by Mary Mullen
The Mad River flowed through the little valley, through the White Mountains, and when I was three, before I could remember where I was going or why I was there, I could hear the distinctive roar of the rushing river and know I had been there before. The condo we rented each summer had an antique butter churn, a bear skin rug, and a small wooden turtle just large enough for me to sit on. It was an old toy, a lot like all the other antiques the owner kept at the house, but this one was well used, and the dark wood stain had worn from the parts where a child would carry it, on the rounded legs, and on its small head. When Don Jackson saw that the leg was loose, he went home, got his red tool box, and fixed it for me. He sat on the porch smiling, showing me how he tightened the screws, talking in patient sentences, while I sat quietly waiting for my turtle.
A constant figure in those warm months in the White Mountains, Don Jackson was a few years older than my parents, and he and his wife Jeanne would spend their summers in the same small valley we did. By then their kids were mostly grown, off at college. Don’s hair had all gone white, but he was still strong, still out in the sun playing tennis all afternoon drinking Rolling Rock, waiting for cocktail hour in a place where cocktail hour can come anytime, is never too late or too early.
His wife, her friends, still dressed in tennis whites, spoke loudly, over each other in way that mirrored their tennis matches, while Don was content to sit just off to the side at the back porch barbecue, just a few feet away from the table at lunch, perched on the stairs at dinner parties, sketch book in one hand, black ink pen in the other, drawing the scene in front of him, quietly, with the occasional nod or sigh, almost always smiling. His large round glasses, and their thin metal frame would fall forward just a little, his large hands, knotting some at the knuckles with age, still doing what they had always done—back when he was in advertising at the big firms, back when he was in college cartooning for fun—making a portrait of a small child’s face, the peaks of Mount Tecumseh, the old Jugtown Country Store, our small town library. Bringing them to an inky black and white life.
When I think of him, I think of the portrait he drew of me that was always hanging in my parents’ bedroom. Still a baby, looking to the side, my sun hat, my cherubic nose, very much the way I look in the pictures at that age, but different. Rendered, in a way that a photograph cannot do. I can’t help but think—maybe the way my mind sees this picture, the way his hand saw my face, is more accurate. Maybe the pen, his rendering, the humidity in the paper that day, can show us what we cannot otherwise see.
A sketch. From the Greek skhedios—temporary, extemporaneous, impromptu. Not quite a caricature, but the essence of something, or someone, revealed quickly on the page. The great artists of the past used the preliminary study to build their frescos, still standing in Rome and Paris, the sketches buried under layers of paint. But the technique of simple drawings, cartoons to exaggerate, to humor or shed light on the politics of the day, became more popular over the years, valued as their own art form beyond just a preparation for a more intricate piece. The artist’s focus is on a particular feature, deepening, documenting what is most present. I wonder if the simplicity offers more insight than something more complete.
I used to watch him draw with hesitation. Is he like me? Is he afraid to have someone see him while he works? Would it make his hand shake, the way my small hand would shake if someone were peering over my shoulder? It did not. He didn’t seem to mind. He would sometimes tilt the sketch book my way, show me more of what he was working on, a small mountain in the corner, a tree to the side, little pieces of a larger scene claiming a spot on the otherwise blank canvas. “See the tree here in the corner, it’s that tree there at the edge of the hill,” and “This profile here, does that look like Mr. Carlisle?” I would nod. Looking at the page everything was recognizable, but none of it an imitation. The drawings did not perfectly recreate their subject. Easily recognized for what they were intended to be, but different, alive in a new way, an imaginary, or an imagined way. The black ink silky and fluid, the white paper crisp, his hand capable of taking any line in any direction, the object—so permanent in front of me—yet malleable on the page. And I wondered what he would do with all of them, the books of drawings, the scenes that made up all those years of our lives in the valley.
When he was older, Guillain-Barré syndrome and years would make it harder to walk and get around. He carried a cane and moved much slower, but I would still run in to him in the town square, my toddler, with the same curly hair as me, racing ahead. He knew me at that age too, and with the eyes of an artist, he could see mother and child looked just the same. As he leaned over his cane, smiling always smiling at the small child at his feet, at the mountains framed behind me, there is a sense of recognition in his eyes, the eyes of witness, someone who can see you, someone who patiently views the world, who recreates it on the page.
It was in these later years Don made a series of prints of all the notable places in our home away from home each summer. They hang on the walls of most of our friends, the ones like my parents who have made this valley home, and around the country in the homes of the children who knew him, who grew up watching his pen. The wooden hut at the base of Snows Mountain is made of swift, long lines, the balsam firs dark and full, the boulders shaded and irregular. The library has clean white boards, an antique screen door, overgrown wild flowers lining the stone path.
Nothing is colored, nothing is too straight.
Detail is the small swirls of his pen, the gentle hatching in the margins, the warm afternoon breeze coming up the road from the Mad River and greeting him on the boulder where he is sitting, the pine tree offering afternoon shade to his drawings, the smell of birch and maple and earth opening up around him, and when I see that sketch, I know that the artist is never outside of the picture.
Mary Mullen is a writer and researcher living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She still makes a trip each summer to Waterville Valley, New Hampshire, where her parents now live. Her essays have recently appeared or are forthcoming in The Southampton Review, Atticus Review, The Rumpus, Entropy, Cold Creek Review, and The Midwest Review.