This is the story of Random Bear as told by Aurora Wells. It is broken up into three parts, according to the distinct periods of his grandfather’s paintings. This is Part One: Boats…
Once, when I was a six-year-old kid, I awoke to the sight of an old man covered in blood. As the old man staggered towards my bed, I could see his broken glasses dangling in shards from his face and smell his breath, acrid with alcohol — and then the old man kissed me! My mother ran into the room and started yelling at him in Icelandic. I remember the shock of the kiss, the curse words, and the wet blood streaking my face when he let go.
This man was my grandfather — although I wouldn’t be introduced to him as such until two years after the night I recoiled under the covers like it was a bad dream, brushing the flakes of dried blood from my pillow in the morning.
San Francisco, 2011
I knew my grandpa best as a collection of impressions, like bold marks of oil paint struck from a palette knife. From my perspective, I could distance the figure of my grandfather from his dark footprints — from his unforgivable history — like the isolated boat he would paint, again and again, drifting on the horizon.
The whole picture is something altogether different; too dark for real life, almost too dark for Hollywood. If my grandpa’s life were a movie, I would watch it again and again, with equal parts fascination and horror. I don’t cast him in a flattering light — in fact, the white burn of scrutiny overexposes him, losing features of humanity. It may be difficult to understand, but I don’t love my grandpa as a person — I love that man as a tragic, screwed-up character. An anti-hero, you could say.
If my grandpa’s life were a movie, it would open long before that scene in blood…
East Reykjavik (or “Bay in Smoke”), Iceland, 1942
At 14, my grandpa has been peeling potatoes and gutting fish in factories for four or five years, which lends him the rugged appearance necessary to deceive my grandma about his age. She is 19, giving birth to their first child, when the truth is revealed by a hospital nurse. That day, he abandons them both for the sea.
Two years later, he returns to her with a fistful of flowers. Along with a few of my grandfather’s siblings and their spouses, the couple moves into a tiny house with a long hall of barracks — part of an old army base that never got torn down. They have two more children.
My grandpa drinks every day, vanishing on random fishing expeditions to support his addiction.
When my mother is four, my grandfather attempts to drown her in the bathtub. He is left with a scar on his head where my grandma breaks a bottle across it, saving her little girl. My grandpa has been brutalizing his wife and daughter in drunken fits of fury since the day he returned, a fisherman with a fistful of flowers.
He begins teaching my uncle how to properly beat his sister, my mother. I think my uncle escaped my grandfather’s hate because he was born cruel like his father. My mother’s mentally challenged sister was spared, too.
San Francisco, 2011
My mother once said that when she was a little girl and children talked about what they wanted to be when they grew up, all she could imagine was to marry an alcoholic and work in a convenience store.
That’s the closest she’s ever come to speaking of her father’s past prior to 1998. Sometimes it seems like my family survives on silence. Growing up, I learned my grandfather’s secrets through the covert whispers of my father, carefully checking my adoration for the tattooed sailor whose art I so clearly admired.
During this dark chapter in Iceland, my grandpa painted nautical scenes in perfectly-blended blues, often featuring a solitary boat on open waters. For this reason, the era between 1940 and 1961 I call his Boat Period. From the age of 12 until his death, art was the only thing my grandpa stood by, even on the run or under sail…
This is Part One: Boats. Read Part Two: Bottles in next week’s installment of Blood, Oil, and Water in Opening our Hearts.