The Secret Origin of the Artist MCF
A few years ago, the house where he'd lived with my grandmother up until her passing became too much for him to take care of alone. He was in his 70s and had never married, and the place was in an increasing state of disrepair. My other uncle helped him settle in to a nearby assisted living apartment complex, and we helped clear out the house before it was sold. Some things were sold, some were kept, some were trashed, and probably too much ended up in our basement. My mom and her brothers are packrats, and I think I take after that side of the family.
A few months ago, it became apparent that Uncle Jerry was no longer himself. His rambling stories, which once had a point, began to meld with other tales or end abruptly. At times, we'd address him directly and he would stare off into space, not immediately acknowledging or recognizing us. It started out with little things, but by the time my mom got a call from a hospital in Staten Island that he'd been pulled over for making a U-turn over a concrete divide, we knew it was more serious. My folks and my other Uncle made the drive out to retrieve a disoriented Uncle Jerry and his car, and the car would end up with us until it was sold. Shortly thereafter my Uncle was diagnosed with the early stages of dementia.
My mom and my other uncle took turns visiting Uncle Jerry to give him his medication and make sure he was eating. He began to lose track of the time and days, sleeping at odd hours and letting answering machine messages collect on the machine. When he did answer the phone, he'd sometimes hold it the wrong way. His kid sister, my mom, is 70, while his older brother is in his 80s. When he left a cup on the stove and it caught fire, they soon realized he needed care around the clock that they couldn't provide, and now he's in a nursing home.
According to my mom, he's pretty popular with the ladies there, who always ask about him when she visits and he always seems surrounded. That gives me hope that it's never too late to be popular; I just need to outlive all the cool guys. His new room is smaller than his apartment, so once more his family has to decide what he keeps and gets rid of. My mom is fighting her nostalgic instincts as we're still buried under junk from their old house. He, like myself, apparently saved every greeting card people ever sent him, every card indicating where he was seated at any given wedding. He'd probably have a hard time parting with these items if he knew what was going on. My mom is keeping things like photo albums, and she's debating whether to throw out his old paintings or find some artists who could reuse the canvas. I absolutely hate either idea, as the things we create are records of ourselves and maintain a kind of immortality after we're gone. I remember seeing various abstract paintings piled up around his last apartment, which had seen the light of day after spending years in the attic of his old house. The other day, my mom came home with this one:
“Here's another product of a psychotic mind,” she quipped, though I didn't think it was funny or understand why she did. It was abstract, which a lot of people don't get. I myself have always preferred art that depicts something, as far as I know, and it wasn't until college when I studied the likes of Kandinsky, whose work echoed musical compositions, that I began to appreciate abstract art a little more. Sometimes just swirls of color, and the choices made in layering them and grouping them together, are enough to be art. Whose to say that reality isn't more abstract, that it is a sea of swirling forms and colors that our brains translate and solidify into something that makes sense? Meanwhile, my mom turned over what I thought was my uncle's painting to reveal my name on the back, followed by “Age 4”.
He saved it all these years, my first painting which my folks gave him as a present. Not having any children of his own, I guess my cousin and I have always been surrogate sons, whose endeavors he followed and encouraged. And all those times he talked to me about some piece of remarkable art I did when I was a kid, which I dismissed as him talking about one of my crayon drawings, was likely in reference to that piece. I didn't think I had any real interest in art before 3rd grade, when I started emulating the cartoon character drawings that my friends made, or 8th grade, when I started copying comic books. When I think about my childhood, I remember my detective agency, or my desire to be an architect because I loved blocks and other building toys. But it was always about solving puzzles in the name of creating, of making sense of the materials I had in front of me, whether it was a pencil and paper, clues, plastic bricks, or apparently paint.
We think we know ourselves better than anyone, but we lack the perspective that our family has, those who were there from the beginning to see a living creation become yet another creator.