There’s Message For My Mother In My Dead Grandfather’s Self-Portrait

“Does he hate mom?”

“Your mom is a saint. No-one could hate her.”

“Did he hate Grandma?”

Dad looked uncomfortable at that. “You’ll have to ask him yourself.”

So I did. That was the first thing out of my mouth in fact. Grandpa Jack was a pudgy old man, straight bald with discolored blotches on his scalp, and a huge mustache that wiggled when he talked. He came rushing at me, arms wide for a hug, and I asked him if he hated my Grandmother. Froze him in his tracks. Dad stepped in front of me as if trying to protect me from being hit, but Grandfather Jack just squatted down to my height and looked me solemnly in the eye.

“I never loved any woman half as much as I did Kathy. Except for your mother, of course. Just because two people love each other doesn’t mean they make each other happy though. I guess I just wasn’t strong enough to spend any more of my life being unhappy, and not brave enough to hurt your grandmother by telling her the truth.”

He smelled like old spice, and that seemed like a pretty satisfactory explanation at 8. I let him show me his studio and we painted a big landscape together. He did all the hard stuff and the details, and he helped me transform every messy blotch I made into something beautiful without painting over my contribution. He asked if I was going to visit again, and I said I wanted to — as long as mom allowed it anyway. I’ve never seen a man go so red, so fast, his mustache bristling like a porcupine.

“Your mother got no right to tell you anything. She can throw fits and slam doors all she wants, but you’re my family and the only thing left in this world I give a damn about. You tell her that, okay?”

I didn’t get to visit as often as I liked, but at least every month or two, dad would drive me out there. Mom was reluctant at first, but I convinced her that I wanted to be a painter and that she’d be crushing my budding dreams if Jack didn’t teach me how. I loved the landscapes, but Jack’s specialty was portraits and his passion for them soon rubbed off on me.

“A good portrait only depicts the subject,” he told me once. “It’ll get the scruff on his chin and the wrinkles under his eyes and everything else that makes him who he is. But a great portrait —” here he took a long drink from his iced tea, likely to draw my attention out as long as it would go. “A great portrait is always a portrait of the artist. Doesn’t matter who he decided to paint, he put so much of himself into it that it’s going to tell you more about him than the person he’s painting.”

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