Lessons in Painting

According to my Uncle, the hardest part of painting was the prep work. He would say this every time we embarked upon a painting excursion – first around the house in Amsterdam when I was a little kid, then at the condo in Boston as I grew older. It was my Uncle who painted the latter when I first moved in, and then again when I returned from Chicago. Anyone can paint, and enjoy it – it was the work beforehand that was the difficult part. Such was his standard line as we began clearing rooms and sanding surfaces, and it always made me smile.

My Uncle was a painter – that was his job. Not of the John Singer Sargent kind, more of the Sherwin Williams sort, but he showed me there was nobility in every profession, if done properly and meticulously, without skipping steps or doing shoddy work. For all of his shortcomings and flaws, he was good at his job, even if he didn’t always like it.

I thought about him this weekend, as I painted the bedroom. Oddly enough, it wasn’t until the third day of painting that he came to mind, and then like a mad rush, as if he’d almost forgotten to visit. Maybe that’s the sign of getting over someone. Ten years after he died I can go three days without remembering. Not the most reassuring timetable for grief.

I remembered the first time we painted the condo together, back in January of 1996. Over the radio Whitney Houston sang that “Exhale (Shoop, Shoop)” song, and my Uncle would mimic the “shoop” part, always a beat or two behind. It cracked me up so much that I had to buy the damn CD and play it just to hear him do it. That was one of the charming aspects of my Uncle – that someone so world-weary and cynical sometimes could have such an unintentionally-innocent, child-like moment.

It was a frigid January, nothing like the cake-walk we’ve had this year. The winds were brutal, and the quick walk from Copley Place to the condo was wicked. No matter how bundled up you were the icy air went through everything, cutting indiscriminately to the core. My Uncle, small and thin from a steady diet of coffee and cigarettes, hurried along – a scarf tied tightly around his head like some Russian peasant-woman. If I hadn’t been so cold I would have laughed more hysterically than I did, but my jaw wouldn’t move that much in such awful weather. The image of him like that has haunted me all my life.

Once inside, we cranked the heat and put on a pot of coffee. It was night, but not too late to begin the prep work. He went about setting up the ladder, and I moved the furniture into the bedroom. The smell of smoke and coffee filled the rooms, and to this day there is comfort in both. I asked for one of his cigarettes, then lit it in the bathroom, watching myself in the mirror, seeing if I could fascinate with a cigarette any better than with a fancy coat, but only a dull stare looked back. I would do this periodically throughout the following days, trying to entrance with the trails of cigarette smoke, but never did I learn the enchantment my Uncle had mastered. The most nonchalant flicking of ash in his hands would forever be cooler than my most studied Bette Davis smoking moves. Amid the smoke and the clutter, I slept. The next day, the painting would begin.

Armed with an arsenal of bordello red, kelly green, and the deepest blue, I aimed to attack the dull white walls with a blitz of super-saturated color, eradicating the stale memories of any former owners. My Uncle didn’t believe in taping things off – so steady and sure of hand was he that tape was an unnecessary step. And, to my amazement, he was right. That was not the case with me, however, so I stayed clear of cutting in, opting instead to run errands and pick up whatever supplies we were lacking, along with something to eat.

It was one of those crisp January mornings that seemed to light up the whole world, a prism of brightness lending hope to the gray winter. The sky was blue, and the sun was doubly redolent, reflecting off snow and ice in a blinding symphony of whites and mirrors. The nearest hardware store I could think of was on Newbury Street, and though it was small it had what I needed, and was close enough to Tower Records to afford a quick browsing session. While there I realized that far more interesting things might be happening at the condo, and I could browse these CD aisles at any time. Quickly, I made for home.

After returning for weeks to empty rooms, stillness, and silence, the sense of company was a strange relief. It was like somebody had revealed a hole in my heart that I’d never known was there, but that I’d been functioning without all these years – and part of me would always rue the knowledge imparted then. It would make the emptiness that followed so much worse.

At that moment, though, coffee gurgled in the kitchen, and tendrils of smoke mingled with the smell of fresh paint. It was transformation in action – the kitchen was turning into a striking patch of green, and the first bold border of red was slashing its way across the living room. A ladder reached for the ceiling while a dirty drop cloth, stained with the drippings of paint jobs prior, covered the floor.

I dropped the bag of supplies on a bit of empty counter-space, and began plotting the ragging-off effect I wanted for the living room. Working in tandem, my Uncle rolled the red paint on, as I pressed and mottled the area with a wet rag, leaving a rough, textured look. From a distance (and in most photographs) it only looked bright red, but up close there was detail and interest and no two areas were exactly the same. My Uncle seemed surprisingly impressed – the usual reaction when I did something right. There would be years in which to prove myself to him, but still not enough time.

The day drew too swiftly to its close, the last of the early-to-bed-sunlight disappearing out the bedroom bay window. The front two rooms were complete – only the bedroom and bathroom remained. We would finish in a day or two, and then it would be over. I didn’t want it to end. I wasn’t ready to be alone.

To the bedroom then. First, the ceiling was coated in blue. Deep, rich, blue – where oceans and sapphires crashed upon an azure sky. The walls would be the same, but I needed the ceiling done first so I could start sponging on the clouds. (Yes, I had clouds on my bedroom ceiling. There’s no accounting for the questionable taste of a barely-twenty-something gay guy on his own in Boston.)

I sat at the top of that unforgivingly uncomfortable metal ladder, shifting the weight on my sore butt and dabbing on swirls and puffs of cumulus cloud formations. I looked to my Uncle only once for his opinion: “If you like it,” was his cryptic response, meaning he hated it or thought it foolish, but knew enough not to challenge me for the earful of a tongue-lashing he’d get.

All the blue was darker than I realized, but the afternoon sunlight flooded that room. I didn’t think of the nights, otherwise I might have stopped us then and there. For that moment, it offered cooling relief from the bold, blazing red of the main living room, and at that time I only wanted contrast and extremes.

As my Uncle finished up the quick work of the bathroom, and its questionably peachy tone (chosen for its pleasing proximity to the clay-hued brick wall), only a little clean-up and a few final touches awaited the next morning. My Mom would arrive to pick my Uncle up, leaving me by myself to return to school and work.

That first coat of paint – so emblematic of my world then – instantly made the condo a home. My Uncle helped me realize that, along with several other realizations. Our relationship was maturing – I was no longer a kid. The days of merry pranks and transparent acting-out were over, and I was, I hoped, becoming more of a friend to him. For the rest of that snowy winter, I clung to the memories of those days of painting – and the home he helped create cradled me in its color and warmth.

Every once in a while I’d steal a cigarette on my own, breathing in the memory of my Uncle, re-living those precious days, sitting calmly in the swirling smoke and wondering if he ever wondered about those moments.

A decade and a half later, I don’t need a cigarette to remember. It is a part of me, as implacable as the scar on my shoulder from a summer dive, irrefutable as my middle name. As I put my bedroom back together alone, taking in the way the afternoon sun falls upon the new accent wall, I am struck with the strange march of time. I am an Uncle now. Maybe one day soon I’ll have lessons of my own for Noah and Emi – and more than likely they’ll have lessons for me.

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