This column is about Henry, and I will get to him in a minute. I ended my last column with a bit of advice: “There are lots of things worth doing even when they cannot be done particularly well.” If I am arrogant enough to hand out such bits of wisdom, I probably should be humble enough to take them seriously. So here goes. A few years ago, around my 80th birthday, I decided to take up watercolor painting. I took a few lessons from our resident artist, purchased the necessary equipment and set to it. Over the years since, I have produced a series of modest paintings from which I have had printed simple greeting cards I sell for a dollar; giving the money to help support residents here who run short of funds.
In our retirement community's arts building two large rooms are set aside for painters. My space provides me with a tall desk that is just right, since I paint standing up. (If I sat to paint I just might fall asleep, so I assume a posture that makes dozing difficult.)
Several months ago I took a hard look at my artistic ability and decided to set my mediocre watercolor effort aside. My shaking hand helped confirm that decision. A few days ago, however, having listened to my own advice reinforced by Henry’s encouragement, I decided to try painting one more time.
When I entered the painters’ room and approached my desk I was stopped cold by what I saw. (Now I’ll get to Henry) Where Henry’s table had stood there was now a cold vacant space! Henry died just a few days before his 100th birthday, still painting up a storm. His desk had been cluttered with five different collections of paints, stacks of recently completed paintings, piles of cards, twenty or thirty photographs sent to him by a relative in Vermont (I doubt that there are very many Vermont scenes he has not painted), the taped-down artist’s paper for the landscape on which he was currently working, and the two old brushes he had been using for decades! All now gone.
While it is often assumed that we grow more conservative as we age, that was not true with Henry. He came out of New England as a moderate conservative, but by his middle years, as the nation was struggling with civil rights, Henry challenged what he saw as a racist athletic programs at a university, and America’s conservative churches. As the mainline religious community began to struggle with sexual identity, Henry assumed leadership in fighting the most difficult and emotionally charged aspect of the struggle, the right of gay men and lesbian women to be ordained. His participation, with a few others, resulted in the ordination of a dedicated young gay man, who is now retired and lives in this community.
While I honored and respected his leadership in confronting critical social issues, my interaction with Henry in the last sixteen years has been as a fellow artist. He has been producing his remarkably good landscapes every weekday morning and afternoon for three decades, and over that period has probably produced a thousand paintings! It takes me about three weeks to finish a simple rendition of a flower, and Henry knocks out his much more complex landscapes in a couple hours.
As so many former activities and passions are now beyond my strength to pursue, Henry taught me, by his example, the importance of staying involved in at least one consuming avocation. In our community, and I suspect in every retirement community, there are numbers of residents who get up every morning without an agenda, and spend the day terribly bored. One’s last years don’t need to be spent being bored or just marking time waiting for one more part of the body or mind to flicker and go out. What a waste of life! I have found it very difficult to be bored. I intend to produce these 700 word pieces every week, until it is clear that it is time to stop. There are a couple hundred books I plan to read someday — so I better be about it. And I’ll still paint.
Recently we had a visit from a couple of important old friends. Martyn has for years been an avid golfer, and an executive in funding medical research, but it has become clear to him in retirement that those days may be over, so he has reinvented himself as a first-class photographer. Boredom is not on his agenda.
So I am back painting. Henry was an excellent artist while I’ve never been very good at it. But he taught me that there are lots of things worth doing even when they cannot be done particularly well.