PawPaw’s Last Painting
A week ago today, Micha and I spoke at our grandfather’s memorial service, as I’m sure you’re aware. From her blog posts to our brother’s twitter feed to my compulsive Instagramming of old letters and photos, we all turned to social media to express our grief. We’ve known for years he would probably be the first of our grandparents to die—yes, until last Monday, all four of our grandparents were living—but it hit us harder than we expected. He was our hero.
PawPaw will be remembered for many things, from his experience in World War II (he was a prisoner of war in Nazi Germany who should have died at least a dozen times) to his wealth of hobbies (woodworking, tinkering, doodling, fishing, listening to Paul Harvey, dipping mint-flavored tobacco, music). One of the hobbies that played a prominent role in his retirement years was his painting.
I say this both as an easily impressed teenager and a more knowledgeable grown-up artist: PawPaw could paint. His gift was not one of imagination, but of technical proficiency. Give him a photo of a spectacular sunset or rustic barn, and he could reproduce it in oils. During the 1980s and 90s, his house was full of canvases. Windmills. Lakes. Mountains. Lighthouses.
Once, around Christmas time, he told us grandkids he would paint us anything we wanted as a gift. I now have a 5×7 oil painting of Abraham Lincoln in profile. No idea why I asked for that as a ten year-old, but I got it. And it’s good.
By the time he passed away, his paintings had been divvied up among his three children and six grandchildren, and so all of us have homes full of original art: flowers and pastoral scenes and, well, bearded ex-presidents. But last Friday, I asked my grandmother for one more painting.
I wanted PawPaw’s last painting.
It’s not very good. He started it six or seven years ago, a lighthouse at sunset on a rocky shoreline. It was one of his first attempts at painting with acrylics, which dry much faster than oils. (Oils had been perfect for PawPaw’s slow hand and deliberate manner, and I’m not sure why he decided to experiment with another medium.) He rushed his way through the base layer of clouds and rocks and sunset. He started over. He kept changing it. The paint kept drying before he was ready.
The scene rested on his easel, in his painting room, for months, unfinished but never forgotten. It annoyed and frustrated him. Soon, PawPaw’s health declined. He fell. He had brain surgeries. He was hospitalized often. He moved to a new house. In just a few years, he grew old. He forgot how to paint.
He never finished that last lighthouse painting. For precisely that reason, it’s the one I wanted. I have it displayed now on a shelf above my desk, next to a stack of my own books.
Eulogizing him at his funeral was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I recalled how, decades after the War, PawPaw attributed his miraculous survival to the fact that, had he not made it, our generation wouldn’t have come along. He firmly believed that his grandkids and great-grandchildren were the reasons God allowed him to make it home, to start a family, to build a life. We are here because he lived. In more ways than one, he lived for us.
I tried to remind my brother and sister and cousins—and myself—that our lives were a gift, and that we were left with a challenge: to build lives worthy of PawPaw’s survival and sacrifice, to be the “PawPaws” of our families and community, to give life to others like he’d given life to us.
He’d started the painting, rough and imperfect though it may be. He’d brushed in the composition, the light, and the color. The direction of the painting was clear, but it remained incomplete. Like his legacy.
I’m a writer. I like metaphors.
Jason Boyett is the author of O Me of Little Faith, Pocket Guide to the Afterlife, and other books. He doesn’t blog much anymore, but you can find him atjasonboyett.com, on Twitter and Facebook, and as the co-host of the weekly “9 Thumbs” pop-culture podcast. Also, he is Micha’s big brother.