Doing the Dirty Work of Time – Chicago Sun-Times

Time will one day send a henchman to your house to tear up your most prized possessions and scatter them forever, and there was a certain irony that the appointed agent of time last would be me, a nostalgic man bent on keeping it all.

Time will cure you of this tendency.

I arrived at my parents’ townhouse in Boulder, Colorado, then drove to my dad’s shop and went to work.

Stopping, yes, one last time to look at the tableau: delicate paintings, watercolours, on styrofoam panels, framed on the walls and arranged on a pair of handmade wooden easels, built by a neighbor, which almost reached the ceiling.

The two large drawing tables, with Winsor & Newton watercolors – cobalt blue, burnt sienna, alizaran crimson – some still in their beige boxes, the pot stuffed with worn brushes. I ran my thumb over the bristles of a large sable paintbrush. He threw up a puff of dust.

It’s time to move my parents to a nursing home – my mother’s term, though I gently correct her, with all the clarity I can muster. “A Vibrant Senior Lifestyle Community, Ma!” I say. In Buffalo Grove, 17 minutes from our house.

The Scandinavian-designed hutch that sat in our dining room when I was growing up in Berea, Ohio, and had sat in a corner of my dad’s workshop for 34 years. I started with the books, kept behind glass doors where once was the china that no one wants.

I always thought we would keep the dessert porcelain: Royal Doulton with delicate flowers. But my wife grimaced when I handed her a mug questioningly. We have our own fine china that our boys don’t want. No need for another set.

I started pulling out the books – “Patterns in Nature” by Peter S. Stevens, “Fearful Symmetry” by Stewart and Golunitsky – piling them on the floor. My dad was a nuclear physicist at NASA for 30 years, then retired in 1987 to paint watercolors: ocean waves and canyon walls and that damn slime he loved so much.

“The British Museum has accepted it into its collection,” he informed me, again, a few minutes earlier downstairs. He is almost 90 years old and nature, despite its frightening symmetry, is also not without accidental kindness. A kind of generous symmetry, a gift to slightly compensate for the loss.

“You should be so proud, Dad,” I said.

The paintings – some quite large – were lifted from the wall and piled up. Polystyrene is very light.

“I know what you’re thinking,” my father wrote in The Artist’s Magazine, a publication focused on materials and technique. “How do you paint with watercolors on a smooth white polystyrene surface? It’s easy – just add a wetting agent (1/4 teaspoon of sodium lauryl sulfate to 1 liter of water) to the watercolor paint right out of the tube.

Science and art, uncomfortable bedfellows.

This technique has not, as my father seemed to expect, turned the art world upside down. Again, you never know. Thinking of Henry Darger – the North Side janitor whose drawings of warring 1930s schoolgirls became the foundation of Art Brut – and Vivian Maier, the current darling of photography, I made a stack of everything original – diaries, letters, manuscripts – and I kept them, throwing the rest, magazines, journals, reprints, drafts, into big white garbage bags.

“What do you have in the bags?” my dad asked as I dragged a pair through the living room and towards the dumpster.

“Your life’s work,” I thought sullenly, and almost said out loud.

“Just garbage, Dad,” I said, hurrying out.

The next four days went like this. My wife went over every dish, every sweater, every fancy piece of jewelry with my mom. Firm, but kind. My mom was surprisingly good at throwing things away, the way she decided she couldn’t take care of my dad anymore, and it was time for their tactical retreat from Colorado. I was impressed by his decisiveness.

You always hear about teachers digging into their pockets to pay for supplies. So I phoned an art teacher at Boulder High School, told her what we had, and she came over with a friend and took everything: the paints, the brushes, the paper, the easels, the art books.

Not everyone in Boulder is rich. I like to think of that cobalt blue smeared on a promising student’s work. Who helps.

Maria D. Ervin