Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A Mystery Solved

As near as I can tell, I belong to one of the least artistically-inclined families in the history of the world.

None of my relatives write letters or blogs, let alone poetry or novels. None sing or play a musical instrument. None dance. None visit museums or go to concerts.

The only non-fiction book that my mother ever seems to have owned in her life was Gone With The Wind. I don't think she ever read it.

As a child I can remember amazing her and my other relatives with my ability to put two Lego pieces together.

If they happened to be pieces of two different colors, the amazement would last for days.

The one exception to this pattern was my father. He seems to have created an actual painting that hung on our living room wall for years.

For almost five decades I haven't been able to make a bit of sense out of this. Not only is it utterly at odds with everything else I know about my family, it remains utterly at odds with everything I know about my father - a beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking, uncommunicative railroader who seems to have had far more in common with the 19th century Welsh coal miners I've seen photographs of than with Rubens or Andy Warhol.

My mother divorced him after he beat her up shortly before I was born. Just about my only contact with him came in the spring when he paid us a brief visit to get my mother to sign a document allowing him rather than her to declare me a dependent on his tax return. It was during one of these visits in the mid 1960s that he looked at the painting above our couch and offered to buy it back from my mother for $10.

When he said that he wanted it because he had painted it my mother seemed as surprised as I was.

It was a fairly large painting, maybe 2' high by 3' wide. Its oddly muted colors depicted a strange little bridge over a stream and a Chinese pagoda. I can remember staring at it sometimes when I was bored and nothing in real life seemed even half as interesting. It was one of the most exotic things my young mind seems to have been exposed to. I don't know at what point I knew it was set in on the other side of the planet in China but once I did know that I often wished I could be there instead of in Ohio.

My father's offer to buy it for $10 was a real bolt from the blue. My mother's almost instant decision to accept his offer, on the other hand, was all too predictable. (She probably would have sold me for less.)

Within a matter of minutes the painting and my father were both gone.

I missed the painting more. After all, it had been around for much longer than my father ever had been. And it was much more interesting to look at.

What remained was the mystery: What in the hell had ever prompted this guy to pick up a paint brush? And how could so much artistic talent lay so deeply hidden within such a dull human being?

During one of my father's last visits (circa 1973) he mentioned in passing that he'd fought in the Korean War. Had he perhaps attempted to capture on canvas something he'd seen while in Asia? Had he perhaps even been held in a Chinese POW camp and this had been something he'd created to pass the time?

It seemed too incredible to be possible. Yet the basic facts seemed to resist a more commonplace explanation.

Well, much of the mystery evaporated recently when I came across that painting in a book I was reading.

Here's what it looks like:

The name of the book? Paint By Number: The How-To Craze That Swept The Nation.

Finally, everything snapped into place and it all made perfect sense.

My father really hadn't been that much more artistic than all my other relatives - he'd merely at some point had more of an interest in putting pre-mixed colors in designated spaces than everyone else.

This still leaves the mystery of why he chose an oriental scene rather than an American landscape or horses, but that's such a small mystery that I'm sure I'll soon forget it entirely. Maybe oriental scenes were on sale the day he visited Woolworth's. Or maybe it was something he received as a gag gift and decided to try his hand at one night after the Blatz and Schlitz had run out.

Of course some may think that another, even bigger mystery remains: How did I ever end up in such a family? But that's a mystery that I long ago explained away as the result of a terrible mix-up at the hospital maternity ward.

Accidents happen, you know. The book I mentioned above even details a big one involving a mix-up in the first Paint By Number sets that scrambled the colors and the numbers and left would-be Leonardos with a garish mess.

And - wouldn't you know? - it turns out that the first and biggest manufacturer of Paint By Number kits ended up headquartered in my hometown of Toledo not far from where I was living the day my father reclaimed his creation.

In fact, it seems to have been headquartered close to the area that was devastated by the tornado I wrote about on April 11th.

Who knows? Maybe Paint By Number sets would still be big sellers had they started specializing in scenes of mass destruction instead of generic pastorals that have little to do with life as it's actually lived....


  1. My parents each did an Oriental paint-by-numbers project which hung in our houses for years. For all I know my sister has them squirreled away somewhere or perhaps they were ditched or sold by Deve's Dad's Domestic Partner in the purge of all things she could trace to my mother.
    As goofy as I make stuff Deve's Dad says to be sometimes, he did stay with his wife until death parted them and provided an honest and honorable father-figure to three children, which I recognize that a lot of people suffer from the lack of.
    At the same time, I could never imagine you beating up your wife, so perhaps you are right about the hospital mix-up.
    I imagine there are genetic testing companies where siblings or alleged siblings may go to determine if they are full-siblings, half-siblings or totally unrelated. My feeling is a lot of mothers' secrets would be unveiled and many unsuspected hospital mix-ups if a lot of siblings or alleged siblings took advantage of the service. In fact I know two children who just came of age whom I wish would take advantage of such a service and let me know the outcome.
    Let me know if you ever manage to convince your sister to make such a visit with you. I'm sure the outcome would fascinate you endlessly--no matter what it is.

  2. Hey, now, I did a paint-by-numbers painting when I was a kid, basically because my parents gave me the kit as a gift. I don't even remember what it was, although I DO remember there was a lot of pink and green in it. (Not unlike those seen above. Maybe they cornered the market on sunset pink and forest green, with its cousin faded mint green?) It wasn't a big painting, maybe 9"x12." Although by no means creative, it WAS my first intro to actual "paint." (I was already a wiz with a pencil and crayon.) I loved dipping the brush into the little tiny jars of paint and smoothing it onto the board...

    Did your mother agree to your dad's rude request? I wonder if he had PTSD?

    Just today, I was listening to a program that said the old model of just genes predetermining a lot of what you end up being, instead, they said that epigenetics (the outer milieu of the genetic material) have a strong influence towards molding the individual, and unlike previously thought, one's own determination CAN, amazingly, influence future generations as well!!

    Unless I see some of your family pictures that scream family resemblance, I'm with Deve on this genetic testing thing. Do it! 8-)