Monday, June 12, 2006

#137 - Our Private Louvre

A yacht under sail cuts across the open ocean. The seas are a bit choppy, but she slices through each swell like a hot knife through butter. The skies are cloudy, meaning a good breeze to keep the sails full. The sleek hull bobs lightly up and down, yet remains pointed in a direction pre-determined by a wizened skipper.

To the north, the skies are darker. In fact, a squall is brewing, sending waves crashing against jagged rocks near the shore. This is not a welcoming beach with warm, gray sand. This is a coast accustomed to the sharp edges of volcanic rock that was tossed - almost casually - by a distant volcano now many centuries dormant. Instantly cooled and hardened by a cold, forbidding sea, the rocks serve as a reminder that a following sea is no guarantee of safe arrival. The waves here are respected by those who know them, and they carefully navigate around them.

Across a natural harbor, surrounded by these rough-hewn sentries, stands a beacon. A lighthouse erected nearly two centuries ago to guide those who must brave these waters in the name of trade and commerce. In stormy skies its bright lamp shines its warning to captains of these vessels: Keep your distance; these rocks have claimed more than their fair share of boats! Some were built stronger and sturdier even than yours, but in the end they were no match for the stone devils.

To the south, a safe harbor waits. Here a familiar shape makes its approach to its home slip. A "pleasure craft," they call it, complete with a fly deck (although its skipper cringes at the term - to him it was always the "bridge") and a trusty first mate. This first mate also happens to be the skipper's loving wife and companion of over forty years, and you never see one without the other. They both love the sea, although she loves it more because her husband is himself enamored of it. She simply wants to be where he is. It's a formula that has worked for literally decades together.

Four paintings hang on our walls in our little home. They are four friends of mine. I have grown up with them, and I knew the painter intimately. He was my grandfather, and my boyhood hero. He was, by trade, a calculating engineer. A master designer who was well-respected in his industry. An inventor, even, who helped a company design and build a small gas-powered engine that became the ancestor of all modern chain saws. But he was not typical of the stereotype that has become the modern engineer. He was a man of tremendous creative energy and quiet passion. His creative side manifested itself in two primary ways; he was both a musician and a gifted artist.

As a musician we were treated to jigs and reels at family gatherings. Mom would sit at the piano and Grandpa would tune up the fiddle. The family would gather in whatever room housed the piano and enjoy a concert we'd all pay good money to hear today. The repertoire could be altered to match the season: jigs and reels at Thanksgiving, and carols at Christmas time.

But it was the ocean where we spent my most memorable times with Grandma and Grandpa. We would take it in turns to sit on the fly de... excuse me, the bridge, and when it got too crowded we would retreat to the smallish cabin where Grandma reigned as the supreme Tour Guide. She would hold her young crew's interest with tales of the sea, the local harbors, the sight of the Queen Mary as it was prepared for its eventual use as a floating museum, and round after round of "My Dog Has Fleas" on the ukelele she always kept on board.

Grandma and Grandpa spent considerable time travelling when their children had grown and left them with an empty nest. The family had moved several times between the midwest and California, where they eventually settled for good. In their travels, Grandpa had stored up a vast bank of imagery that he decided to commit to canvas, most of it dealing with the ocean. There are a few desert scenes, to be sure. One ancient and lonely adobe hut stands out in memory amongst a desolation of saguaro cactus and yucca. But his seascapes captivated me from the time I was old enough to remember visits to Grandpa's boat.

Tall, three-masted schooners. Stormy seas. Crashing waves. All of them creating a kinship I have always felt with the sea; a kinship now shared with my own adoring and loving companion. Our living room is a shrine of sorts to the majesty of the ocean, and the wonderful memories of our childhoods. The paintings are one of my remedies for stress; if I can study them and enjoy the strokes of a master, and the hues of green and blue that evoke those tender memories, I can become a happier man.

I only once actually watched Grandpa paint. He didn't usually like to do that when family were visiting, wanting to be sociable instead. Also, I think painting was a private experience for him. A chance to create visual memories that held his imagination captive and whisked him away to one of those tall-masted boats.

Memories that I now hold vicariously.

Thank you, Grandpa. And God bless you.

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