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My father’s studio in Boulder, Colorado, shortly before being packed up, thrown out or given away.

Photo by Neil Steinberg

Doing time’s dirty work

My mother was surprisingly strong about throwing things out, the way she had decided that she could no longer care for my dad, and it was time for their tactical retreat from Colorado.

Time will send a henchman to your home someday to tear through your most cherished possessions and scatter them forever, and there was a certain irony that last month time’s designated agent would be me, a nostalgic man inclined to keep everything.

Time will cure you of that tendency.

I arrived at my parents’ townhome in Boulder, Colorado, then proceeded to my father’s studio and went to work.

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Pausing, yes, one last time to regard the tableau: delicate paintings, watercolors, on styrene foam core boards, framed on the walls and set out on a pair of handmade wooden easels, built by a neighbor, that reached almost to the ceiling.

The two big drafting tables, with the Winsor & Newton watercolors — cobalt blue, burnt sienna, alizaran crimson — some still in their beige boxes, the jar jammed with well-worn brushes. I ran my thumb across the bristles of a wide sable brush. It tossed off a puff of dust.

Time to move my parents to a nursing home — my mother’s term, though I gently correct her, with all the brightness I can muster. “A dynamic senior lifestyle community, Ma!” I say. In Buffalo Grove, 17 minutes from our house.

The Scandinavian design hutch that sat in our dining room when I was growing up in Berea, Ohio, and had been, for the past 34 years in a corner of my father’s studio. I started there with the books, kept behind glass doors where the china nobody wants once had been.

I always thought we’d keep the dessert china: Royal Doulton with delicate flowers. But my wife made a face when I held up a cup to her, inquiringly. We have our own nice china our boys don’t want. No need for another set.

I began pulling the books out —”Patterns in Nature” by Peter S. Stevens, “Fearful Symmetry” by Stewart and Golunitsky — piling them on the floor. My father had been a nuclear physicist at NASA for 30 years, then retired in 1987 to paint watercolors: ocean waves and canyon walls and that damn vase he loved so much.

“The British Museum has accepted it into their collection,” he informed me, again, a few minutes earlier downstairs. He’s almost 90, and nature, despite its fearful symmetry, is not without accidental kindness, too. A sort of generous symmetry, a gift to balance the loss, slightly.

“You should be so proud, Dad,” I said.

The paintings — some quite big — were lifted off the wall and stacked. The polystyrene is very light.

“I know what you’re thinking,” my father once wrote in The Artist’s Magazine, a publication that focused on materials and technique. “How can you paint with watercolor on a smooth white polystyrene surface? It’s easy — just add a wetting agent (1/4 tsp sodium lauryl sulfate to 1 pint of water) to watercolor paint right out of the tube.”

Science and art, uneasy bedfellows.

This technique did not, as my father seemed to expect, roil the art world. Then again, you never know. Thinking of Henry Darger — the North Side janitor whose drawings of 1930s schoolgirls at war became the bedrock of outsider art — and Vivian Maier, photography’s current darling, I made a pile of everything original — diaries, letters, manuscripts — and kept those, dumping the rest, the magazines, journals, reprints, drafts, into big white garbage bags.

“What do you have in the bags?” my father asked, as I dragged a pair through the living room and out to the dumpster.

“Your life’s work,” I thought, glumly, and almost said aloud.

“Just garbage, Dad,” I actually said, hurrying out.

The next four days went like that. My wife went over every dish, every sweater, every piece of costume jewelry with my mother. Firm, but kind. My mother was surprisingly strong about throwing things out, the way she had decided that she could no longer care for my dad, and it was time for their tactical retreat from Colorado. I was impressed by her decisiveness.

You always hear about teachers digging into their pockets to pay for supplies. So I phoned an art teacher at Boulder High School, told her what we had, and she showed up with a friend and took it all: the paints, the brushes, the paper, the easels, the art books.

Not everybody in Boulder is rich. I like to think of that cobalt blue being smeared across some promising student’s work. That helps.

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