Memories of Dad painted in pastels

On my desk stands a photograph of my father sketching a snowbound farmhouse in Trondheim, Norway. It was 1938, and Victor R. Erickson was a 19-year-old art apprentice.

Thirty-seven years later Dad led me and brother Randy through the fjords, where we craned our necks at thousand-foot waterfalls rushing off mountains vaulting straight out of the sea; absorbed the sonic shellacking of tons of winter melt thundering through boulder-strewn creeks. We were never out of earshot of the whoosh of water, never out of eyeshot of terrain hewn by the axes of stone giants. It was clear Dad was thrilled by our thrill.

Our fathers. How can we be objective about men so powerfully ingrained in our psyche? What tribute to them can run the gauntlet of emotion accrued over years of affection and resentment, submission and defiance? That godlike sheen they cast on our infancy gets tarnished in no time. In toddlerhood we have no choice but to submit to the king; by adolescence we have no choice but to mount an insurrection.

By adulthood we attain, if we’re lucky, a balanced view: our father is human, the equal of every righteous and flawed human in the history of our race. He’s an icon, but he’s us. In the cosmic scheme: just another guy. In our private scheme: something between a retired dictator and favorite teacher. He no longer calls the shots but his impact resonates in our bones like the toll of a bell.

The view west from Eagle Peak, Mt. Diablo. January 19, 2011.

We can’t be blamed for harboring illusions about our father, for mistaking the honeyed or bitter taste of memory for insight. Once in a while, however, we’re blessed with a vision that puts the memory in perspective.

It was 2011, eight years after Dad’s death. The month was January but the air mimicked April. The mercury had climbed to the upper 60s and I had climbed to the 2,370-foot apex of Mt. Diablo’s Eagle Peak. Far below, stretching west 30 miles to the coast, fog had settled into the hollows, painted the landscape in the peach and teal pastels of evening. A lariat of lenticular cloud spiraled above the Berkeley hills. Far below, the undulations of Clayton, Concord and Walnut Creek slithered through the mist like a squadron of sea serpents.

Something in the human spirit leaps in response to art that imitates nature. “Wow. That painting of sunset makes me feel like I’m right there.” We value representational art – especially when the subject represented inspires awe. But sometimes the awe-inspiring subject turns the tables and represents art. I stood on Eagle Peak snapping shots of a scene swept by the watercolor brush of fog and setting sun. My camera was documenting a painting. And my thoughts turned to Dad and that photo.

One of his retirement ambitions was to paint in earnest. As a commercial artist dogged by deadlines, as a father of four labor-intensive children and as a resident of the flatlands of Chicago – far from the monumentality of Norway – he dreamed of the day he could set up an easel along Sognefjord and capture the mystery of light and shadow shifting through the furrowed face of a mountain beneath the slow rotation of sky.

But his choice of media was curious. I remember hearing, way back in the ’70s, of his desire to concentrate on watercolors. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but the watercolor aesthetic was an odd fit. Here was a man of sharp edges and boldly outlined borders. No grey areas clouded his outlook; no pastel ambiguities. If you’d heard him preach on the state of the world, you’d have pegged him for a practitioner of the black-and-white philosophy of pen and ink on Bristol board.

But before Dad found time to break free of the grind and set up his easel, something happened. Misery with a twist of irony. His eyesight began failing, and his superhumanly steady hand began trembling – macular degeneration plus a symptom of onset Parkinson’s. The penmanship of his handwritten letters, once silky perfection, became increasingly contorted.

Though he never complained, the loss must have hit him hard. His watercolor dream would never be fulfilled; he’d never get to pass along in subtle washes of color his love of the natural world. What he passed along he passed in genes and words and adventures outdoors: the urge to stalk and share the wonder.

Why do we so tightly embrace the vision of an afterlife? Is it to see our loved ones in the future? I can think of another reason: so that I can see right now, can picture right now, the artist known on Earth as Victor R. Erickson – with steady hand and penetrating eye – expressing in images the mystery of searing light and inscrutable shadow shifting through the landscapes of eternity.