My grandfather liked to paint in the basement.
Every summer in the 1970s, he and my grandmother would come and stay with us in Northwestern New Jersey, and very soon after they had arrived, he would set up a makeshift easel in the basement, right in my father’s workshop, between the table saw and the big cement laundry sink that always smelled of turpentine and moldering rags. The easel was a creaky wooden frame that he would attach the canvas to. The frame itself was clamped to my father’s table saw deck. Once he had set up this contraption, he would array his paint brushes and paint-smeared rags and rolled-up mostly spent tubes of oil paint on the table saw and along the ledge at the bottom of the frame. It was a messy workspace, and if not for the many smears of bright primary colors pressed into the cheap yellow pine structure, his easel would have been a dreary, unkempt, object of pity. But the paint was always there, a deconstructed rainbow in bright dabs and smudges reminding everyone that this was an artist’s space, and artists have a right to their chaos.
He was a thin man with a slight stoop that was more pronounced when he stood at the easel. The basement was always cool, even in the summer, and when he was down there, he would wear a green wool sweater with holes the size of a pencil eraser burned into the sleeves and front, made by the random hot ashes that would occasionally pop or fall from the pipe that was always clenched between his teeth. Ben was always grabbing at this pipe, pulling it out to point the stem at something, or shifting the bowl from one side of his face to the other, or grabbing the bowl by the bottom with one hand while he pushed a wad of tobacco down in it. To light it, he would lean forward a little, ignite a match, and hold it over the top of the bowl. As soon as he saw that the tobacco was lit, he would clench the stem in his teeth and suck on it, quickly extinguishing the match with a quick shake of his, all of it done in a single smooth operation. I must have seen him perform this ritual a thousand times when he was alive, but I cannot tell you for certain what happened to any of those extinguished matches.
My grandfather would stand at his easel in the basement stabbing and swiping and feather-touching the fiberboard canvas with his brushes. Sometimes he would forgo the brushes and use the tip of his forefinger or even his thumb to achieve some effect. He seemed to possess a remarkable ability to stand in place for hours on end. If you viewed him from a distance, he appeared to be Zen-like in his composure, but when you came closer, you could see that he was anything but calm. His relationship to the canvas was usually one of antagonism. He would huff and snort and grimace while he worked. My mother tells me that she sometimes rescued paintings that he had threatened to destroy after appearing to finish them. Who knows how many finished or nearly finished works he painted over when we were not paying attention.
But sometimes, I would also observe an expression of pure ecstasy drift across his features. These moments were not about admiring what was on the canvas; they occurred while he was in motion, the brush moving across the face of the canvas.
He was also happy to leave the house, and he would take me with him sometimes. He would pack a box of pencils and charcoal sticks and a few big pads of sketch paper. Sometimes my mother or grandmother would pack a lunch for us; sometimes we planned ahead of time to eat at a restaurant. I would bring my sketch pad and my small box of pencils, which seemed embarrassingly basic compared to his overstuffed boxes of gear. And then we would set off for an afternoon of sketching and painting, just the two of us.
There was never a set destination for these outings, but my grandfather had a vision for what he was looking for—a barn leaning over so far it looked like it would collapse on itself or a moss-covered stone fence or a lone fireplace and chimney standing straight up from the ruins of a burned-down house. He was attracted to old, dilapidated, falling-down things. He liked the way that manmade structures that were erected to be perfectly straight and symmetrical would, over time, begin to sag and crack and crumble into objects that resembled living things. Hunterdon County in the 1970s was still full of crumbling monuments to its agricultural past. We always found something interesting to sketch.
My grandfather was an easy man to be around. His body language and mannerisms conveyed a pleasant languidness and carefree attitude, especially once he was liberated from the house. I could relax around him. He seemed to expect nothing from me, except conversation, and I was always happy to be his partner in this. I would ask him questions and he would answer with stories about his childhood, the Depression, and the War. These summer outings are among my most treasured childhood memories because they had an aimless, exploratory quality to them. The other adults in my life were always herding me around and prodding me to do things. My grandfather simply let me be.
Often these trips would wind out to the Western edge of the county, all the way to the Delaware River, which separates New Jersey from Pennsylvania. Inevitably, we would cross the river to drive along the old Delaware River Canal system, which is still there, cutting a straight path along the edge of the river on the Pennsylvania side. Because he was not a resident of Hunterdon County, my grandfather was frequently lost on these trips, but also unconcerned by this fact. Many men would be uncomfortable not knowing where they were or how to get to their destination, but my grandfather was not one of them. I had the impression that he preferred to be unmoored from knowing exactly where he would go next.
He was obsessed with the canal, and he would follow it for miles, driving slowly, his head thrust out the window, looking for the perfect place to stop. On the first of these journeys, I didn’t know what he was searching for exactly. In some places, the canal was little more than a sad, muddy trench, but in others, it was a long, straight body of still, deep water.
It was the locks that most captured his fancy. These were little dams on the canal that you could walk across. Some of them were topped with elaborate wrought iron pump wheels; my grandfather was especially interested in them. He said they had “character,” which was his highest complement for any object he wished to sketch or paint. Once he located an interesting configuration of these wheels atop a lock, he would park the car nearby, and we would find a grassy spot from which we could sit and sketch or paint. Sometimes he would take polaroids to bring back to his makeshift studio in the basement. After an hour or two in the sun, we would pack up our gear and then drive into one of the Delaware River towns for lunch. Frenchtown or Milford and Stockton.
People were drawn to him. They would walk over and ask what we were doing. Sometimes they would ask to see his sketches and he would always oblige, opening up his various sketch pads for their inspection. He was completely comfortable answering their questions and asking his own, and I was impressed by his effortless banter, his easy laugh and the way he could direct a knowing exchange of glances at exactly the right moment. He seemed to have been made by his Creator to live inside the stream of conversation.
