Vita Amber is a photographer, deep in grief for her dead husband Davis. As she winds up one of her gallery exhibitions, she questions her very identity and consults with her daughter Dvita.
Vita stares at her name in large letterpress on the now spacious gallery wall. In the first year of widowhood, she is visited at odd times by the searing pain and bewildering relief of losing her man. She was glad for dry eyes at lunch. But when the tears do come, she’s learned to surrender to the monsoons. Vita’s friends now carry tissues and little else when they meet, their arms free to envelop her.
When Vita’s internal weather forecast predicts torrents, she hires a half-deaf Sikkh cab driver to let her moan and sob as he carries her through the odd corners of the city touched by her long and mostly happy marriage. Teddy Singh listens to his own joys or sorrows and rolls up the windows, catching glimpses of the ever-changing face of loss in his rear view mirror. He is touched that his humble chariot offers this public sort of privacy.
Clearing the largest wall, Jackson begins to peel away her name. He painstakingly lifts off the letters starting from the right, so that Vita Amber becomes Vita Am, until finally just the nickname of her youth remains. Jake used to call her Vi, pronounced Vee for Victory. Even though this show is full of revived pictures of him, she hasn’t really thought about Jake Willard for years. Once she found a collection of his first plays at the Strand. The dedication read, To Violetta Dare, wherever she may be. By then Violetta was no more. She had shortened her name to Vita a few years before, inspired by a trip to Ellis Island and her own immigration to the big city.
The gnawing ceases and becomes a wondering, as she watches the last letters disappear from the wall. If I let go of my dead husband’s name, would it release me from this grief? Time out for good behavior? Or am I to remain caught in Amber? An ancient bug trapped in a sweetness that has fossilized.
What remains of Davis Amber is his soon-to-be-published collection of photo essays of African tribal elders; a studio full of large prints; and several monographs of his work. There is the photo lab he once shared with his best friend Siddh, the loft he once shared with Vita. There are also the casual family albums, most especially of their time in India where they all raised Dvita. She carries on the family business as a filmmaker. She’s pulling together grants to transform her father-daughter art journals into a book and film. For now, these artifacts of their long distance love wait patiently for Dvita in the cubbies of a Japanese cedar chest in her apartment on Spring Street.
Mother and daughter have been planning a one-year memorial celebration for Davis, building on his own version of a village ceremony he’d seen somewhere in his travels. There will be a large mud and stick enclosure down on a friend’s backyard beach, with many marigolds decorating the inner walls. Pictures and mementos will fill the alcoves, and people will be able to go in and pay their respects. At sunset there will be a bonfire and good food, with many toasts. Dvita has asked friends visiting an ashram in Lucknow to float a lit candle in a paper boat down the mother river Ganga that same day. His fellow photojournalists will tell funny or astonishing stories about Davis, which will draw tears out of their seen-everything eyes.
Vita waves her phone at Jackson and ducks out of the gallery to call her daughter. She cannot wait until their usual Sunday visit. It is midday in the Sonoran Desert, where Dvita watches the light on the rocks from the back step of her rented shack as the tall ocotillo arms wave.
“Sweetheart, have you got time for Truth and Beauty?” This is what the family of artists calls any creative triumph good enough to share. Dvita welcomes the news about her mother’s show. She whoops loudly, so Vita has to hold the phone away from her head.
“Must be contagious. We’re miraculously on schedule and your programmer friend promised to see the rough cut.” Dvita is filming the construction of a desert ecology education center, weaving in the unexpected story of the founder’s recovery from cancer. Vita suspects her daughter is falling in love with the founder and worries about that.
“I want the whole story on Sunday,” interrupts her mother. “For now though, I have a quick question.”
“How would you feel if I gave up my married name?”
Dvita is thoughtful in her silence.
“Of course, I won’t if it’s hurtful to you. I mean no disrespect to you or your father.”
“Oh, I know that, Ma. I’m watching this very large hummingbird darting just above my head. It keeps zooming away and coming back. I want to hear more.”
Vita says the upcoming memorial would be a good time for her to truly let go of Davis and his name. She could fold her own wings protectively around herself again.
“I hope this makes sense, darling girl. As Vita Amber I was a happily married woman. For more years than I deserved, perhaps. But now all I am is a furious, despairing widow.” She mentions that Teddy Singh has given her a frequent rider discount in his taxi of tears. “I think I’m mourning this Vita Amber person, as well as Davis. I don’t want a dead woman’s name.”
“If she’s dead, who are you?”
“Oh, Ma.” Dvita is gentle, but ever practical. “You can’t change your name if you don’t know what you want to change it to.”
“Well, I haven’t gotten that far. I guess I could always go back to my maiden name.”
The hummingbird hovers for another moment, then soars away in a giant arc. “Papa once told me that he was shocked that you changed your name at the wedding. He didn’t think you were ‘that kind of woman’.”
They both laugh at this.
“I didn’t know until I was announcing it to everybody.” Vita can vividly remember the cast of golden light that day. “It was very good champagne! And a bit of spontaneity I’ve never regretted.” A pigeon lands on the gallery stairs and cocks its head at Vita. “Davis surprised me too, you know. He brought back my name when you were born. Claimed you came to him in a dream and identified yourself thusly.”
“Oh really?” she says, pretending she hasn’t heard the story ten thousand times. “Well, however it happened, I’m glad.” Dvita Dare Amber loves the rhythm of her name. She can’t imagine ever wanting to change it. “Ma, you know I’ll support whatever makes you happy. Just don’t do it before we talk.”
“Okay, dear heart, I just wanted to test the waters. Call me Sunday. Kisses.” Vita goes back inside, still musing. Maybe I should find a whole new name. But what about my career, will people lose track of me with a name change? Why don’t men ever have to think about these things? Why are women’s – everything! – so malleable? Our names and our bodies with all these removable, improvable parts.
The wall gleams now behind the growing stack of crated and labeled pieces, her creations ready to go off into the world.