Recently, I found a website which featured a painting by my grandfather, Vaino Laine, called “The Seine.” A moody piece, it was created in the year before he died. With its subdued palate of grey and beige, I wonder if my grandfather knew his heart would soon give out after he completed this work.
I have no paintings by my grandfather. The ties which bound my father to his father disintegrated less than a year after “The Seine” was painted. We don’t know exactly what happened. All we do know is one day my grandfather’s wife, Carol, swept into his hospital room and when she swept out, my grandfather had cut his only son out of his will and out of his life.
Memory is a tricky thing. I don’t remember much about Carol, other than she was tall and thin with large hands and feet. She didn’t like children, so my younger sister and I had to be on our best behavior around her. But sometimes, our best behavior wasn’t enough: Once, when I was seven and my sister was two, my mother asked me how our visit with my grandfather and Carol had gone. I told her Carol had slapped me.
After that, all visits to my grandfather’s house included my parents.
My son is six. He loves Legos and Princess in Black books. He is a thinker and a worrier. He has trouble sleeping at night. He has an olive complexion like me and big brown eyes like his dad. I try to picture someone—an adult, a relative, a woman—bending down, pulling back her hand, and then striking him across his soft, plump face. It’s hard to imagine. And when I do imagine it, I often picture that person dead (I am a crime writer, after all). It’s not easy to love other people’s children. When my father-in-law’s girlfriend, Terry, sees my son, her face lights up with delight. We are lucky to have her in our lives.
When Carol married my grandfather, my father (a young boy) was already in the picture, but it was a picture she didn’t like. One time, my father asked my grandfather if he could stay at his house while on a work trip to Chicago. As it turned out, my grandfather and Carol were going to be out of town, but my grandfather told my father, yes. Then he called back a few hours later and told my father, no. Carol was afraid my father would have wild parties in the house. At the time, my father was in his late thirties, the executive director of a non-profit organization, and the father of two small children.
Money is not always plentiful when you work for a non-profit, but I don’t think that’s why my father wanted to stay at his father’s house while visiting Chicago. I think he wanted to feel close to his father in whatever way he could, but Carol couldn’t or wouldn’t allow it.
Carol did not like my mother, an immigrant from Peru. Although the U.S. customs agent marked the race on my mother’s passport as “Caucasian” (back in the days when hourly employees decided who was white and who wasn’t), my mother wasn’t fooling anyone, least of all Carol. My mother was (and still is) a beautiful woman, but she is not white, and neither are my sister and me. During the summer months, Carol would lecture us, telling us we were getting too dark and needed more sunscreen. As if sunscreen could obliterate the pigmentation buried deep within our skin.
A few years after Carol’s death, I spoke with one of my father’s cousins, Susana. She said Carol had reached out to her, looking for our address. Carol had wanted to give us some of my grandfather’s things. When Susana said she didn’t have our address (which was true), Carol became irate. She told Susana that was fine because she never liked my father or his horrible family, anyway.
A few years ago, I learned Carol was an Orphan Train child, one of 200,000 homeless, orphaned, and abandoned children out East who were put on trains and sent to live in foster homes in the Midwest. Many were treated like indentured servants, expected to perform household and farming chores in exchange for room and board. Though they lived in the Heartland, many of these children were never given anyone’s heart. Maybe that’s why Carol could not or would not share my grandfather’s heart with anyone else.
I imagine Carol’s childhood: grueling work punctuated by a series of slaps, kicks, and—quite possibly—worse. Carol never had many friends. I don’t think she knew how to cultivate friendships: her upbringing didn’t allow for them. People had agendas (only wanting things from you) and were to be approached with caution. In her later years, she befriended a kind couple, a doctor and a judge. I’d like to think that Carol did not die alone, but instead had these friends by her side. No one should have to die alone.
We were not often alone with our grandfather. But sometimes we would sneak down to the basement to watch him paint. And sometimes he would let us paint with him. One of my favorite photos is of my sister wearing pigtails and a smock and painting with our grandfather.
Someone sold one of my grandfather’s paintings online in August of 2018 through a Chicago auction house, and I want to buy his paintings. I am hungry: I want a connection with my grandfather, no matter how small. I am greedy: I want three paintings—one for my son, one for my niece, and one for my nephew. And I am willing to pay cash.
If you a) have a painting by Vaino Laine you’d like to sell or b) have a lead on one of his painting, please contact me at: email@example.com.