I talked to my mother on the phone last night and she said: “I have a surprise for you.”
My father died six years ago, just in his late 60s. He was in declining health for the last 10 years of his life, and retired early, and during those final years he did a few paintings.
They were good. They were terrible. Depends on what standards you apply.
He did some copies of classic Renaissance era religious art. Yes, that was sort of a weird thing to do. Yes, it hints at some serious lack of imagination. But it was also sort of touching — we’re talking about a man who was slowly dying and knew it, so he copied religious art. What’s more, the drawings showed he had some technical talent — we’re not talking Leonardo da Vinci here, but they’re pretty fair copies for amateur copies.
He also painted a winter scene, which I’m guessing he must have copied from a photo or maybe even a greeting card illustration, which is really what it looks like. It depicts a cluster of cozy little cottages in some snow-covered wooded hills. Same verdict: They were pretty good, just in terms of drawing ability, and certainly way better than anything I could ever dream of doing.
But everything my father drew or painted lacked that spark. There was no art to his art.
When my father was a young man, he dreamed of becoming an architect. His idol was Frank Lloyd Wright. And so my father took classes in architectural draftsmanship at Saunders Trade and Technical High School in our hometown of Yonkers. After he married my mother, after high school and a stint in the Air Force, I believe he also took some related night classes at the famed Cooper Union in New York. He actually worked for 10 years or so as a draftsman for a couple of architectural firms in New York City. But my father never became an architect. He quit his dream.
And he also abandoned any notion of becoming an artist. When he was a young man, he did sketches, portraits, some of which I’ve seen — of my cigar-chomping grandfather and of my very young mother. These sketches show not a little talent, are clearly heartfelt, and hint at some perception beyond just what my father’s eyes could see. The sketch of my Grandpa Nash, my mother’s father, captures a man who was simple, quiet and gentle but was also a little jaunty. And the sketches of my mother, done when they were both in their 20s, are adoring and romantic and show clearly that my young father enthralled by his pretty young wife.
Anyway, back to the egg: My mother told me last night that she had a surprise for me. And the surprise was that she had gone down into her basement and cleaned out some stuff in a file cabinet my father once used. “There were a lot of old architectural magazines from the 1960s,” my mother said. “I was just going to throw them out but it’s a good thing I looked first, because you know what I found? I found a drawing your father did of you when you were very young, a toddler. I’m going to get a frame for it and give it to you. I thought you’d want to have it. It really looks just like you!”
Now, of course, I’m anxious to see this drawing. What did my father see when he did that sketch of his first-born son? Did he simply see a cute little boy? Or did he see something in my eyes? Did he detect even just a little of my soul? Was he thinking that my blood was his blood? Did he feel love or pride? Did those feeling pour from his heart into the drawing he created?
Did he really draw me? Or does the drawing just really look like me?