My dad left home when I was 10, pretty soon thereafter married his second wife, and 25 years later, his third. I started off unhappy at his leaving, and things went downhill from there. During the decades that followed, I soured only more on him and his voracious wives. He made a lot of money soon after he left my mom, and he and wife #2 put on all kinds of airs, enjoying expensive diversions like hosting the entire London Ballet, renting private planes, and taking very nice care of themselves and all their friends, indeed.
On their social ladder, I stood somewhere below the au pair, who could have her boyfriend in anytime and use the pool when she liked. I had to call ahead.
So, you can imagine, this whole business of being related to him rather irked me, the inconvenient progeny of a former wife.
One day, during one of my increasingly rare visits to his palatial estate in Weston, I found myself sitting alone in the living room, slumped in a chair so supportive, so encompassing, so enveloping — that I fell asleep. The room had cost $10,000 to furnish in 1970s dollars, and most of the paintings were the sort of rubbish-to-go-with-the-curtains that Sister Parish, who decorated Jackie Kennedy’s White House before outfitting this place, would choose. A particularly ugly high-relief still-life of a couple of pomegranates on a white background comes floating nauseatingly back to mind. It looked as if it had been painted with a butter knife.
Also, however, on the walls hung two magnificent Stoltenbergs, purchased by my actual father. Donald Stoltenberg is someone I would regrettably have to call a minor artist. But I like him rather a lot. At 88, he is still alive. He specializes in semi-abstract transportation subjects: boats, ships, planes, trains, any mechanical thing that carries people or goods. I first ran into him many years ago in Nantucket Harbor, where a small gallery was carrying his sailboats. Many were set on round canvasses, and the lines suggesting the curves of his sails echoed right out to the edges.
In one of the of the paintings, a jet appears to be taking off in the rain at dawn. In the other, a tugboat is chugging through a harbor. Both are textured oils; both, large.
As I awoke from my pleasant catnap, I found myself pondering on my potential inheritance from pop (and it wasn’t looking so good even before wife #3). I decided to aspire to the chair in which I was lounging, with its cotton pattern in primary colors and sleep-inducing softness and shape — and the jet. The jet has a huge empty space in the upper left, about 14 lines and bands spreading toward the upper right that represent the tail, which might be in motion, and, where the engine on the near side would be, a high-relief, densely colored paint blob that looks like water dripping off the wing. I could stare at it for hours.
Fast-forward many years, and we’re on to wife #3 and a move to Florida. The Stoltenbergs were still hanging in the living room, which was smaller and taller than the old one. The chair was in a first-floor library. About once every five years, I managed a visit. On a more recent stopover, I noted with some regret that the humid air of the Florida coast had swamped the chair with mold. Cross that one off the Christmas list.
The jet and the tug continued on in their magnificence, impervious to the climate. I found out later that they were oil on wood. Wood is a pretty stable medium, particularly when it’s coated with oil.
And then something magical happened.
My father’s dementia, which had been gathering for years, finally took off at a gallop. His wife, no surprise here, wanted to get him out from underfoot as fast as possible, saying, as if in some kind of macabre joke, his care was, “above my pay grade.” She had sold her house and moved into his (whose most recent previous occupant had been the mayor of the town), absorbed all his liquid capital, and finally moved him out of the house, for which he had paid cash. Quite obviously with a lawyer’s help, she put the house in the name of a non-profit foundation and filed for Medicaid for him so she could stop paying his bills at the memory unit. We, his boys, now old men ourselves, looked on helplessly, and his friends objected, arguing that he should be nursed in place with home care. His wife ignored all that, claiming that her “work” at the “foundation” (I’ve never seen a more expensive hobby) came before anything and that his presence was distracting.
At one point, when the Medicare scam was starting to look kind of shaky, it appeared as if she were getting ready to pass the hat among his four sons for his care, but she was smart enough to float a trial balloon by my more diplomatic older brother, who said nothing much but passed the information on to the rest of us. I thought, “Ha! She’s a crook and a charlatan, but I’ll offer her five grand apiece for the Stoltenbergs!”
That never came to pass.
Instead, his artworks’ presence in the house seemed to be inhibiting her ability to claim poverty, and so she told me and my brothers to come get them.
My younger brother fancies himself something of an art dealer, and he priced the Stoltenbergs as best he could. Five grand seemed to be in the high side. I told him, “I don’t care what they’re worth. I just want the jet.” My younger half brother put in for the tug, which he’d grown up with, and I also snagged a pencil drawing of a jury box from the 1920s. An artist had given it to my father’s father, a lawyer, in lieu of a fee.
My art-dealer brother engaged a gypsy shipping company, and for $300, I got the drawing and the jet, no damage in transit.
Today, the painting sits in my living room, and it gives me great satisfaction every time I look at it.