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What Happened: Stories About Love, Life and Other Adventures
His parents were British missionaries who'd left the Salvation Army because it was too liberal for them. Back in England, where they came from, they'd joined a strict fundamentalist sect known as the Plymouth Brethren. For them, the only book a person needed to own was the Bible. As for the paintbox my father covetted as a child, his parents told him to forget about it. He didn't.
In his twenties, my father fell in with a group of radical artist types, including a woman painter by the name of Emily Carr who was part of what is now known in Canada as The Group of Seven. My father was her student and protege, and though she was witheringly critical at times, she also told him he had enormous talent and encouraged him to be a painter. Art was more than a pastime for my father. It provided his religion -- as the Plymouth Brethren never had.
But around the same time my father discovered modern art he discovered liquor, and if he knew what to do with paint, the same could not be said of vodka. From the little I've been able to gather of those early years of his -- decades before I came on the scene -- he led a bohemian kind of life: making art, making love, making poetry, and waking up with a terrible hangover the next morning. He was a devastatingly handsome, dashing man with a cleft chin and a strong jaw and the irresistible ability to illustrate the light, romantic verse he wrote for women with drawings that must have melted their hearts.
Along the line he made one marriage that didn't last, and no doubt left in his wake more messes than I ever heard about. At the point when he met my mother, twenty years his junior, he was teaching english at a university on the prairies of Canada and sketching whenever he could. By the time I was born, he was in his fifties, and painting large and lyrical, somewhat abstracted landscapes at nights and on weekends in a studio he'd set up in our attic. I cannot remember a time when I didn't know, as clearly as I knew my name, what it was that constituted the central fact of my father's life: that he loved art, that he longed to paint, and couldn't make a living doing it. At the university, he taught -- in addition to English -- a humanities course in which he was famous for creating, on the blackboard, his own chalk renditions of great paintings. El Greco one day. Titian the next.
But apart from what he drew on the chalkboard, back in those days just about the only people who saw my father's paintings were my mother, my sister, and me, plus a few family friends he'd bring up to our attic now and then. His paintings hung on the walls in our house of course, but I don't believe it ever occurred to me how rare and wonderful a thing it was, to grow up in a house surrounded by beautiful original artwork, not decorative reproductions, or posters, or -- as in so many houses of my friends -- mirrors. Likewise, I took for granted that any time I needed a drawing -- whether it was of a dinosaur or the musculature surrounding the heart, or the particular position of a hand, holding a peach, or a pen -- all I had to do was ask my father and he'd render the image perfectly, on the spot. Weekends in nice weather, he and I would often head out to the horticulture farm of the university where he taught -- and where, year after year, he failed to receive full professor status. There under the experimental apple trees, we'd sketch a field of cows or a distant hill or a stretch of abandoned railroad tracks. Sometimes, walking along the path on our way, my father would stop so suddenly you'd think he'd been jolted by electrical current, and point the walking stick he always carried towards the sky. "Look," he'd say, staring at absolutely nothing I could detect.
"What?" I'd finally ask.
"See how the light hits that branch?" he'd say. Or "Study that cloud formation. Take a look at that shadow." So I'd stand very still, looking, for a length of time that always seemed endless to me, but probably lasted no more than sixty seconds.
Now and then over the years, my father would ride the Trailways bus to Boston or New York City, to see a particular show of paintings at the Museum of Modern Art or the Met. One time he made a pilgrimage, alone, to Florence. Very occasionally I'd hear him on the phone late at night, talking to the one of his artist friends from his days as a young man out West with whom he'd stayed in contact, a man who was now a celebrated painter. Mostly my father just pored over art books at our dining room table, and then disappeared again into our attic. Sometimes, showing me one of his paintings or looking at somebody else's in a museum, he'd get so excited he'd practically weep.
My father was never much of a one for family excursions, but we'd take a trip together to the ocean once or twice a year, and what I remember best about those trips were the drawings he'd make for us in the sand, with whatever kind of stick he might happen to find lying around -- great, sweeping, mural-sized drawings people strolling down the beach would admire until the tide washed them away.
There was an annual faculty art show held at the gallery of the university where he taught, but because my father wasn't in the art department, he never got to show his work in those. He entered paintings instead in the local art exhibit that featured mostly the polite, predictable still lifes of Sunday painters -- vases of pussy willows, bowls of fruit. More than thirty years since leaving the west coast of Canada, that rocky coastline was still the landscape that haunted my father. He always put prices on his paintings, but never sold any, except to a professor in the history department who liked his work.
