Tuesday, December 6, 2016
The Gay Painting in My Grandmother's Room
The cold, snowy day after Christmas. Cousin Buster and I have already played with our toys, and we're tired of sitting around the living room of Grandpa Prater's farmhouse, listening to the adults complain about hippies and laugh about things that happened a thousand years ago. So we go exploring, hoping to find a secret stash of comic books.
The furnace room
A little room used as as a pantry.
A room with a pump in it.
Grandma Prater's Room. Locked. Off-Limits.
Grandma Prater died in 1966, when I was five years, old, so I have only a few random memories of her: a short, fat, brown woman carrying bags of groceries, frying chicken, telling me a story about a mouse, giving me the nickname Boomer. She had a thick Kentucky accent.
In a small farmhouse, they could use an extra bed, but after she died, no one ever slept in her bedroom again. The adults went in to clean, or to look around, but kids weren't allowed: we might "break something."
The door was always locked, but when we played in the house, we always tried it anyway, just in case.
Today the knob turns, and the door stands ajar! Cousin Buster and I glance at each other in surprise, then push the door open and look inside.
A wooden dresser with photos of Kentucky kinfolk. A bureau. Clothes on hangers visible in the open closet door. A rocking chair with knitting stuff on it.
And a painting: in a lush green forest, a boy is leaning against a tree, playing a flute. He is wild, savage, naked except for an animal skin. A round red sack hangs from his side.
I stare in awe. I am looking through a gateway into a "good place," where boys can hold hands and kiss without anyone asking "what girl do you like?" The boy is a fairy, a mystical sprite, beckoning me, offering a way to the secret world.
After that, on most Christmas and summertime visits, I asked to see Grandma Prater's room. I became familiar with the bed, dresser, bureau, and rocking chair. I picked up her Bible, read the annotations, examined her sewing, turned the photos around to see who the subjects were.
But my favorite part of the tour was the painting.
Who was the boy? Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream? A boy Hercules (was that a lion skin?). I thought of the Piper at the Gates of Dawn in The Wind in the Willows, the painting that led to Narnia, the Road to Elfland in heroic fantasy.
And, as I learned more about my grandmother, the painting seemed more and more out of place.
She was born in 1900 in the desolate hills of Eastern Kentucky. Although she graduated from high school, a rarity at the time, she lived in isolation and poverty. During the Great Depression, they survived by making moonshine. She lost four of her eleven children. During World War II, she moved to Indiana, to another isolated farmhouse.
She believed in ghosts, haints, witches, and premonitions. A few weeks before she died, she heard her mother calling her from beyond the grave.
She never read fantasy or mythology, or, as far as I could tell, any book but the Bible. There was no other art in the house except for a picture of Christ on the Cross and a souvenir from Indiana Dunes.
I asked my mother where the painting came from, but she didn't know -- it had been there as long as she could remember, even back in Kentucky.
Were there art galleries in the Kentucky hills?
Et in Arcadia ego.
Grandpa Prater died in 1978, but Uncle Edd continued to live in the farmhouse for twenty years, and kept up the blue room and the painting.
I moved to West Hollywood in 1985, and visited my parents twice a year, first in Rock Island and then in Indianapolis, with little time leftover to visit my elderly aunts and uncles.
Before I knew it, ten, twenty, thirty years had passed since I last went into Grandma Prater's room.
Yuri and I are spending Christmas with my parents. We go into the room that they've turned into a home gym: two exercise bikes, some free weights...and hanging on the wall beside a towel rack, The Painting!
I stand speechless, staring, as memories rush back.
How did it get here? Maybe when Uncle Edd moved out of the farmhouse, Mom claimed it.
Yuri touches my shoulder. "Are you ok?"
"Sure...I mean...this is one of my favorite childhood memories, a picture from my grandmother's bedroom. I thought it was a hint that gay people exist."
"Your grandmother had the Pastyr Devid?"
"You know it?"
Turns out that it was one of the illustrations in a book of Bible stories that Yuri's grandmother read to him.
"I ask for the story of David the Sheep Boy..." Yuri began.
"Ok, David the Sheepherd. I asked Baba to read me that story many times. I thought he was beautiful. Maybe this is where I know I am gay?"
A continent apart, both our grandmothers inadvertently showed us a sign of gay potential.
I looked up the painting on the internet: it's Shepherd Boy Playing the Flute, by Polish painter Henryk Siemiradzski (1843-1902), who specialized in Biblical and classical scenes.
Leaving two questions:
1. Was Siemiradzski gay? I don't find a lot of beefcake in his works. There's a couple of cute guys on the curtain he painted for the Juliusz Slowacki Theater.
2. How did my grandmother get a print of a work by a minor Polish painter in the hills of Eastern Kentucky?
See also: Erotic Story about my Grandpa Prater #2: Stealing the Banjo