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Thursday, 22 March 2012

It’s All in the Family

By Johna Ferguson

Isn’t it funny how so often individuals in one family differ so much from others in the same family? By family I am taking it in its broadest sense - families sharing the same last name - in reality, one of my former brothers-in-law, an artist, and me.

Granted, we weren’t blood related but there was some common thread in our relationship besides last names.

When I went to China to teach, I was recently divorced. I was no longer in that family circle yet he and I had always been very close and that relationship continued the rest of his life.

We wrote each other but usually we were continents apart. When I was in China he was in New York City and when I was in Seattle, he was in Spain or Italy. But somehow we tenaciously held our friendship together.

One summer, when my former husband and I were moving back to Seattle and hadn’t found a place to live yet, we moved in with his family - father an unemployed alcoholic and mother a strong member of the Washington State Temperance Association.

His brother was home for a two-month’s visit. All of us, me with two young children, the seven of us in a three bedroom, one bathroom house.

But that house had once supported the entire family - eight children, grandmother, mother and dad so how could I complain. Bob spent his days painting while the children and I watched, enthralled to see the images appear.

Bob lived in a seventh-floor walk-up in New York City but rent controlled so it was really cheap. He knew he always wanted to be an artist, went to art school in New York City after a stint in the army during WWII.

But we all knew artists don’t earn much money. He didn’t want to work as he wanted to paint, so he took a night-watchman’s job at a museum in New York. Once he made the rounds, he caught a quick sleep before the next round.

But the pay was low; it barely covered was his rent, food and art supplies and didn’t leave much time for sleep and painting. Therefore, he asked his family if they could support him. If each gave him $5.00 a month (back in 1952), then in exchange once a year, each could have a painting.

But that was only $35, not really enough, so he also found friends to chip in and then he could go on painting to his heart’s content.

Every summer he traveled to Europe to get new ideas for his paintings, making charcoal sketches of things he saw. Most summers, he rented a house in Majolica, Spain for practically nothing which even included maid service.

He bought his clothes at the Goodwill but his taste was impeccable and he always looked like had stepped out of a Brooks Brothers ad. He was tall, very debonair looking, a very happy gay man with lots of friends.

He owned nothing but the used furniture he picked up off the street, didn’t even know how to or care to drive a car. He just loved painting and now that he has passed on, its surprising how many of his painting have sold in later years in this country and abroad.

I am just the opposite in many ways. I was born into a well-to-do, educated family. We always had our own bedrooms and bathrooms. If I wanted anything I could usually buy it.

I always had a variety of foreign-made cars and traveled, but never on a shoestring. If I couldn’t go first class, why go at all?

But while Bob painted, I tried my hand at writing. Certainly not in the same class as he was, but I did fill lots of journals. I’m now falling back on those many written words to fill my writings with. They bring in no money just like most of his early paintings didn’t, but it’s something I must do just as he had to paint.

And who knows, perhaps some day one of mine will actually be printed in the New Yorker.

So don’t give up on your dream, whatever it may be. Maybe its fulfillment is just around the corner. Included are two of Bob’s paintings.

Bob's Painting 1

Bob's Painting 2

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. PLEASE read instructions for submitting.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


What a lovely story. Your brother-in-law did not 'let' things happen in his life. He focused on 'doing' things he wanted to happen. Sorry that he did not to live to experience appreciating (buying) his paintings.

Hi Johna,

I always enjoy your stories and this one was no different.

Your BIL was a talented painter and who knows..someday I may open my New Yorker and find an article by Johna Ferguson and I will shout, "I knew her when".

So maybe some day those painting will be worth millions. Never know!

You sure are a master weaver of tales...nice to peek into other people's lives..This piece you just shared would be wonderful for THE NEW YORKER..Get into your tubs of journals and spin the tale..Maybe they would include one of his paintings for the cover..The older I get the bigger dreamer I have become, and that's a good thing...Thanks for sharing...

I love when people share life affirming stories - reminding us never to give up our dreams - to keep on keeping on - not necessarily always doing what we have done before - but to spread our wings and really live - thank you Johna.

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