My son-in-law, the artist
WHEN I was a child I had a grandfather who looked like a grandfather. He had a flowing white beard and piercing blue eyes, and the huge, gnarled hands of a farmer. When he came down from Canada to visit us in New York City in 1929, when I was 8, he wore a shiny pinstriped black suit and a stiff black bowler hat, and he made it clear that he didn't approve of anything he saw. The streets were too narrow and people hurried too much.
Aunt Jane, in his tow as usual, failed to hurry enough to get off the subway at 12th Street and had to be intercepted at Houston. She at least admitted that the big city made her nervous; Grandfather only snorted and thought the horses on the streets were a miserable-looking lot.
Mother never told me what Grandfather had said when she told him she was going to marry a New York illustrator. A farmer or laborer all his life, Grandfather had a deep-grained suspicion of anyone who did not earn his living by the sweat of his brow. His sons had become skilled mechanics in the railroad roundhouse, but an artist was as unexpected as a pelican landing among the crows in the cornfield. Still, in his taciturn way he loved Mother, and so perhaps he reserved judgment.
Reserved judgment was just what my father wanted. Despite his urban background he had an almost mystical reverence for men of the soil, and Grandfather represented all the qualities he most admired. It was love at first sight. To win his father-in-law's approval became my father's strongest desire. When it became clear that this was going to be impossible, he might have been crushed. Fortunately, he knew how to turn it into a joke and make us all laugh at his predicament.
On this 1929 visit, Dad was still full of hope, and he looked forward to showing Grandfather a thing or two. After a trip uptown on a Fifth Avenue bus and a visit to the zoo, we went by ferry and train to West Nyack, where we rented a small house and large plot of land. Under Mother's careful tutelage, my father had become a weekend gardener. Grandfather had no sooner removed his bowler hat and combed his beard than Dad lead him triumphantly up the hill to see our vegetable garden.
It was spring. Rows of new lettuce, radishes, peas, and Swiss chard marched sedately across the plot. Much of the remaining turned ground was bare, except for empty seed envelopes. It did not look as impressive as Dad thought it was going to. Grandfather said nothing. Dad decided to do some hoeing. There was quite a lot of a green weed growing beyond the lettuce. He hoed it vigorously while Grandfather watched in silence.
They returned to the house.
``What do you think of our garden, Father?'' Mother asked.
``It will do.'' Grandfather said.
``I hoed up some weeds,'' Dad reported modestly.
Several hours later Mother burst into the house. ``Father,'' she demanded, ``did you know that Norman hoed up all the spinach?''
``Aye,'' said Grandfather, ``I kenned it.''
It was seven years before Dad had a chance to redeem himself. We had moved to his parental home in Florida and spent the first of many summers at my uncle's small farm in Ontario.
Here my Grandfather, more bent, but just as vigorous and intimidating as ever, tended the cow and did odd jobs around the garden and fields. He was 87 now and very deaf, and the rest of the family spent their time futilely shouting at him to rest. ``Pooh-pooh,'' or ``Tosh,'' Grandfather would answer.
Dad had been ill and after a winter of teaching, he was looking forward to a summer of painting. But, of course, with everyone so concerned about Grandfather, he wanted to make himself useful. Grandfather would not let him touch the vegetable garden, and the first job he was willing to give Dad, leading the cow to water each day, ended in disaster. The normally placid cow butted Dad all the way down the hill and then dragged him across the pasture to the stream. Mother finally prevailed on Grandfather to let Dad cut the grass.
It was a huge lawn with flower gardens and paths and ornamental bushes and terraces, and, by the time Dad finished mowing it all with a hand mower, he was usually dripping wet and exhausted. There was, however, one terrace that had to be cut with a scythe, and this job Grandfather reserved for himself. ``I'll just finish up then,'' he would say, thus taking the wind completely out of Dad's sails.
Finally, when he was 90, Grandfather announced that he was going to teach Norman to scythe. The lessons did not go well. He was never a patient teacher, and the sight of any awkwardness was beyond his endurance. Anything worth doing was worth doing well, he would say. From the house, we could hear a string of ``Pooh-poohs'' and ``O tosh'' and ``Not that way, this way!''
Eventually he gave up. If Dad was not a skilled scyther, he at least got the grass cut without wounding himself. Grandfather took to sitting in a steamer chair where he could keep an eye on Norman and think back on the old days, when everyone knew how to do things properly.
He was sitting in a spot of shade by the gate one broiling July day when a neighbor stopped to speak to him. Dad was hacking away at the grass, sweating. I was nearby weeding a flower bed. Grandfather now raised his voice for everyone, so we had no difficulty hearing him shout.
``That's my son-in-law,'' he boomed with a dramatic sweep of his arm. ``He's an artist. Never did a day's work in his life.''