My father has been gone for over twenty years, but the longer I live, the more I feel I understand him. From my mother's side of the family I inherited a penchant for list making and trying to be organized, but from my father I got all my creativity.
Like his father, my grandfather Papa Bill, he was a talented artist. In college, the story goes, he was told his drawings were "too photographic," and so he simply turned to photography as a career. We have only a handful of his wonderful pen and ink drawings, just as we have only a few from his father, who earned his living as a drygoods salesman.
But my father, in his creativity, was irrepressible. He loved to make things. He carved Dutch wooden shoes for my Shirley Temple doll. He built a clever kitchen camping cupboard which would each year be set up at the end of a lakeside picnic table on our vacations. He would add an extra fiberglass foot to a sailboat, just for the amusing challenge of it.
He was never neat or organized about any of this. In all the instructions he gave me about painting, he never mentioned proper care of tools, and it was highly fitting that at his memorial service in 1996, my brother brought to the pulpit a glass jar containing, encased in hardened fiberglass, a paintbrush. It looked like a trophy and brought a laugh of recognition.
So many times now, when I'm doing a project, excited and impatient to see how it will turn out, I find myself thinking, "Well, I'm doing this Dad-style." Which is to say, we don't have time to wait for things to dry as long as it says on the paint can. Those rules about testing something ahead? Waiting 24 hours? Forget it! Those rules are for somebody else. We're artists and we are just too excited to see how the whole thing is going to turn out.
So here comes this great-grandson of his, Nolan Crew, now four-and-a-half. Since both of Nolan's Chinese grandparents are artists, it's no surprise he may have inherited a degree of talent along these lines. But when we get going on a project, it's this fierce creativity from my father and from myself that I recognized in this child.
I had suggested the prosaic job of painting a little picnic table my husband Herb had built for him, just tossed this off as he was on his way to pre-school, his dad dropping off his little brother at the Wake Robin Farm Academy for Exceptional Grandchildren. I knew he liked the idea of painting. But without missing a beat that day he said, "I have an idea! Let's paint it like there's a tablecloth already on it so I can paint designs on that."
And when he showed up after a fun, muddy day at the Avery Park Nature School, nothing else would do but we get going on that. He'd obviously already been giving it a lot of thought and would brook no warnings about primer needing more time to dry. We're artists! We want to get in and do it!
I don't know that Nolan's paintings are so outstanding compared to other four-year-olds. It's his narration of his creative process I enjoy. "Nothing here is from imagination, Gramie. Everything here is what's actually blooming today." Like any good plein air artist, he was looking up and painting exactly what was in front of him. "This painting," he told me, "is called 'Today at Wake Robin Farm.'"
I loved that. And my father would have too. It reminded me of a New Christy Minstrels song he always liked, the one sung at our own wedding, 44 years ago this month:
Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vines
I'll taste your strawberries, I'll drink your sweet wine
A million tomorrows shall all pass away
'Ere I forget all the joy that is mine…today.
Dad, Papa Bill, I wish you could see this little guy who clearly has some of your very special artistic genes. You would love him as I do.
Happy Father's Day.