In the early seventies, when my father was turning seventy, he retired from teaching. Around the same time, my parents' marriage fell apart, and -- in a move that sounded to my sister and me like sheer madness -- my father decided to return to Canada, site of his early successes as a painter, and his first joyful discovery of art. He was in poor health, and not entirely sober, with very little money and virtually no possessions besides his paints and his lifetime collection of unsold paintings, which he brought with him. All of his brothers and sisters and most of his old friends from his bachelor days were dead or gone, but he had a great-nephew who met his plane and helped him get set up in a residence hotel, and when this nephew saw my father's paintings he offered to bring them to a gallery in Victoria.
By this point, I was married, to a painter who loved art passionately and also wasn't selling his paintings. We had one child and another on the way; we were rich in art, as usual, and poor in cash. Given the choice between another painting or a washing machine, I would have taken the appliance. When the news came that my father had been invited to show a couple of landscapes in a gallery out West, I was happy for him but distracted by my own life. The phrase he used to quote to me late at night sometimes, when he was drinking -- that children are hostages to fortune -- rang in my ears. I wasn't making any art in those days myself.
Then came the news came that my father had been given a one man show in Victoria, and then a much larger show in Vancouver. He had sold a painting for two thousand dollars. He had sold a painting for five thousand dollars. He had sold a couple of paintings to a museum. He was using the proceeds of a sale to take a cruise to Alaska, to paint.
Sitting on the deck of the ship, sketching as usual, my eighty year old father caught pneumonia. That was the story anyway. There may have been a little vodka in the mix too. Whatever the cause, suddenly he was very sick in the hospital. Seven months pregnant with my second child, I flew out to British Columbia to see him, and knew the moment I walked in his hospital room that it would be the last time. Even then, my father was pointing out the way the sunlight fell on the sheet on his bed, the line of a nurse's cheekbone. In a pile of papers on his bureau at the hospital I found a pencil drawing he'd made on a paper placemat.
He died a few months later, shortly after the birth of my son. My sister and I inherited the paintings. Some we kept for ourselves. Some we entrusted to our my father's great nephew to sell -- we lived so far away, ourselves, and our own lives were so busy.
Some years passed. Because all my life I'd known an overabundance of paintings, I guess I thought the supply was inexhaustible. Suddenly I discovered the paintings were mostly all sold off, and the number I'd kept was too small. I hadn't held onto a single one of those pencil and ballpoint pen sketches he'd dashed off so effortlessly, or one of his sketchbooks from our trips to the apple orchard at the horticulture farm.
My own marriage to a painter ended, sooner than my parents' marriage had. As I did when I was a child, I live now in a house surrounded by my father's paintings. One of them still has a file card taped on the back with the price my father had assigned to it, back when he placed the painting in one of those local art shows. $5 -- and it didn't sell.
A few years back, when I was feeling flush from the sale of a novel -- after my father's death, but before I realized what I had here, with these paintings -- I bought some art at an auction as an investment. I spent more money at that art auction than I'd ever spent on any object besides my house or my car -- out of the belief that paintings were going very cheap that day, and that these paintings -- some by well-known artists -- would one day yield substantial profits. After I got them home, feeling a little shaken by the size of my investment, I called an art appraiser to come look at my acquisitions for me.
They were fakes. The auctioneer was a fraud, wanted in Pennsylvania. The FBI had a file on him. I sank into my chair.
Then the appraiser turned his gaze from the worthless paintings to the walls of my living room. "Who's the artist who painted these?" he asked, with an intensity in his eyes that reminded me a little of my father the day he took me to a show of Van Goghs in Boston.
When I told him my father's story, the appraiser shook his head. "Max Maynard is the artist you should be investing in," he said.
So someday, when I have the money, I'll go to British Columbia and try to buy my father's paintings back. Some of them anyway.
of that rocky Canadian coastline surround me in my living room. A few
are New Hampshire landscapes too. One is a drawing of my mother mending
a shirt. One is a landscape of a tall figure, walking through a field,
with a smaller figure at his side. One is a strange and exquisite pencil
caricature of an other-worldly figure standing on a barren piece of ground
who bears a haunting resemblance to my father.
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