He was curious to know where people were from, and after they told him, he would often share his own stories of having passed through that exact town or city during the Depression, before he was married. These conversations with strangers occurred at nearly every outing with my grandfather. Some of the credit can go to him—he was a genuinely, open and friendly man—but there was some other force at work as well, a difficult-to-quantify sense of communal trust and openness that was still present in 1976 but has mostly disappeared from American life since then. With the older men, the conversation would turn to the war—not the recently-concluded catastrophe in Vietnam, but the one that folks were proud to have been a part of. It was a conversation many of these men were eager to have with each other—where you served, what branch, what unit, what theatre. My grandfather was in his sixties at the time, and the country was still full of World War II vets his age or younger. Everywhere we went together, they were there, a secret society of graying men in every town in America who wanted to stop and talk about the war. We didn’t realize it until they were mostly gone, but they were a kind of glue that bound the entire society together.
My grandfather was looking for something that he never quite found in these outings. When I was younger, I thought he was on an aesthetic quest, but now I think his quarry was even more elusive. I had a sense of it whenever we would walk together to the town center of Clinton, which was a postcard vista of two colonial-era mills, one on each side of a dam on the South Branch of the Raritan River. He seemed endlessly fascinated by these buildings, and he made several paintings of them. It was obvious that these structures suggested a rootedness in the past, just like the broken-down barns and the old canal locks.
I could not appreciate this nostalgia for the past when I was 12 years old. I liked history, but my interest revolved around dramatic narratives, battles, and heroic speeches. I was still basically a boy who liked adventure stories. I lacked that sense of history that comes from the spaces that grow inside of us, the ways we learn to measure time so that we can feel it deep. The distance between the Beatles first trip to America and Abbey Road. The years that have passed from that awful day when you stood in the Student Center with your girlfriend sobbing under your arm as you both watched the Challenger explode on TV to wondering, where is she now, in her fifties like you but lost in a veil of anonymity, that forever young girl with the deep voice and the diamond tattoo on her right shoulder. The way that the decades mark out artificially neat chapters in our lives but you love them anyway. Counting the number of cars you have owned or the years since your divorce or your mother died. Now that I am in my fifties, I have lived long enough to understand with aching clarity my grandfather’s backward gaze. Living past middle age produces in each of us a deepening of our ability to sense the past, to know it as an intimate friend. Each funeral we attend reveals a precious life cut off from the flow of the now and set loose to drift further and further out of view behind us. We grow older and watch the world that was so vivid in our childhood memories melt around us.
This last part is an especially American fate. America is ruthlessly progressive in a nonsectarian sense of the word, always eager to tear down the old thing and go chasing after the new. New technology will replace the old, and you will struggle to adapt. The values you were taught by your parents, teachers, coaches, and religious leaders will lose their authority and be replaced by new ones, or worse, you will wonder if there are any values at all holding the society together. The culture will change around you—new music, new styles, new postures and attitudes. The language will change too. Your society is not like the ones that sustained humans for hundreds of thousands of years before, where the elderly members of the tribe possessed encyclopedic knowledge of the society’s mores and history and traditions that they would pass down to their descendants. To be American is to live in the flux and die in obsolescence.
My grandfather certainly experienced the flux. He lived through two world wars, a global pandemic, a Great Depression, and the Vietnam War. The son of a railroad engineer, he grew up on trains and then watched the era of the railroads eclipsed by the national highway system and air travel. He watched the government ban alcohol and then re-legalize it eleven years later. He raised a family in the period between VE Day and the Fall of Saigon. When he was born, there were still horse-drawn buggies carrying people around his home town of Battle Creek, Michigan, but he lived long enough to watch men walk on the moon. And his life straddled the period in American history when the country transitioned from a rural agricultural society to an urban/suburban one.
I can imagine him as a boy on one of his cross-country train trips in the 1920s, staring out the window for hours as a seemingly endless vista of farmland drifted by. He must have thought that America was a nation of farms, and it was when he was boy, but by the time he was in his forties, the majority of Americans lived in the cities and the suburbs. If he was nostalgic for old barns, so be it. Any American who lives to a ripe old age has earned the right to his nostalgia.
One afternoon, we happened upon an old barn on the road between Clinton and Flemington. It was set back from the road about 100 feet, painted red, with a curious dip at the center of the roofline. In fact, the center of the roof appeared to be collapsing. The result was a near-perfect concave curvature that started at one corner of the roof, dipped gradually, and then rose up to meet the other corner.
“What is the main thing you notice about that barn,” he asked me?
“It’s red,” I answered, struggling to find the right response.
“Look again,” he said. “It‘s the thing that makes it different from every other barn you’ve ever seen.”
I thought about it.
“The way the roof is falling,” I said.
”Yes,” he replied, handing me a charcoal pencil and sliding a blank sketch pad onto my lap. “Now draw the roofline.”
I took the pencil and drew the curvature of roof as well as I could.
“Good, now draw the rest of the barn around it.”
I tried my best to be a good art student, but we both knew that I lacked the natural talent to do what he could do. My sketches always had a slightly lopsided quality. He successfully taught me the art of shading and shadow. I was able to master that with practice.
In the year he died, right before he left to return to Michigan, I had a project due for my art class. I decided to sketch an elaborate cherry end table in the living room of our house. I worked on it for hours. He tried to help me, but my frustration was palpable. I could not make it stand up straight on the page.
“It’s OK,” he assured me. “I think writing is going to be your thing.”
He left the next day and I never saw him again.