theatre misadventures in Puerto Rico, read ‘set design’ in the ‘Design’ page of this website).

Our church group even had a band that played at weddings and religious services –I was lead singer. I new they could not do without our participating in the upcoming event which meant I would see Miss Espendez often. It was not a secret that youth groups in other affiliated churches both hated us and admired us –with a little envy. Maria hated me on sight. But she knew who I was –at least by reputation. Remembering our encounter a year before, she put two and two together and hated me more. Things were looking up! Like we say in Puerto Rico: “The greater the hate, the harder the fall –in love that is.”

But I needed to “impress” her and redirect her attention from the herd of suitors following her like hungry puppies. So every time I had the chance, I would discreetly take note of her features, her gorgeous mane of waist-long hair, and made little sketches. Her high school graduation was coming up and she gave away a few pictures of her taken at school. She gave one to me –she may not have liked me, but after all, one of us was a civil obedient servant of God. With this picture and my notes I began working on her portrait. I thought it would make a nice graduation gift -and score points on my agenda.

However, back then I was not experienced in portraiture -the most difficult of arts. In frustration I tossed the painting into my outdoor trash can. That evening, when I returned to my apartment, my next door neighbour stuck her head out the door and said: “John, look what I found. Since you are an art student you may want to have it.” Yep, it was the unfinished painting I had discarded that morning. Karma.

After many, many attempts at painting, I got the hang of it. In the end I was satisfied with the result. I was particularly pleased with the way I had captured her eyes (not noticable in this low resolution image of the portrait). They had fascinated me from the start -hazel eyes, with distinctive rings of yellow, green, and sienna (which our daughter inherited). At the time I was experimenting with oil glazes and this was my first serious attempt at the technique.

I gave her the painting about three months after her graduation. But my mind is a total blank as to what happened next. I can’t recall her reaction or under what circumstance I offered the gift. She was pleased, I know because she showed it around to her friends and family. It served its purpose of getting me noted. I was “the pintor” –the painter (an assignation that back then I really, really hated).

My next move? -I completely ignored her. But, I increased my attentions on other girls. I figured she needed a little push to discern her true feelings, and in women, there is nothing like a little competition to bring out the cat. She got jealous. She still hated me, but there was no denying it: I was getting to her. The more I ignored her, the more curious –and angry, she became.

That was the beginning of our three year courtship. Our marriage lasted eight years (ten on paper). Both of us were of the same culture, I was a Puerto Rican from the Island, she was a second generation Puerto Rican (of French ancestry) from the United States, but in the end, our differences proved greater. The years have been many since that first encounter, she is still a beautiful woman, I am still me, but this portrait of Maria is a reminder of those enchanting times.


    

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