June 19, 2006

Painting my Grandfather

(For the record, this to the left is "Portrait of an Old Man", by Rembrandt. Not my Grandfather. Certainly not by me. Just want to give credit where it's due -- you know, to famous painters, in particular.)

My grandfather was a painter. He painted boats, flowers and landscapes, mostly. Boats because he loved them, after a stint in the Navy. Flowers because my late grandmother loved them. Landscapes (well, all of the above, really) because they didn't have faces, hands or necks.

Sometimes, though, he'd try to paint my siblings and I, which is how I know why he mostly did boats, flowers and landscapes. He never was much for painting a graceful human form, but he tried. And in his attempts, you could always see what part of you most appealed to him; it was the one part that looked in place, as if he started at his favorite feature, meditating on its every detail, painting around it only because a random pair of eyes or a dangling, faceless smile in the middle of a canvas doesn't really look right.

There was one feature you saw that he understood, and the rest of the painting always seemed like a clumsy afterthought. Not careless, just not carefully loved, either.

Recently my family has had the unfortunate task of going through, claiming and disposing of my quickly-fading grandfather's posessions, as he's been moved into assisted care. There, he hardly eats, and he slowly becomes milder tempered and sweeter in disposition as the present slips into the past and then into the darkness of dementia, leaving only Now, and then a moment later, Nothing.

He hasn't painted for a long time.

Last weekend found my brother, sister and I judiciously splitting up under the premise of privacy, and poring through his things in separate rooms of his house. We were politely there to divvy up the belongings of a man who no longer had any use for them. This was precisely as awkward and sad as it seems.

Gingerly, we picked through the evidence of my grandfather's life. In the drawer next to his bed, I found his old navy dog tags sitting right on top of an old box of unwaxed dental floss, and I was suddenly struck by the profound contrast between the two -- a visual study in the precise meanings of the words "symbolic" and "banal".

Each of us kids carried a notepad, on which we were to list items we would take.

Also, the notebooks were our contingency plan should any two of us desire the same artifact. If we both wanted the same thing, somehow these lists would make the resolution of the potential conflict seem easier. This plan seemed holey at best to me, but it turned out there was no need for it at all. Each of us gravitated to objects that best proved the existance of the man we most hoped our grandfather was.
In watching us and what we collected, I discovered that to each of his grandchildren, my grandpa was an entirely different man.

My sister collected photos, china, silver. My grandfather, to her, was a provider. A success. A family man.

My brother was most fascinated by military paraphanalia, cufflinks, old cigar boxes and coins. He also dug up a set of shot glasses with fishing flies painted on them, which he immediately took up and rushed to me with, thrusting them in my face like little palm-sized treasures. He was proud of those. In his eyes, my grandfather is my brother's favoriate war books come to life -- a dusty, rugged Hemmingway. A soldier, a smoker.

As for me, I found an old yearbook from 1930-something. Under his name, it read "Artist and writer of the school, temperamental as a rule." It had to be mine. That was my grandpa. I described the book - it's cover, location, in my notepad and moved on down the bookshelf. I quickly also found my long-gone grandmother's (hers read "Small, but mighty"). That went in the notebook, too.

I also claimed, uncontested, many of his paintings, along with his easel, boxes and jars and tubes of flaking paints, dull, frayed brushes. A few sketches, unfinished canvases.

My grandfather was an artist.

The weight of every cool, heavy brush in my hand as I examined them all made this description incrimentally more alive and true.

My stomach tightened in sadness when I turned up his backgammon set with its well-worn leather cover and heavy, rounded black and white tiles. My grandfather couldn't be beaten at backgammon. That is, of course, why he so loved to play it. And I understood that. Always have.

Like grandpa, while examining the accumulations of his lifetime, I was an artist. With his own belongings and alongside my siblings, I painted his life into my own with an awkward, tender heart.

An artist. A man never at a loss for words. A proud competitor.

A man who makes sense to me, who I understand.

My grandfather.

My grandfather was a painter. He painted landscapes mostly. Boats and flowers, too. And people sometimes, but not much. I used to think he was bad at painting people. And maybe he was. But because of him, I know about painting too -- about painting people, especially.

I know about painting people not how you know them, but how you love them.

My grandfather was a painter.


Stargazer said...

This was so beautiful and sad at the same time. I have never thought about how "my" grandparents must be different to me than my brother's...I am enjoying mulling that thought over this afternoon. Thank you.

Trebuchet said...

Thank you for the kind words, Stargazer.