By Hilary Schaper
If you had peered through the front window on a recent summer evening, you’d have seen the day’s last light filtering onto the living room rug, and a lamp burning on a table in the near corner. Beside it, an elderly man, still fairly robust with a full head of hair, sat in his customary position in an armchair. On the table’s other side, a middle-aged woman–a visitor–curled up on the velvet sofa, her feet nestled beneath her. He read a new spy novel. She leafed through a travel magazine. They did not speak.
My father and I often sit together in silence.
In the entrance hall of the Wyeth exhibition, we stopped in front of, Trodden Weed, the artist’s self-portrait. My father and I spoke of the Wyeth’s unusual viewpoint—how, looking down from his standing height, he painted only that part of his body from his thighs to his feet. The rest is implied though invisible. An ominous presence—his boots furrowed with wear, his black overcoat, an alien parachute looming above the ground, the artist stalks the sere, fawn-colored plain. The earth, still and silent waits. One boot lifts, then falls back down as the other lifts, and descends, quelling the snarling, lurching grasses and weeds underfoot. The artist’s eerie disembodiment introduced a sense of discomfort and foreboding, which pervaded much of the rest of the show.
Wyeth is perhaps best known for his realistic portrayal of people and objects–ripe blackberries, the fur of a child’s cap, the feathers of a dead crow, the weave of an empty basket. Some critics dismiss him as a mere illustrator of the natural world, but to my eye, it is precisely through these intricate details that we enter his surfaces, rendered with beauty and accuracy, and are lulled. His detail distracts us from looking for something beyond its superficial dazzle. We think that the objects alone represent reality. Familiar, they remind us of our experiences—a memory of laundry hanging from a clothesline, the color of the sky, a sister’s shell collection. At the same time, peering beneath the surfaces draws the viewer deeper into the paintings’ worlds, leading to surprising places.
Perhaps, contrary to the critics’ opinions, Wyeth captures the nature of life in its true complexity. A calm surface may mask a deeper truth. One need only peel back the surface to find another layer, and another, to reach a more nuanced portrait.
What lies beneath the surface, beyond the visible? For some people, it’s enough to feast on what we see–to glimpse a scene through a window on an early evening, and admire its serenity–the sun on the rug, the glow of the lamplight, the relaxed poses of father and daughter.
That morning before we left for the museum, my father knocked on the door to the guest room.
“I’m up. I’m up,” I called, startled by the sound, but also hoping to intercept him before he turned the knob, and stuck his head in the room, something he’d often done in my youth.
“Okay,” he called, “just so you’re awake. We need to leave in an hour and fifteen minutes. Will you be ready?”
“Yes.” I turned over in bed, closed my eyes, and inhaled deeply. Once, twice, three times. “Watch the breath,” I reminded myself, “watch the breath.”
In the kitchen as I chopped an apple, spooned yogurt into a bowl, and mixed in raisins and cinnamon, I watched my father, still in his plaid bathrobe, pad to the freezer, and extract a plastic bag of frozen pancakes. He placed two of them on his plate, and began slowly slicing strawberries, arranging them in neat concentric circles from the center out. Continuing the spiral, he placed bananas slices around the berries, then cut a piece of butter from a stick, set it in the middle of his canvas, and doused the entire plate with maple syrup. He balanced the plate in the palm of his right hand, opened the microwave door, placed the plate inside, turned on the power, and waited.
In Wyeth’s Her Room, 1963, afternoon sunlight streams through two windows, playing across an interior door opened into the room, and a chest inside the room. A realistically rendered conch shell sits atop the chest. Pink chiffon curtains hang on the windows, one blowing slightly. Small shells line a windowsill. A quiet, contemplative scene. Except. The sea, visible through the windows, reaches a quarter of the way up the windows. A sense of uneasiness, of uncertainty, invades–is the house about to be flooded? does it drift in the sea? Consider how a door to the outside can be open without water inundating the room.
Before entering the museum galleries, an attendant placed a cord holding a tape recorder and earphones around our necks. “Look for the large numbers beside each painting,” he said, “and enter them on the keypad here for a discussion of that painting.”
I punched the numbers 1-0-1 and listened to a curator explain the first work. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my father lift his tape recorder from his chest, and attempt to enter the numbers. He fumbled, tried again, pressing harder on the numbers each time. He did not look over at me, or ask for help. Stopping my recorder, I removed my earphones.
“What’s wrong?” I asked him. Again, he tried to enter the numbers. “Here, let me try.” He pulled the recorder away from me.
“What’s wrong with this damn thing? It’s broken.” Though he entered one number, he couldn’t move his hand fast enough to enter the second, and, so, lost the first. He tried again. Finally, he nudged the recorder to me.
“Let me see if I can get it,” I said. He nodded as I entered the numbers. We continued through the galleries together. Before each painting, I leaned over, and entered the numbers on his recorder. He did not resist.
My father and I stood before Witching Hour, 1977, a depiction of a room empty of people, drawn with such detail, that a person could walk in and sit on one of the six black chairs around the wooden table. Three of the chairs line the near side of the table, a chair stands at each end, and another alone on its far side, as if purposely arranged. A chandelier hangs above the table. The faint outline of a Pennsylvania Dutch hex sign is visible on the wall parallel to the table. Through the two paned windows on that wall, darkness blankets the night sky. Stillness. But look closer. Though both windows are closed, a breeze blows. The chandelier’s candle flames quiver. The room lives and breathes. A presence lurks there—felt but unseen—creating yet again, a palpable sense beyond the visible.
