The spanish stuccoed house I grew up in had a dark and gothic dining room. There was one brick wall looming over an ebony stained dining table with high backed chairs, thick, heavy golden drapes and a blood red shag carpet. We only ate in there when we had company. When it wasn’t being used, the table was often covered in my Dad’s stained glass supplies. He ran a program for young offenders at the time, through which they could learn the trade of woodworking. He would bring home the wood items they made and add stained glass features to them.
Right smack in the middle of the brick wall, there hung a Rembrandt. I didn’t know it was a Rembrandt back then, and I really don’t know that my parents knew it was a Rembrandt, either. A gift, if I recall correctly. It was a print, of course, or I’d be rich right now. The Nightwatch, I learned it was, many years later flipping through an art book and finding it there, in all it’s spooky glory, and feeling a deep wave of nostalgia.
The Nightwatch by Rembrandt
I used to wander into the dim dining room when everyone else was watching football, or running through the sprinkler in the backyard while my Dad blasted the Pretenders out of his patio speakers. I’d stare at that painting, and the haunt would creep into me. A sun beam forced it’s way between the golden drapes and landed right on the ancient brush strokes. I would walk around the black table, run my fingers over the bits of glass, glancing up at the glowing Rembrandt. The people would come alive. I could hear the clanging of goblets and swords, and imagined they all spoke like Hamlet with thous and thines and Lo!s. I’d close my little eyes and imagine I was there, and I could hear the drum beat, and I knew why the little girl looked so panicked. Sometimes, it was because there was a large bear chasing her. Sometimes, it was because her house was on fire. Sometimes, she was just lost and couldn’t find her mom and dad. Whatever the reason, I felt bad that she was condemned to spend eternity in, what looked to be at the time, turmoil. Locked in that gaudy gold frame, in our Addam’s family dining room, for the rest of time…
I loved to pick up the bits of glass my dad had lying around, and hold them up the light seeping through the window. They would paint the room another color. The particles of dust dancing, suspended in the solar glow, ablaze, tinted blue or purple or green… whichever colour I’d chosen. I particularly loved red. I held it up to the sunbeam, letting it cast a Kubrickian blood red over the painting. The air would charge, the hairs on my arms at attention. I could feel that painting. I was there, deep in the masterful shadows, surrounded by Dutch military men of all ranks, avoiding swords and feeling the sweep of their sashes against my sides. My heart would pound. The girl, that golden girl, would catch up with me and ask me for help, her eyes pleading, dark and beady peering out from under orange curls.
“Back on the chain gang…”
My mom, singing along to my Dad’s music, would slip in the patio sliding door, bringing a waft of coconut from her tanning oil with her, and I would startle. Snapping right back into reality, remembering where I was, I’d set the little piece of red glass back on the table and head outside.
Years later, on a camping trip – I guess I was 10 – we had a call at the campground office. My Grandfather was not going to be with us much longer. We packed up camp and headed back to town, the entire drive dripping with syrupy sadness. We arrived at my grandparents house a few hours later, with sand still lodged between our toes and inescapable reek of camp fire following us. My Grandfather had been bed-ridden at home with terminal lung and liver cancer for many months. His just desserts, some might say, for a life of heavy smoking and drinking.
My mother found him clinging to life, as she and her sisters and brother stood looming over his bed. I crept up the stairs. Stopping halfway on the landing, I peered around the corner. There was my Mom, my aunts and uncles and my Grandma exchanging hugs, sobbing. The form of my Grandfather under a blanket was barely visible.
A bolt of terror ripped through my 10 year old body and I turned away. I was now facing a familiar portrait of my Great Grandmother. Nevin. I’d stared intently at this portrait so many times, I felt like I could repaint it with my eyes closed. Every visit to my Grandmother’s house meant I would be paraded up the stairs and made to stand next to the portrait and ooed over and ahhed over as a crowd of adults marveled over how similar I looked to the woman. Now, I looked once again. She was about my age in the portrait. Her thick, blonde bangs framed her round, wide-eyed face, just like mine. The golden locks draped gracefully over her shoulders, just like mine. Her lips were thin but hinted at a smirk, and her grey-green eyes sparkled with curiosity… just like mine.
I could be there instead of here, I thought. But she was there. And now, so was my grandfather.
When I was 15, my parents moved me to Australia. Being an exchange trip, the house we moved into was someone else’s, decorated with their things, their style. It was an old bungalow house on Connolly St. in Wembley, Western Australia. It had been built in 1904 and it never let you forget it. The floorboards would creek, the old stained glass doors would whine as you closed them. Hoarse, pained howls came from deep within the bathroom pipes and when it got windy, the house would moan like an opera singer during the saddest part of the show. No matter how adamant you are about not believing in the supernatural, the house had a way of giving you goose pimples.
The walls were like an impressionist museum, topped with elaborate crown molding, each had several paintings from Monet and Van Gogh. I’d stand in front of Water Lilies and the Japanese Bridge, and smell the lavender picked up by the breeze, traveling the countryside. Somewhere, someone was baking bread, the tang of rising yeast finding my nose. I heard the chirps of birds and the rustling of the leaves and in the distance, a friendly “Bonjour!” drifted on the wind.
Water Lilies and the Japanese bridge
Springtime smelled like fresh blossoming flowers, and The Cliff Walk At Pourville like the ocean. Magpie brought me back home to Canada briefly, and I could smell the tinny chill of snow falling.
Van Gogh’s Starry Night over the Rhone – not be confused with Starry Night – took me to another place. A cobblestone street dotted with bistros and bakeries and little hole in the wall pubs. Surrounded by the sound of tiny waves lapping against a stone wall, and rippling liquid under tied up boats. Wheat field with Cypresses got me down in the grass, on my back, staring at the clouds drifting over Europe. There was Vincent, sat on a rock in the distance, covered in paint, gripping a canvas, and clinging to a brush between his teeth.
Starry Night Over the Rhone
At some point, my house, which wasn’t really my house, would whine and croak and I’d be back in a suburb of Perth, the faint scent of pies and pasties baking at the deli down the street, a kookaburra laughing in my backyard.
What’s your favourite painting?