Inspired by Ally Condie, I’m doing Ann Dee Ellis’s 8-Minute Memoir Challenge (read more about it here). This is a real challenge because I don’t write memoir or personal narrative. All of the posts are written in 8-10 minutes, and except for cleaning up a bit for typos and odd phrasing, they are unedited.
My father was a painter. Not an artist who had a studio and smeared small lumps of expensive oil paint onto a stretched canvas. His canvas was clapboard siding, and his brush was a large, clunky, paint scarred piece of wood and boar bristles that he used to pound latex paint into the old, dried up, and peeling houses we painted when I was a boy.
I was six years old when my father started me working, two months into first grade, on an apple crisp October afternoon when my mother needed to take my sister to the doctor. He taught me to paint using the same kind of heavy, paint loaded brush that he used, but there are no ladders for me to climb and no old siding for me to paint. He steered me to the back of the house to the basement, hidden in the late day shadows, to a door that no one cared about, where no one would bother to watch me.
He gave me two bits of advice on how to paint: always start at the top because paint runs and get more paint on the wood than you get on yourself. That was it. I learned how to paint, but not that day, nor the day after it, and it was a long time before any surface was better covered than I was. The other techniques for painting I learned myself: how to dab the corners with the tips of the bristles so that the paint doesn’t beat you to the bottom; how to paint the panels of the door first, then the rails, and finally the stiles and saving the edges till last, because they were the easiest parts to reach. I learned that painting over your head is the fast track to a neck crick, so even on a surface within reach, always use a step stool. If you don’t have one handy, a paint can or two will do, as long as the can is full and unopened because it’s very easy to lose your balance, trip as the can flips over, and land butt-first in the paint. I painted my butt many times over the years.
I worked with my father for over two decades years but clocked the most hours as a teenager– long summer days spent waking before dawn and painting until noon, eating a little lunch and sleeping till evening crept in, and finishing way past dark thirty. Each day felt like two, and a month felt like an entire summer, the heat and humidity mixing with my sweat as the paint rolled off the edge of whatever paint brushes we used (polyester bristles had replaced the boar’s hair, and the handle was plastic instead of wood: disposable paintbrushes that didn’t need washing because they were useless after one job), me and my brother growing so good with paint rollers that we could knock off a job in two days, or if the siding didn’t need much prep, in one single day, changing a house from gray to yellow before the neighbors could notice.
By then, my brother and I out-painted our father in terms of sheer yardage. I was a savant on the roller, fueled by my inherent laziness, sometimes painting 80% of the house myself, then falling back into the truck in the late evening hours to listen to the cicadas and sweat into the seats, catching a second nap of the day, lost in thought, forever daydreaming. It was god awful work, but painting houses was the best training for an imagination. As my shoulders ached, as my arms slogged the roller up-and-down in a V-pattern that covered the wall with thick layers, as I turned the roller sideways to paint underneath the siding, my mind wandered, free, untethered by my physical movement, making up stories, drawing mental pictures, and having conversations with people who existed only in my mind.
My father would go on to paint many more things in his life–houses, cars, his old pickup truck which he shamed by painting it both candy-apple red and green-apple green. He painted long after he was really able to. His two sons were grown and gone, doing other work that didn’t include sunburnt necks, swatted yellow jackets and wasps, and hellfire days that doubled in size. But my father continued to paint, climbing ladders far too high, looping a piece of wire into the shape of an S to hold his buckets, grabbing the eaves and hooking his feet over the rungs to swing the ladder six feet further on. Then shifting his weight to push the ladder into the ground, letting go of the eaves only when he was sure that the ground would hold his weight. For the six months preceding the diagnosis of cancer that ended his life, he worked, brush in hand, standing at the top of a ladder. He painted a dozen houses alone and dying. He only quit when he couldn’t tell if was him or the ground that was too weak to hold.
I wrote my first novel when I was 16, sitting in Econ class, baking in the heat of an unairconditioned classroom. Fifth period, after lunch, with everyone already half catatonic and a teacher so boring that her words were like paint drying on a moist summer day. I did the assignments while she spent 15 minutes explaining them, then I pulled out my notebook, revising words written in my long, flowing script, handwriting that everybody said looked like calligraphy, but I cared more about the words than their shapes because those letters contained my dreams.
When I tell the story of my Econ class novel, I say that’s where I learned to write economically, but my real education began the day with my father handed me a brush and left me to my own. I think of those days now and again, the hot, scorching summers, the three of us painting houses new in eight hours time. I think of the two simple rules–start at the top and put more paint on the wood than you put on yourself –and I realize what a gift my father gave me when he left me alone to figure things out for myself.