My father and I had driven to the museum on a bright Sunday, the morning of the annual bike race along the Schuylkill River. Warning us to expect delays and possible street closures, my sister had written out directions. I looked over from the driver’s seat to my father. He was gazing straight ahead, his eyes focused on the road, as if he were, in fact, doing the navigating, wary of my ability to guide us safely.
“I can’t believe that we’re already here,” I said, preparing to exit the expressway, “It didn’t even take half an hour. We’ll be there before they open.”
And then, we spotted the orange cones. They blocked my planned left turn. I looked up at the museum, a massive ancient Greek-styled temple, which commands a panoramic view of the old boathouses, painted bright reds and blues, and the long shimmering river with its small falls. Though close, we couldn’t reach it. If we’d abandoned the car, we could have walked there in five minutes.
“Uh oh,” I said. “It’s a good thing we have directions. We can go around to the other side.
“Just do what I say, and we’ll be fine,” my father said. “Turn here. Now go this way.” He pointed his thickened knobby index finger in the other direction. I turned left, as instructed. “Keep going straight. I’ll tell you when to turn.”
“Dad, let’s just look at the directions.”
“Just keep going. I’ll tell you when to turn.” We drove along potholed city streets, past tall office buildings, littered parking lots, a large hospital, and dilapidated houses, to the other side of the downtown area. The sidewalks were nearly empty. “Turn left here,” my father said.
“We need to find California Street. I remember that’s where we’re supposed to turn left. That’ll take us to the underpass.” I continued across the first intersection.
“I am, at the next corner.”
“No. No. You were supposed to turn at the last street. You passed it.”
“But no, Dad, that wasn’t California Street. The directions said California Street. Look. It’s right here.” I unfolded the torn paper with the directions, and passed it to him. He refused it.
“I’m telling you. You missed the turn. Now go around. Here, here, turn here.” He pointed to the left.
“But, shouldn’t we turn to the right then, to go back around the block? I don’t think that we can get onto that street farther down.”
“No. Now give me a moment. Let me think.”
“Dad, you have to tell me. I’m stopped in the middle of the intersection. There’s a car coming.”
“I told you. Just wait.”
“Dad . . ..”
“Don’t yell at me.”
“I’m not. We’ve got to decide.” The car in my rear view mirror moved closer. “I’m going to turn right.” I turned right.
“No. Go around again.”
Tears filled my eyes–not an unusual result in an argument with my father. I’m not going to cry now, I told myself. I’m far too old for this. It’s ridiculous.
“I could do this if I were driving. I know how to go. Why can’t I drive?”
“Because Mom said you can’t.”
“I don’t give a damn what your mother said. I’m the best driver in the family.”
I wanted to scream that he’d never been the best driver in the family. To the contrary, he’d always been the worst. His driving used to scare me so much that I’d sit behind him when he drove so I couldn’t see out through the windshield. Now, close to 85, he no longer drives, having relinquished his car at the end of its lease, six months ago.
“This is my city,” he said. “I know this city better than anyone else.”
We circled the city twice more. With each new turn, my father became more frustrated, his tone more urgent. Once, after asking a policeman for directions, he told me not to follow them, that the cop didn’t know what he was talking about. It turned out my father was right, but it hardly mattered at that point.
By some miracle, we ended up on the road leading to the underpass we needed to find. As I pulled into the near-empty parking lot, my father took the blue plastic handicapped placard from the glove compartment, hanging it from the back of the rear view mirror. Even before his hip replacements–the first over ten years ago, and the second last year, both of which improved his mobility–my father avoided exercise of any kind. He relished parking closer and walking less, the privilege the placard afforded.
I started to park in a non-handicapped spot next to the two handicapped ones.
“No. Don’t park here,” he said. “Pull into that one.” He pointed at the place on the other side of the line separating the two spaces.
“But, this space isn’t any farther away. Later, when the lot fills up, someone who really needs it, won’t be able to get it.”
“Yes, they will.”
“Just park there.”
At the entrance to the show, ten or fifteen people stood in line. A guard checked our tickets, and directed us to the line.
“I’m not waiting in line,” my father told her.
“Sir, you can sit here until she reaches the head of the line.”
My father lowered himself onto the wide stone bench, and waved me off with his cane. I watched him cross his swollen ankles, and place his cane upright between his legs, grasping it with both hands. His head, which seemed smaller than it used to, shook almost imperceptibly, whether through involuntary movement or annoyance, I couldn’t tell. Lately, I’d noticed that he reminded me of a lizard with a slight face, tiny eyes, and a long, sinewy neck.
I never feel comfortable sitting in a room alone with my father. Stretching between us like the low flat expanse of an unpeopled plain is the silence. I can’t relax into this silence, can’t trust it to provide me the sanctuary silence often does. For so long now constant questions and accusations have erupted from it: why an A- instead of an A? Why a lawyer and not a judge? Are you earning any money yet? Like a prairie dog standing sentinel at the opening of its burrow on the lookout for predators, I scan the plain, an ear to the ground, training myself to sense the inevitable menace.
The now-darkened room is silent but for the man’s regular, rhythmic snores. He sits up, his head resting back in the corner of the armchair. A sudden gulp jolts him awake. His eyes open, and slowly, lazily sweep the area around him. The woman looks up from her reading, and gazes at him until his head drifts back, and his eyes close once more. Turning her face from him, she begins to read again. His snoring resumes. A sharp inhale, his snore shivers in the air between them. Again she looks toward him. He sleeps still. She watches for a moment. He does not stir.
Though the evening is calm, as I scan the magazine, I wait for my father to wake. Wait for the boot to fall back to the earth, the candle’s light to quiver, or the water to come flooding through the open door.
Copyright Schaper 2012