The Old Man's Dream
One Sunday morning some years ago, there was a knock at the door. When I answered it, a young black man stood on the porch. I didn't know him, but that's not surprising. Though we live in a rural area where names and faces are familiar, there is not a lot of "social" mixing between black and white families. Some, but not much. Our county had too long a history of slavery and after the Emancipation Proclamation things didn't improve substantially for a long, long time. Generations of rules so repressive that you can see their shadows even now.
Fear of The Man in some of the old people is quite active still. One of our neighbors used to ask us to deal with the court house when necessary; it made her too anxious when faced with that sea of pale faces, the faces of Authority. Such a situation only spelled trouble in her mind.
"Hey, Cora," I'd say, "your worries are valid. DMV gives me the creeps." And so off I would go on whatever errand she needed. Though I do wish she were here now to see how integrated the sheriff's department has become, not to mention the School Board, the Boy Scouts, etc.
But all of that is merely prologue, the background and setting of the incident and the way things were back then.
This is The Story of the Pearly Gates, a tale which begins (for us, anyway) at the front door on a Sunday morning. The young man was poised and serious (Oh. I already told you he was serious, didn't I? Ah, the perquisites of age, the pleasures of repeating oneself). Before I could say hello, the man asked if this was the home of the Baron. I admitted as much, figuring he'd come to ask permission to hunt on our property during deer season -- take as many as possible I always say. But as it turned out, this wasn't about stalking deer or turkeys.
"Is this the Baron who paints those pictures?"
I admitted that indeed it was the same man and invited him in. No, he'd wait there --and he pointed to his car, parked in the driveway, the engine idling. I could see an old man in the passenger seat in front.
"I don't want to leave my granddaddy too long," he said. So...this was neither a social call nor a hunting pass.
I went to fetch the Baron. Once again, the young man checked the Baron's credentials. "You're the one sits by the side of the road painting pictures?"
The Baron admitted as much. He was a familiar fixture to everyone by now, considering that he'd been doing exactly that for twenty years. Sitting by the side of the road painting while cars and trucks went by (startling him with a friendly honk), sitting in the middle of the field painting while cows and their attendant fliesgathered to watch, sitting near the river painting while people stood around kibitzing. And always, always, wiping his brush on his t-shirt or the legs of his jeans. Summer had long become the smell of turpentine woven into the multi-colored t-shirt, shirts which, as the season wore on, became increasingly colorful and increasingly spotted with rotted holes left by the turpentine.
The young man asked the Baron if he’d come to the car to talk to his grandfather. Mystified, the Baron stepped off the porch, walking over to the passenger side of the car. The old man rolled his window down with great effort and told the Baron he’d come on a mission: he needed to have a picture painted.
It turned out that the old man — he was bent frail with age and appeared to be in his eighties — had recently dreamed of heaven. Well, not heaven exactly, but the gates of heaven. If he described what he saw, would the Baron be willing to paint a picture of it? The Baron thought it would be a most agreeable commission, though he warned the old grandfather that since it was his dream, an artist couldn’t always translate someone else’s vision. The old man understood that very well; he’d take his chances.
His description was detailed. The gates were gold, but they glowed, too. “Like pearl,” he said. And on the top of gates, on each side, were pinecones.
The Baron stopped him. “Do you mean pineapples?” And the old man agreed — they were pineapples, but smaller than the kind you see in the grocery store. Later I told the Baron that pineapples were symbols for hospitality and had been particularly common during the Federal period in America.
What else? There was light, kind of all around, and the gates were closed. Closed but not locked. They were tall, heavy gates, much taller than a man, and if they were opened they would be able to swing on their hinges either inward or out. In his dream, the old man stood in front of the gates so he hadn’t noticed if there was a path leading up to where he was. As is the case in dreams, he was simply there and the gates were, too.
That was it. The Baron finished his notes and the young man thanked the Baron, as did the grandfather as he laboriously rolled up the window. They gave him their phone number and the Baron promised to call when the picture was done. The young man got in the car, backed up, and slowly made his way down the drive while the Baron walked back to the house.
It’s been too many years now to be able to recall how long it took the Baron to paint the old man’s dream. Probably not long. Since it appeared to both of us that this was a dream about the grandfather’s death, getting it down on canvas fairly quickly seemed like a good idea. Since I can’t remember what else he was painting at the time; I’ll guess and say that the pearly gates commission was finished a week or two after the old man’s visit. Then the oils had to dry thoroughly before the painting was sprayed with several coats of protective varnish.
Once that was done, the Baron called the old man. He appeared shortly, chauffeured again by his grandson. The Baron brought the painting out to the car for the grandfather’s inspection. It was perfect: his dream lay on that piece of canvas exactly as it had appeared in the old man’s mind. The Baron opened the back door of the car and placed the painting on the seat. As he closed the door, the grandson asked him how much the painting cost.
“No charge,” said the Baron, and refused what the grandson held out. “Some things shouldn’t be bought and sold,” was how the Baron put it. This answer must have satisfied the young man. He climbed into the car, backed up once again, and turned down the driveway.
We've forgotten their names now, only remembering that the surname was a familiar name in these parts. All this happened so long ago that the old man is surely gone by now. But his vision remains, and someone has inherited it. When they look at it, I wonder what it means to them, what associations his vision has for the grandfather’s descendants. Since this occurred in the days before digital cameras, the Baron didn’t take a picture of his work. For us, it exists only in our memories.
The important thing is what it provided for the old grandfather. It is indeed, ever and always, to be able to look into one’s future as it hangs there on the wall.