The Unfinished Jester
In Memoriam. Angelo Salvatore D’Amico, 1919–1989. That was what I wrote, at the bottom of the painting, in felt-tip pen. That isn’t the beginning of this story. It’s the end.
This story starts a month earlier. It starts in the library.
That’s a room in our house—the library. Right next to my bedroom, across the hall. It’s filled head to toe with books upon books, stories upon stories. In one corner is a tall fireplace, near the couch and the faded leather armchair. On the mantle are Halloween pictures of me: kindergarten, third grade, fourth grade, sixth grade. On a different shelf are old black-and-white photographs, grainy and lovely, of my mother’s parents.
My mother and I were sitting on the rug, flipping through black portfolios she had put together of my paintings and sketches. She was proud of her work. I was proud of her work.
“See, Emma?” she said. “I’ve put all your drawings in these plastic covers, so they don’t get faded. Look—there’s that watercolor you did of the girl and the calla lilies.”
“Thanks,” I said. “You did a really nice job with these portfolios. Why is this one backed with newspaper?”
“I don’t know,” she said, shrugging. She flipped the portfolio page.
“That’s amazing! Who drew that?”
She had flipped to a breathtaking charcoal sketch on yellowed old paper. It showed a dark, meticulously drawn little house teetering on a cliff above a lake. The drawing was gorgeous.
“My dad made it,” she said wistfully. “You remember I told you he loved drawing?”
“He was very skilled,” I said.
“Yes, well,” she said sadly, “he never got to use his skills.”
“Why not?” I asked, although I half knew the answer.
“He had to work all the time to support our family. He never had time to be an artist.”
I flipped the page. It was a portrait of a man, his sculptured face dark and brooding. His long hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and he wore a fancy coat with tails and a ruffled cravat.
I didn’t like this drawing as much as I liked the first drawing. On the next page was a third drawing, and this was the most captivating of them all.
It was a black-and-white charcoal portrait of a court jester. His face was spread in mischievous delight, his snub nose upturned. In his right hand, he held a staff with a toy face on top, almost a mirror of his own. He wore a voluptuous coat and pants, decorated with thin outlines of birds and stars, moons and tiny trees. The detail on the coat seemed unfinished, as did his left hand. The hand was a mere outline, pale and ghostly.
My mother and I stared at the picture.
“I never realized he didn’t finish this picture. Look at the left hand and the coat. I think he was drawing this right before he died.”
“It’s beautiful,” I said. “My paintings pale in comparison.”
“No, they don’t,” she said seriously. “You’re already a better artist than he was.”
“Do you think he would be proud of me?” I said, smiling slightly.
“Yes,” she said. “He would be extraordinarily proud of you.”
“Would he help me with my art?”
“Yes. I don’t think you need it, though.”
We sat there for a long time.
“He was a good man,” she said, tears brimming in her eyes.
* * *
My grandfather died a long time ago, when my mother was eighteen. On our mantle, right there in the library, is my mother’s favorite photograph of him. He’s smiling from ear to ear, wearing his Navy-issue baseball jersey and throwing his glove into the air after his team’s victory. Even though the photograph had been taken during his service in World War II, his face is nothing but pure joy.
So he played baseball. He drew. And I wish I had known him.
* * *
Two days later, I took the court jester out of the portfolio. I brought him over to my drawing table, cleared a place of honor for the drawing among my desk clutter, sketches, and art supplies.
I tore a sheet of paper from my watercolor pad, got out my best mechanical pencil, and began to draw. I stared at my grandfather’s court jester and copied him carefully. I refined the lines, finished his left hand and drew in the details on his coat, carefully penciled in tiny stars and birds and trees.
I inked it in. I did this all in secret, when my parents weren’t watching. I didn’t want them to know. This was between me and my grandfather.
Then I painted it. In watercolors, because they were my favorite medium, rich and versatile. The jester came alive, and my grandfather did too. My grandfather came alive through my pencil, my pen, my paintbrush. He smiled out through the court jester’s lips.
I stood back and stared at my grandfather’s jester, my jester. It had been a month since I first saw the sketch. Homework and school and life had crowded out the jester, but whenever I had a moment I inked a little here, painted a little there. Now it was finished, and it was beautiful.
No—not quite finished. Not yet.
“Mama, what was your dad’s name?” I called out.
“Angelo. Why?” she yelled back, sounding puzzled.
“Just wondering!” I said.
I pulled out a felt-tip pen and wrote my In Memoriam at the bottom of the painting.
“There,” I said. “Now it’s finished.”
Then I went out and played baseball. I threw much better than usual. I think my grandfather was throwing through me.