As the construction of our Peralta Hills home was winding up, my dad stood in its living room. This must have been in the spring or early summer of 1968. The farm boy who grew up with plywood for shelter and without any culture decided that he wanted original artwork on that large, blank wall in his spacious new home. “Let’s go to Laguna,” he said to my mom, intent on finding an oil painting.
We trooped in and out of the galleries on Pacific Coast Highway as he narrowed the considerations down to two galleries. We walked back and forth between those two galleries until he decided on one of them. Then he deliberated between a few options painted by that artist. My mom remembers that this deliberation took all day as he weighed what he liked aesthetically with the price tags. I remember the day was hot, the studios lacked chairs, and us kids were bored silly.
We came home with this painting of a pond in a forest, misty and mysterious. And my dad hung it on that large wall over where my spinet piano went when we moved in. For years as I practiced, I’d stare right at this painting. As I memorized my music, I came to memorize every brushstroke. Later when the Steinway replaced the Wurlitzer spinet, my orientation to it changed – the painting was now on my left instead of straight ahead – but it was still my companion during all of the hours of practicing.
I concocted great questions in my head about this painting’s unknown narrative. What was the artist trying to depict with the cluster of bright blue and magenta Seurat-like dots? What was in the clearing, beyond the fog? Was the thick pile of paint in the front a beaver dam? Where was this wooded secret place? Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy, Bach, Brahms, and other composers took me there.
As I was making wedding plans, my dad said I could take the Steinway to my Pasadena condo, and with that move, the piano left the painting behind. When Akemi was first studying the violin and took her violin to practice during stays in Peralta Hills, she didn’t understand at the time why my parents were so insistent that she practice in the living room, standing in the empty spot in front of the painting. “That’s where your mom practiced,” they both told her. So she also stared at this painting during hours of practicing.
Once I asked my dad why he bought this painting. He simply said, because he liked it. At one point, I told my mother that I felt I really knew this painting from staring at it during all my practice time; I wasn’t angling for it. But within the past year or so, every time I’d be at the house, she’d tell me to take the painting home with me to Pasadena. “No one goes in the living room anymore,” she’d say. “Don’t you like that painting?” But it was always too high and large for me to get down without help, and I was reluctant to see her dismantling the house. “Let’s worry about it another time,” I’d say. But she’s been sending other things home with my brothers, too; my dad’s Hiroshige print is now with my brother in Singapore, for example. As her health has declined, I’ve taken it as a sign that she really does know, deep down inside, that her days in that house are numbered, despite her adamancy to the contrary.
Last weekend two of my brothers and I had to convince her that the time has come when she could no longer drive, which has kicked in the sad reality for all of us that the time will come when she no longer lives in that house. She insisted that with my brother Alan there, he could take the painting down and put it in the car for me. The jig was up in more ways than one that day.
Akemi and I both had the same reaction upon seeing that painting in my little house as compared to my parents’ huge house: “Gee, this painting is bigger than we thought.” First we tried it over the mantle, moving our family portrait to the spot to the left of the piano. Then Akemi said, “I think it’ll fit next to the piano, and don’t you think it belongs there?” Strangely enough, it did fit there, and I felt strangely happy to see it again while looking over my left shoulder seated at the piano.
So the painting and piano have been reunited, which I now think must be making my dad happy, too. In the past few days, she and I have talked about the painting’s blues and purples, chartreuse greens and grays, its open questions, and unknown answers. Does Akemi realize it will be incumbent upon her to have a place to hang this painting next to the piano when all this is hers?