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 Three: Oceans…
East Reykjavik, Iceland, 2001
The first time I drank with my grandpa, I was 13 or 14. Standing at the corner, he asked what I wanted. “Beer?” I guessed. He shook his head no. I tried hard to think of the name of a drink that would impress him. He paused for a moment, laughed at my knitted brow and entered the liquor store — returning with two bottles of vodka (“one for now” and “one for later”). He removed the aluminum cork, crushed it in his palm and let it fall to the sidewalk, no louder than so much paper.
“Now that’s a man’s drink,” he said with conviction, raising the bottle’s neck to his own and taking his first gulp.
Like I told you, my grandpa was a character, if ever one lived. From the time he was a teenager until his death, he always wore blue jeans and cowboy boots (and I mean always). The same pompadour hair and aviator glasses. Flannel shirt; cigarettes in his left pocket, comb and lighter in his right.
Pribilof Islands, Alaska, 1972
His aesthetic never changed. But I told you, too, that something sincere happened to my grandpa in Alaska, where he collected fragments of symbols across his body. He discovered, also, Native American values that stirred something within him, like the debris at the bottom of the ocean when an anchor lifts — pulled by a mystery beyond.
He returns to seascapes, never again to paint breasts or broken bottles on newsprint, as he did in Washington. But now, something has changed in his work. Back in Iceland, he would paint a solitary boat, rocked by the ocean blue. Now, the moon showed its face, reflected in still water. He began throwing sand and pebbles into waves of oil. He experimented with the abstract.
He no longer painted boats — he was painting the sea. This final chapter, between 1972 and 2011 (his death), I call my grandpa’s Ocean Period.
He returns to South Bend, Washington with savings in his pocket, determined to piece his family together at last. But strangers now occupy his home — his wife and daughter are nowhere to be found.
Ten years prior, they had tired of struggling to survive (my grandma cooking food in a hospital and my mentally challenged aunt unable to find suitable work), and joined my mother in Sweden. My grandpa was as good as dead to his family, who would not speak to him for nearly another decade.
My grandpa makes his way through Washington, Oregon and California, taking halibut fishing jobs along the coast. He realizes for the first time that his art might be worth something. In Portland, he is awarded a grant to complete a body of paintings for an art dealer. He runs, parlaying the money into a revival of his failed salmon smoking business. He drinks his profit and flees again, losing hundreds of paintings to a series of evictions on his way down south. He ends up in Texas with nothing to his name, eventually locating work in a warehouse.
I am eight years old. Two years have passed from the night a bloody old man kissed me in the middle of the night, and I still don’t know who that man was. Up until now, I hadn’t been told anything about my grandfather — not even that the paintings hanging on our walls, those startling oceans of intrigue, belonged to him.
Now my father tells me everything. He tells me that my grandpa had been living in Stockholm at the time he stumbled into our home, but my mother had forbid him enter our lives. I am told of his dark history. And I am told, too, that I am about to meet him at a big family reunion in Iceland.
I’m nervous about meeting this vile alcoholic madman, but excited, too, about meeting my grandfather.
I enter my grandpa’s studio in the garage, where he lives, and realize there’s a wall dedicated to photographs and half-realized paintings of me. No images of my sisters or nieces — just me. My older brother died as a toddler, and my uncle never had children, so in my grandpa’s eyes, the weight of his blood rested on my shoulders alone.
He was so upset when, at eight years old, I took more to his amiable, clean-cut brother than a rough old sailor — he broke the sobriety that had won him the privilege to meet his grandchildren in the first place. Along with it, he breaks many hearts; the family reunion is cut short.
The fish smoking business my grandpa has attempted to resurrect in Iceland fails one last time.
San Francisco, 2011
I just got back from my grandpa’s funeral. It’s miraculous he lived as long as he did, really.
You can’t run from your health. The alcohol gave him diabetes — the cigarettes asthma, and then pneumonia when he drunkenly fell off a bridge in ‘97. That’s when the doctor first told him he needed to amputate his legs because of insufficient circulation (I remember my grandpa always smacked his cowboy boots for half an hour when he awoke each morning).
The rest of his life was essentially a series of almost-deaths. Always in his slippery cowboy boots (and an intoxicated haze), my grandpa would fall on ice, break bones and have the hospital staff convinced he could not survive the alcohol withdrawals necessary to recover. Always, he proved them wrong.
This past winter, however, the bone he broke on the ice was his skull. He suffered a stroke and the doctors gave him a couple days to live. But a few days later, it appeared as if my grandpa would again pull through. One leg was amputated. He regained speech, though he thought he was in the 1950’s, and didn’t understand how my mother could have grown up so fast.
Then, three days after surviving the last treatment, he died in his sleep…
I’m inspired by everything about my grandpa’s art. But when I look at his paintings, I think I’m most inspired by the fact that a tortured, broken man could still capture such salient beauty and serenity in the world — that even a character like my grandpa can find peace.