By Chance

art, non-fiction, poetry 2 Comments »

This poem tells the true story of my father and my brother….and how one of my father’s paintings (he was a watercolor artist) found its way back to our family many years after my father’s death.

By Chance

This time
down in the basement
not far from the washer and dryer,
stacks of boxed Christmas ornaments,
a table filled with fly tying materials,
and shelves of things forgotten,
the son’s father allowed him to watch
and listen. The boy was seven.
He sat high near the work table,
next to where his father stood
as he swathed the rough textured Fabriano
with pale colors of moving water.
This will be the ocean, he’d said. Then he began
his vibrato whistle, like that of a wood-wind solo.
Pensieroso.

He whistled as the sable bristles,
an extension of his own long fingers,
dipped and twisted into the swirls
of thick titanium white, aquamarine,
emerald green, and ultramarine blue
on his pallet.
The son’s eyes followed
the brush’s movements while
his father created
an ethereal seascape for someone
who did not yet know
that by chance he’d see it,
have it speak to him,
make an offer
and carry it into his home—
a gift.

Azure liquid leaked from a sponge
his father wrung. He blotted in shadows
from the ocean up to the edge
of the masking taped paper
and then wisped thin lines of black
out lining the upper part of the indigo
and violet shadows
and the son watched
the dark run
into clouds.

Several more strokes
and a wooden weathered boat
tethered to a mooring buoy
emerged on the paper. Now he whistled
a shanty, as he worked
the impression of the rig.
A burnt sienna mast appeared and rose
into the overcast sky,
and then a loosely furled sail.
The father knew then what the son did not
and carefully drew
the brush from left to right,
to the stern. The father stirred
the brush in an old
peanut butter jar
full of blue-green water, whipped
moisture from it, set it down. He stepped away,
reached for an angular bowled pipe,
tapped tobacco, lit a match
drew in the smoke. The line of his
back tilted away
from the art and he ran
the pipe’s mouth piece across
his lips. He returned the pipe to its rest
and chose a finer brush, held it and waved
it like a conductor’s wand
through the air. He punctuated
the motion into white,
then black, then to the paper. This is a gull,
he said, and dipped again into the black
for the bird’s eye. The vibrato
in his whistle began
once more as a stiffer brush met
with a soft, washed-out yellow. Yellow bled out and away
from the sea bird, that stretched his feet
to light atop the mast.
In staccato fashion the brush dabbed in barnacles,
moss, sea foam, rippled reflections.
It’s magic, the son said.
Spirit, said the father.
Art is from God.

* * * * *

Thirty-three summers after
his father sold the painting
thirty-three summers after
his father died,
the son stood inside the frame
shop. Non-glare glass shards, soft
leaded pencils, gray gum
erasers, a rainbow
of matting scraps, metal squares,
velvety polishing cloths, Exacto knives,
moulding lengths, coils of wire, minute
brads, and powdery sawdust surrounded him.

Bells rang at the door—
unoiled hinges echoed its opening. A small
round, older man entered,
and in both hands he carried a large
paper wrapped painting.
Good morning, the son said.
The man placed the painting
on the counter, tore away the paper. It
means a great deal to me, the man said as he turned
it toward the son. Someone I loved
gave this to me. The man’s eyes
didn’t look away
from the art.
The son’s eyes focused
on a sea gull,
the yellow bleeding out and away
from it. The son ran
his hand down the glass
as though scanning prose and
rested his forefinger to the right
of the artist’s signature.
This is my father’s
work, said the son.
I sat next to him when he painted it. The man’s
eyes met with the son’s. He used to whistle,
said the son.

The man left the painting
for a new frame. The son
spoke to his mother, his sisters.
Come see, he said. The mother
set her hand near the name. The sisters
touched the frame.
The son stood back and realized
the sea. It is the ocean.
He watched and listened.

Two weeks passed and the son
called the man. I finished the frame,
said the son. The bells rang
at the door—the hinges now oiled
made no sound. The man stood back from
the painting, the ocean, the boat, the gull.
Your father would be happy, he said. The man
opened a manila envelope and handed the son
papers. This is a copy
of my will. The painting
will return to you one day. The son
did not meet eyes
with the man. Black type bled
through the yellow
highlighter—the son and the father’s name. The son
shook the man’s hand
and nodded. The son did not hear the bells
as the man closed
the door behind him.

Three days later the man
appeared again, carrying
a large paper wrapped painting.
This painting
belongs with you, the man said.
No need to wait
until I die.

Nannette Rogers Kennedy
November 17, 2002

This is the painting the man returned to my brother ~ it hangs in our home.

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