I was a little boy running through warm summer grass when I saw my grandmother resting in the old wooden lawn chair, her eyes focused intently on the lake. I was curious and came up next to her and paused. Without shifting her gaze she reached out and took my arm and asked me in a gentle voice, “Tell me, what colors do you see there in the water?”
Was this a quiz? School was long out and so was my patience for the time required to absorb an elder’s wisdom. Her gaze steered mine toward a little patch of water at the edge of the lake. “I see blue, Grandmom,” was my brief reply, while my body hesitated in its forward movement. A look of faint disappointment came into her eyes — I think she was hoping I could see more than that, maybe that I had the eyes of a painter like her, and just maybe she was searching her grandchild for a hidden gem she hoped was there. Then the look was gone, and softness returned, and the grasp released, and I didn’t linger, running off to one of those urgent and forgettable boyhood activities that require more physical movement than pensive consideration.
I have no memory of what I did the rest of that day — it couldn’t have been important — but somehow I remember exactly what I saw in the water. I wish I had gone right back to Grandmom and told her what I really saw. She lived to be 100, but even that wasn’t long enough for me to tell her. My glance at the lake was a fleeting moment in a boy’s life, but the touch of the artist’s hand and the gaze of the artist’s eye and the image of that patch of water are still burned in my memory. I close my eyes and study the gentle profusion of colors I see there.
Yes, Grandmom, 40 years later I still see blue, but a thousand shades of blue — blue mixed with every other color there is. The light of a late summer sun hanging overhead refracts through the branches and leaves of a white-and-black birch tree hovering over the lake. If I focus on the water’s surface, I can make out a rippled reflection. But what should be the pure-toned blue of the sky is modulated by all the activity and life in the water: Clouds swim side by side with fish. Dappled by shade, the depths come alive with color. There’s the dark bronze back of a carp swimming in lazy arcs and the darting silver and green of perch and minnows, now light, now dark as they move between sun and shadow and back again. I see the tiniest burst of yellow when a sunfish turns and exposes a fin to a shaft of light. Golden flecks of sand and the saturated greens and browns of seaweed peer through the shallows. Wavelets are tipped with red and white reflections from the old rowboat sleeping at the nearby dock. Hugging the patch of water from all sides are the happy blues of a lake in summer, basking in an endless blue sky. The colors sound simple and pure, but they interact and blend and appear and disappear with all the living movement. … It would take forever to describe and paint this.
I look now at your paintings, Grandmom, and I see all those colors there. So I know you saw them, too, and your eyes told your hands how to make them reappear, and your hands held mine, and our eyes looked together. But I couldn’t tell you what I saw back then: It’s an image that has taken 40 years to develop.
When I’m paddling now over a shallow spot dappled with sunlight, I look down, and sure enough, the colors are there, too. And I know you’re looking with me, and I can feel your hand on mine. I’m in no hurry now. We gaze transfixed into the depths, and I hear myself gently ask my son, “Tell me, what colors do you see there in the water?”
Calvin T. Gabriel (McC80), of Cupertino, Calif., grew up along the shores of Lake Minnetonka in Excelsior, Minn. A chemical engineer, he has done semiconductor research for more than 25 years and holds more than 90 issued U.S. patents.
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