Memories of a generous father
Dad rubbed his hands as he often did when making a deal. The guy running the estate sale wanted $600 for three paintings. “I looked it up on the internet. You can check yourself. They are worth twice that!”
Dad said, “I will give you $200 for the two 12” x 16”s.”
“You are killing me. Fine, but cash only!”
I watched Dad peel off $240, and caught his hand and removed two twenties, before he handed the money over.
I took the two paintings by a Vermont artist off the wall, and then Dad ambled back to the car with his cane. By then he was in his 80s, and it was always an act of faith watching him walk with a cane. Every other step was a stumble and near catastrophe; his knees were bowed to a nearly impossible degree from years of basketball, gardening and life.
As we got in the car, I heard him tell Mom, “We scored.” I thought about the dozens of conversations over the years where he told me about his “scores” at estate sales and auctions. One painting, for example, that he bought for a few thousand dollars later paid for several of my brothers’ college tuition. He scored on another sculpture and made enough reselling it to buy a home in the Berkshires for him and my mother.
Dad’s collection of American paintings grew to such a large extent that he opened an art gallery and ran it for 20 years in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. He sold hundreds of paintings from that gallery but was never more happy than when he was on the hunt for a deal.
We drove to another estate sale a few miles away that had little of interest. It took Dad a solid 10 minutes to get in and out of the car. Despite that, he said, “What about that third painting we left on the wall? Did you like it?” He was right. I did. It was a sweet snow scene of a Vermont landscape with two people in the distance walking toward a farmhouse.
He looked at his watch. “They should be closing soon. How about you drive us back there and offer one-third of the asking price. He wants to get rid of it.”
The painting was still on the wall, and I did as Dad said. The guy running the sale gave me an exasperated look, and said, “take it, but cash only!”
When I got back in the car, Dad admired the painting and said, “Nice score. That was almost the one that got away.”
In the pre-dawn of opening day of gun season this week in West Virginia, I sat on the edge of my bed and looked at the painting and thought about Dad.
That trip we took was Dad’s last score. His dementia progressed relentlessly before he passed last August. I realized as I stood in my blind watching for deer that this was the first time I had hunted since my father passed away.
This should be the point in the story where I talk about my and Dad’s shared passion for hunting and fishing, but that would be a canard.
Dad was not an angler, hunter or an outdoorsman. One time, I asked why we never went camping as kids. His response: “Chris, for me, staying at a Motel 6 is camping.”
He was an athlete. A few years ago, he made the ranking of the 100 best basketball players in the history of Newark, New Jersey. He went to Georgetown University on a basketball scholarship.
Long after his days on the hardwood were over, he flashed his instinct for scoring on the art sale circuit. Well before a former President made the term fashionable, Dad loved the “art of the deal.” He would walk into estate sales with red “sold” stickers on his hands and place them on the paintings he wanted to buy. Later, when he would go to pay, the people at the front desk would give him an almost fearful look and ask, “Did we misprice those?”
Dad would give a mischievous smile and say, “I think it was fair.”
One time, I went with him to an auction exhibition. The auction would take place in a few days. I found a small, dirty painting that I thought would look good at my place in West Virginia, and I asked Dad if he would bid on it for me.
“How much?” he asked. I said $40. He replied, “I have an idea about this painting, and if I’m right, I am going to buy it.”
Dad had noticed the barely discernible signature of an artist whose name he knew, and ended up paying $28 for the painting, which was later appraised for thousands of dollars. He hung it in his house but always said, “That painting is yours, Chris,” and I think of him every time I see it on our dining room wall.
This morning, I stood in the woods, listening to the wind make the falling leaves sound like deer walking, and I thought about the passion for fishing, hunting, the outdoors, and conservation that so many of us live by.
In this season of giving thanks, I am so grateful to the thousands of members and supporters who make possible our work to protect and restore the lands and waters that sustain our great nation. Those of us who spend time in the outdoors understand on a visceral—personal—level the connections linking quality habitat, clean water and good hunting and fishing.
I am equally grateful for those, like my father, who never understood my passion for hunting and fishing but supported me, and TU, anyway. I can say with great confidence that Dad never fly-fished, but he always picked up old fly rods, reels, and other gear from estate sales for me. He and Mom were annual and generous supporters of Trout Unlimited
In my imagination, those two people walking through the snow in that painting are me and my Dad talking about his latest score, or my last big fish.
Happy Thanksgiving to you all.