My father stood in the shady driveway, a broad smile growing on his face. Watching my car maneuvering into the narrow space in the carport, he tucked his hands into his pockets, waiting for me to join him for the afternoon. I got out of the car and saw the grin spread across his face. My red hair must have flamed in the sunlight, for he unconsciously ran his hand through his own slightly thinning white hair. It had been years since his hair had been red. Then we were hugging, laughing together. When had his arms grown so fragile? How odd to feel that I comforted him…
“Hey! Are you ready to do some painting today?”
“You betcha! How’s mom?” we went up single file on the sturdy handicap ramp into the brightly lit floral patterned kitchen.
“She’s fine. She’s watching a movie, so we can go on downstairs.” He smiled again, watching me cross into the family room and kiss mom on the cheek. Today was a special day for him - he was finally getting me out to trying painting a picture together. Now he watched us talking, me bent over, holding my mother’s wrinkled hands, telling her not to get up and cause herself pain. Does he feel sorrow, seeing his wife’s fragile age? Time is inevitable. I straightened up, beckoning to the stairwell door in the hallway.
“Well, shall we?”
“I’m right behind you!” He replied. We carefully began the descent down the precipitous narrow steps. “You know,” I continued, clutching the handrail as my head sank down the stairwell past the rows of family pictures, “I’m not really a portrait painter like you are.”
“Oh, you can do this! Look at your murals. You do incredible things all the time!”
“Yeah, Dad, but those aren’t portraits!” I shook my hair out of my eyes as I crossed the den to the easel, and then stopped staring at the photograph. “Hey! It’s mom!” He had carefully arranged the canvass on the easel in the jumbled downstairs den, laid out the paint on the palette, placed the brushes on the table by the easel. He had found a photograph of his wife – my step mother – from years ago, when she had been a lithe sixteen year old with raven black hair and a sparkle to her brown eyes, and that too was hung with great care next to the canvas.
“Of course it is! Can you think of a better subject for us to try to paint a portrait of together? Her seventieth birthday is coming up…”he replied. I bent over and studied the picture and then slid gingerly into the left hand chair. I wasn't exactly sure how we were going to pull this off, after seeing the photograph, but he evidently knew what he was doing...
“I don’t know Dad. If I actually pull this off, I think I want to keep it myself…” my voice trailed off shyly. “Is that selfish of me? I mean, this is special to me, a painting we work on together.”
“Not at all! You should keep it.” He slid into the right hand chair and gestured at the canvass, wagging a brush handle in my direction. I took it carefully and waved it at the glistening paint, sniffing the air appreciatively.
“Oil paint! Nothing smells like oil paint! I have been using acrylic paint for so long on the murals that I’ve almost forgot what it smelled like! Um…where do you want me to start? You already sketched mom’s face.”
Smiling at my newfound timidity, he pointed to the forehead of the young woman in the lines of paint. “I thought it would be easier if we already had a drawing to work from. Save time and get to the good part. Start there. Use some of the white and the burnt sienna to start with, and we’ll match it closer to her skin tone as we go on.”
He caught the confused look on my face and then I bent dutifully to the canvass, the soft shurring of the brushstrokes against the stiff surface following the path of the paint I laid down. The following hours passed unnoticed as he patiently coached my efforts, took the brush and added his own streaks and dabs of color. He watched apparently fascinated by my choices in color, my patience with his excited instruction, my willingness to paint a section over and over and over again. He seemed to swell with pride as he saw in me his own talent that had driven him all of his life, now shared between us in an incredible moment of grace before a single canvass. I was getting tired. He watched a frown grow on my face as I stared back and forth across the narrow space between the photograph and the painting. He pointed a paint smeared finger towards the face in the picture pinned to the side of the easel.
“See? Look right there, right along the jaw line. I know it doesn’t look like it, where the skin tone deepens to a brown shadow, but if you will get some of the alizarin crimson and mix up a little hot pink, and use that for a highlight…” He paused as my frown deepened to a scowl. He took a deep breath and tried again, obviously beginning to worry.
“No, really, I know that bright a pink doesn’t look like it would work there, but it does.” Suddenly I threw down the paint brush on the tray, my paint covered fingers tearing distractedly through my now disheveled hair.
“Really, can’t you see the pink right along that line?” He pointed again to the photograph, seeing in it, I am sure, the beautiful young woman he fell in love with when he was eighteen, and they walked hand in hand on Main Street for the first time.
“No I don’t see the pink line, Dad!” He looked up, startled at the frustration in my usually calm voice, just in time to see me point to the exact same spot.
“Dad…it’s a black and white photograph!”
Startled, he spun and stared at the image pinned to the easel and then he stopped cold. It was a black and white photograph! It wasn’t even lightly tinted! All the vibrant color existed only in his powerful memory of the girl he had fallen in love with fifty-three years ago, the woman upstairs whom he stilled loved with all his heart; whose aging wrinkled face still held for him that subtle pink glow…
Horrified, he suddenly spun and stared at me. He had been trying to push me to paint a color portrait from a black and white picture! He froze, speechless, watching my face begin to twitch, then spasm, and suddenly I broke up laughing. It was irresistible as the evident relief swept over him, and he threw back his head and joined me. We howled and choked and snorted and giggled and every time he nearly got himself together, he would see me struggling to find my composure through the giggles and we would be off again. It was one of the great laughs, and it was a long time before we managed to calm down enough to pick up the paintbrush again.