Ilse is just back from her mother’s funeral in Germany. Not yet unpacked, she opens her carry-on suitcase in the kitchen and takes out a small framed something. She’d deliberately chosen a small suitcase to avoid the temptation of bringing stuff home from her mother’s house—to leave such keepsakes to her three siblings and nieces. But everyone insisted Ilse should take this drawing, which her mother had kept displayed in the TV room alongside family photographs.
Our last visit was in June of 2019. COVID had discouraged Ilse from going back, despite her mother’s decline in the three years since. But she’d called her mother every week to talk. Her mother was ninety-six, ready to die, and her passing was peaceful. At Mutti’s gravesite, where the family buried the urn with the ashes, they tossed rose petals. Mutti loved roses.
Ilse handed me the drawing.
It’s lovely, a pen-and-ink sketch of a small house, with the suggestion of a house next door. More than lovely. Something about it has magic. How do I put such evocation into words?
The lines give the house substance. The drawing is only about six by eight inches, but it has weight. The minimalist strokes of the pen convey essences, volume carved out of the space represented by white paper. Whatever sinews of domestic German architecture may show, it is a particular house with history, memory, lives inside.
Seen in a three-quarters view from the gable end, the edge of the roof shows just enough suggestion of sag to capture the work of gravity over time. The front steps emerge from a crisscross of lines, an angle of handrail. You expect to see someone stepping out the door. The moment belongs to the house. At the sun-washed gable end, a jumble of squiggles says rosebush; a few gestural pen strokes of window disappear into space to hint of more. The artist knew when to stop.
I look up. “This is great! Who’s the artist?”
She smiles. “You.”
Ilse points to the lower left, and I see it: my signature, modestly concealed under the squiggle of rosebush. Alongside it is the date: June 2019.
I’m dumbfounded. Also delighted—as who wouldn’t be, to recognize genius and discover its one’s own? But dismayed not to recognize my own fairly recent work. My dismay, I should add, is that of an eighty-one-year-old man with memory loss, a man haunted by the prospect of dementia, a man whose mother had Alzheimer’s.
I let the delight win out.
“You don’t remember?” Ilse asks.
After a few seconds’ struggle, it comes to me by degrees—that time at our last visit when I sat sketching her mother’s house. I can summon the feeling of sitting down on something—I don’t recall what—the sensation of my drawing hand in motion, the intensity of my gaze, the freedom. And that moment of knowing when the sketch was finished, when to stop. I can call up those sensations now.
More vaguely, I remember handing it to Ilse’s mother—a page from my sketch pad—feeling a bit like a schoolboy.
More interesting to me now, a couple of weeks after Ilse’s homecoming and the initial shock of that sketch, are the directions it takes my thinking.
One such direction, beyond the unnerving lapse in memory, is simply how capricious memory can be, how selectively we remember, and—if I were to explore this in more depth—what determines those unconscious choices, if they can be called choices at all.
I remember some of the tiniest decisions old friends have made forty and fifty and sixty years ago—when, for instance, a friend in middle age declared she would no longer be bound by her mother’s dictating the amount of orange juice she was entitled to drink in the morning. She decided on a larger glass. I remember other ephemera: old song lyrics (old advertising jingles, for god’s sakes)—yet fail to remember who among my cousins, colleagues, and good acquaintances has died.
I remember very little of that trip to Germany in 2019—my first with Ilse—perhaps because, speaking no German, I often felt outside the circle of conversation. I kept to the sidelines. Hid under the rosebush.
I find myself wondering if that relegating myself to the sidelines figured in my willingness, outside any spotlight, to relax and rely more wholly on my artistic instincts—relax into the spontaneity that feeds creative breakthroughs in whatever I am doing.
I compared notes with my son Eli, a professional chef accustomed to the quick decisions that go with his training and his craft. He said those moments of letting go happened for him in cooking, as in playing tennis and shooting pool.
Yet another direction the incident took me included a small stab of regret: my decision decades ago to give up the visual arts for writing and teaching. I had shown early talent as an artist, but in my teens my lawyer father, who had weathered the Depression, dissuaded me from pursuing art as a career.
That untaken path haunts me, like the phantom limbs amputees describe. When another of my sons, Bob, showed talent and passion for drawing and painting, I encouraged him, much as I wish I’d been encouraged. Today Bob lives in a small village in the South of France, thriving as an artist and somehow patching together a living. I take joy in his creations and see in him the part of me that will always be an artist.
Bob responded to my e-mail query to say when he first arrived in Europe, speaking only English and isolated from surrounding conversation, he too had sketched with a different concentration. “In social situations,” he observed, “we’re constantly thinking of ways to respond, of moments in the conversation that will allow us to say something witty or intelligent, to feed our ego… The energy spent on that need does not allow us to create Art, because Art is about giving your love to a subject, opening yourself wide until you can see what the subject is telling you.”
A few days before Ilse’s return, I was walking in the woods with Eli, who was visiting to look after me in her absence. We came across an unusual sight: an ash tree from which lightning had ripped a great strip of living wood from the crown all the way down the trunk with such explosive force as to cast the strip aside, delaminating some of the wood fibers and curling them wildly like loops of frizzed hair.
I was entranced by the magic of it—the good luck and special karma attached to lightning-struck wood that goes back to ancient times, probably to prehistoric times.
We returned with a handsaw, and, at my direction, Eli cut off a twelve-foot-long piece that showed the strike most dramatically. We took it home. And while he cooked one of his inspired meals, I found a way to mount the strip of wood outside my house, alongside a door. Good luck for the house and its occupants. Eli was pleased.
At eighty-one, I need all the good luck I can find or create.
And Bob, in a follow-up e-mail, encouraged me to return to sketching—to let go of my old regrets and the sociopolitical complications and ego that cloy my writing, to give myself over to pen and paper and that love of a subject that might help me as an old man experience “the deep beauty of age!”
Not bad advice. So yesterday I walked onto the horse farm across the road, carrying a sketch pad and drawing pencils, using my cane to navigate the uneven ground. Concentrated on the horses. And was pleased to see their curves take shape on paper, their stance, their haunches, their power conveyed in a few loving lines.
David Morse has worked as a graphic artist, a schoolteacher, and an investigative journalist. He has hopped freights, restored old houses, raised three sons, and published a novel, The Iron Bridge (Harcourt Brace,1998). Caught up in the Darfur crisis in 2005, he journeyed to South Sudan in 2007 with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. His articles and essays on human rights and environmental issues have appeared in Counterpunch, Dissent, Mother Jones, The Nation, Salon, TomDispatch, and elsewhere. He is now writing a memoir about growing up white in the segregated schools of Arlington, Virginia, in the 1950s.
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