You stand on your own two feet, but you do not stand alone. So many stand behind you . . . so many will come after you whose lives may be fuller, richer, wilder, and deeper because you risk living what you love. Dawna Markova
I want to write about my dad. I am surprised by this desire; it is his father, my grandfather, the artist who died in 1925, who has been on my mind. On Grandparent’s Day, September 7, I began a 100-Day Project focusing on Grandpa Haskell and the boxes of treasure that have sat dormant in my closet for the past two decades, treasure in the form of letters and articles and newspaper clippings and original scrapbooks and sketches of Grandpa’s. My father was the seeker, the transcriber, the organizer and the keeper of these archives. I believe that it was a life mission of his to keep his father’s name alive, a father who he barely remembered in the flesh. And I believe that it was a task he found fulfilling. And sometime after I obtained a graduate degree in English/Writing, many years after my own dad’s passing, my mother handed these treasures to me — I think in the hopes that I would move forward with my father’s quest to bring an awareness to people of the remarkable life and talent of his father, the well-known-in-his-day etcher, Ernest Haskell.
Over the years, I have dipped into this closeted treasure, have skimmed some of the articles, have read the few letters written in my grandfather’s own handwriting, and have always felt a sort of weighty hangover as I’ve closed the closet door after the dipping. It’s not only the amount of information that has been daunting to me; it’s my own expectation that I must do something wonderful with it. There was a shift this summer, however, a change in the weather and the closet door practically blew itself open. All of a sudden, what had seemed like an overwhelming and heavy task became part of a fascinating and fun adventure. This past spring, I had primed the pump for something wonderful to happen in regards to a possible Grandpa Haskell Project. I had bought a beautiful sea grass basket, long and wide enough for me to place copies of etchings and posters, empty enough to fill with inspirations that might rise up. I had even come up with a title for a possible book. My Grandfather Was a Tall Tree — a perfect title, I thought, for a grandfather who is known for his etchings of trees, a grandfather who I knew only though the copious artwork that adorned the walls of our family home. And then, in June, I attended my high school reunion, connected with a classmate who I hadn’t seen in forty years, an architect/artist/historian with ties to our family and a keen interest in digging into this grandfather artist’s life and work. And that’s what he did all summer. He researched. He wrote. He prepared a powerpoint and a presentation. He dreamed big of ways to bring Grandpa Haskell’s art out into the world again. And I tagged along.
And the idea came to me sometime during this summer of tagging along that there was information in that closed closet that would help bring Grandpa Haskell’s story and art forward into the light again, and that a 100-Day Project was an easy way for me to dip my toes in gradually. And that’s what I’ve been doing, first my toes, then my knees, then sometime during that first week of dipping, I did it. I dove right in and I found myself swimming with a buoyancy that has surprised me. This information isn’t heavy at all. And it is not overwhelming either. My father did a fabulous job gathering it all together, transcribing difficult-to-read handwriting, encouraging letters of remembrance from my grandfather’s friends, cataloguing the art, typing up the articles about Grandpa written before and after his passing, finding the talks and essays and thoughts that my grandfather himself shared over a twenty-five-year span. It’s a marvelous ocean of treasure that I’m swimming in and I love my daily dose of it. I swim wherever the current takes me and it always takes me into a deeper knowing of the man my grandfather was, the passion that he had for his art, the particular focus on etching, and the essence that is still him, an essence I realize that has been present for me my whole life.
But I said that I want to write about my father, and I do. You see, I’m not just discovering my grandfather in this treasure. I’m discovering my father as well. I feel his presence as I read his transcriptions of letters and articles and essays, and I remember him tap tap tapping on his typewriter early in the morning and on weekends when I was girl. I read his own words from lectures that he gave and in articles that he wrote for his weekly newspaper column, Art Palate, and I remember the times when I was a teenager that I delivered those articles for him to our local newspaper’s downtown office, and I hear his voice, too, which is deep and jovial and full of expression. And this past Monday, I surfaced from my daily dip holding a letter that my father himself had written in the spring of 1953 when he was thirty-two years old, two years before he married my mother and three years before my birth, a letter to a dear friend and mentor of his, an art professor/artist, a letter in which he spoke of his dreams. He had interviewed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, he said, and the director was most cordial. My father’s work with Haskell art and his experience in helping to organize exhibits made him well-suited for this type of thing, he added. If not museum work, perhaps something in journalism — his job at the Iron Works was okay for now, but not for the long run.
It was bittersweet reading this letter of my father’s. On one hand, he had specific career dreams that were never fulfilled. He worked at the Iron Works for the remainder of his life. On the other hand, I was amazed by this letter, amazed enough to pick up my own pen and start writing a reply. In the forty-one years since my dad’s passing, I have never written directly to him, but that’s what I did on Monday. “Daddy,” I began. “You did it all!” And he did. He worked at the Iron Works, a clerical job that put food on our table and paid for school shoes and a sea captain rambling home and for fresh scallops on Fridays in the winter. And I don’t remember him complaining about his job. I remember him whistling when he walked and I remember the others things, too, and that’s what I told him in the letter.
I don’t know whether he ever saw it when he was living his body life, but I saw it — even when I was a young woman I saw it, and now I see it more clearly — my father was an artist of life. He may not have been the well-known artist that his father was, but, in the process of living an artful life, he did manifest his dreams. He became a journalist, writing a weekly column for the paper for at least fifteen years, a column that buoyed up our creative community, and he did curate art exhibits, so many of them over a wide span of years, bringing both well-known and up-and-coming artists into our community. I remember sitting next to Rachel Carson at our local library at an exhibit of her words and photographs. And he was a member of a small group of people who dreamed into being a maritime museum for our town which is now a sprawling artfully-designed world-renowned complex. And he did all this while taking his four kids on boat rides to islands and clearing the brush from the woods on our land and bringing a buoyancy into our household. That’s what I told him on Monday, that he has been my mentor on how to live my life as art; I thanked him for this. And I also thanked him for the beautiful job that he did in gathering together this treasure chest of material that I now find myself paddling through with eager strokes.