My father used to tell me that art was unnecessary, that it has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival. I think he may have borrowed these words from somebody, as his tongue usually spoke a little less refined. But the origin of the words was not relevant to me, and although I remember them clearly, at the time I did not understand what I thought to be just another one of his riddles.
My father’s words would twist and turn and dart in places that were foreign to me and sometimes I found it hard to keep up. When he took my mother to Paris for a holiday, far from the coast and Pandanus Palms, he returned with many riddles like this. He told me he had found them in the Louvre and that as my legs grew and stretched beyond the perimeters of white sand and theme parks, and his hair greyed, I would understand.
He was never a rich man, but called himself the richest man in the world. He would tell me that life was always on the up and as his family grew, so did his pot of gold. I once tried to find the elusive pot. I even had Timmy help me empty the garden shed while dad was at work. I had convinced him that it was the best hiding place, and if we could find the pot, imagine the lollies we could buy! He agreed that our dad would probably not notice a couple of coins missing. It took us all day and we slept that night craving sweets.
Since the car drove dad over the bridge and into the deep where metal sinks fast, and dads don’t return, his riddles had become screams in my dreams. The confusion of the deep, the wet, the sinking, the metal and the death in the air that hung heavy clouds of thick lava after we all wore black was unshakable, and at night when mum cried behind her locked door, the riddles would play on repeat until I would finally drift to sleep.
“Your mum will need some extra hands April” her friend Helen had told me. She said the shaking in mums hands would not stop for a while, and because mine were not so shaky, mum would need to borrow them when she had things to do. So I started lending mum my hands. To wash the dishes and feed neglected chickens. To pull weeds from earth where weeds were not welcome anymore. The riddles sometimes made my hands move faster, I thought.
I hated the day that she needed my hands to put my dads belongings in boxes. She needed Helens that day too as hers were not working at all anymore.
As I balanced on wardrobe shelves that were only strong enough for little people like myself, I passed down the remnants of my father’s life to Helen and her hands. Things that he had collected and felt the need to hold on to. She placed each item carefully on the bed and told me to choose something that I may like to keep. I felt strange, as the pieces of memorabilia that held no memories for me suddenly became my everything. My connection to the dad that sunk in the deep.
I shuffled through each item uncomfortably. Nothing looked like my father. Not the fridge magnet from Dunk Island, or the menu from his favorite takeaway Thai restaurant. The belt buckle of heavy silver only reminded me of the weight and the car, and the sinking, and his Scout Leader badge sent a tinge of jealousy through my body thinking of the hours that those boys spent with him, away from me. I liked the wooden box though with etchings on the lid that he had carved out himself. I placed it to the side carefully, away from the pile of belongings the Salvation Army would soon relish in.
I would leave the box under my bed along with broken memories of my dad until a day when my hands were no longer busy and I could sit and think about himAs years past and the sun shone more, I began to piece my memories of him together with strong thread, determined to double the stitches as to never lose them through avoidance or time.
Driving over the bridge that played a role in my loss became easier, and I became proud of the black in the road that bore his tyre marks, evidence that he went out with a fight. The Currumbin River no longer looked as black, and I began to see reflections of silver in fish instead of metal. Life came back to the river instead of death and my mum no longer needed my hands.
When my legs had grown to their full potential, I returned to the box. As I pulled the weight from under my bed, I realized that I had been so intrigued by the box itself, that the contents of postcards that bore no ink had gone unnoticed. Lifting the small pile from their sleep, I ran my fingers over the prints. A collection of postcards from artists exhibited at The Louvre. I tried to find value in the images before me. The busy Chagall fairytale bewildered me, Picasso seemed to box me in, and Monet’s water lilies reminded me of the Brisbane Botanical Gardens, beautiful but typical. My young eyes searched to find the value in survival that my father explained I would find in art. Then I found Matisse.
In a handful of simple lines, he had drawn the nude. These simple black lines danced together to produced the perfect combination of life, in its simplest form. The woman that lay before me had born children perhaps. Maybe she was an artist’s lover, or a scorned wife. Maybe she died young. I did not know if her hair was red, or if she had freckles on her face. I found value in a line that her curves inspired and wept at the clarity that she provided me. My life was becoming settled. I owned my hands again and things were simple. I lost my father and I also loved him. There was nothing complicated about it. I missed him everyday and at times the pain seared through my chest, like poking an opened wound. But the value in life that his loss had showed me became my mantra. My loss had taught me how much I had to gain. I finally understood his words, and it took Matisse to explain it to me. This is why art adds value to survival.