Karl passed by my open office door, at the bank where I worked, carrying a framed oil painting. The vivid colors on the canvas instantly caught my eye. I immediately jumped up from my chair and followed him. Karl was another of the corporate lenders and his office was adjacent to mine. He had already propped the piece on his credenza. Without acknowledging Karl, I moved closer to the painting. Still staring at it, I asked if he planned on hanging it here at work. He already had several paintings adorning his walls. He, unfortunately, said no. Disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to continue to enjoy the array of muted blue and vivid orange flowers arranged in a glass vase, I informed Karl I really appreciated the work of art.
Karl told me the artist, Stephen Heilakka, was a local artist from Doylestown. He had several pieces of his work. Without revealing to Karl that I secretly desired to start taking art lessons upon retirement, I asked if he had a studio where I could see his work. He handed me his card.
Back in my office, I immediately called Steph, as he liked to be called. We arranged for a time to meet. His studio was in Carversville, behind the historic, centuries old, Carversville Inn. The stone building housing his studio was dwarfed by the immense Inn, with its large wooden columns and wrap around porches on both levels of the building. I knocked on Steph’s door. He greeted me warmly and invited me in. He was a towering figure wearing a comfortable flannel shirt and jeans. His silver beard highlighted his handsome face. I stood there clean shaven and in my business suit and tie. I entered, only to be quickly greeted again by many framed paintings in all mediums – charcoal, oil, acrylics, pen and ink, and watercolor. They were professionally and artistically arranged on the large 20-foot-tall white wall. Like I did in Karl’s office, I moved closer to the wall and the paintings to admire the work. I passed by the large well-worn wooden farmhouse table which Steph used for his supplies and drawings. Several easels held paintings in various stages of completion. The large table was positioned so when seated you could look out through a massive window to a bucolic Bucks County landscape. A split rail fence, a pasture, and a grove of trees to the left almost appeared as a painting being framed by the window itself.
We sat in two comfortable chairs on the other side of the room, closer to the stone wall where a cast iron stove already had a warm fire burning. Steph offered me a cup of tea. I collected my thoughts as he prepared a cup for the both of us.
I began to ask Steph about the possibility of taking lessons from him. There was no immediate need to start, but I informed him I was turning over a new leaf upon retiring from banking. I no longer wanted to use the left-side of my brain, but wanted to expand the right-side of my brain in being more creative and enjoying color instead of sticking to reasoning, logic and numbers. Steph laughed. But, I remained in the banker mode by asking him about his pricing, schedule, availability, and other business-oriented questions.
Soon thereafter, Steph started asking me questions. What medium was I interested in? What colors was I attracted to? What artists did I enjoy? And, had I taken any previous lessons? He moved to his table and asked me to sit beside him. He had an enormous stack of books which he began to open. Steph started quizzing me which of the prints, from various artists, did I like and why did I like them. Was it their composition, their theme, or their colors? My mind wasn’t prepared to answer such questions. He told me not to think. He asked what feelings did I have for them.
He opened yet another book of Rembrandt sketches. They were pen and ink etchings from the 1600s. Steph asked what I was attracted to and why. He indicated he starts with all his students studying the Masters and then having them sketch a duplicate of these various prints with using only a pencil.
I was no longer interviewing a potential art instructor. The artist was now clearly interviewing me. It was evident I was entering the world of creativity and art. All my questions which I thought were important now seemed trivial and irrelevant.
With my pending retirement in a few months I did manage to share my desire to start such an undertaking, which seemed monumental. Steph thought it was a wonderful outlet for me to explore. Sitting at the table, surrounded by all his paint brushes, pencils, ink wells and works in progress, I committed to working with and learning from Steph. I was ready to start using the right-side of my brain. We agreed to keep in touch and finalize the details of my lessons over the coming months. Before leaving, he quickly jotted down on a piece of paper a list of supplies I would need to purchase before starting my lessons. It was short and simple – a pencil kit with all the various hardness of graphite, an artist sketch pad and a kneaded rubber eraser.
Soon I ventured through the aisles of the art store. I walked slowly touching all the tools of the trade. I was in a foreign land. I picked out the supplies on Steph’s list. I purchased them, along with a canvas bag to carry them back and forth from my house to his studio.
As the calendar turned to September, I started my lessons with Steph. I carried my bag, complete with pencils, erasers, and paper. It was if I was going to school for the first time. I was a new student eager to learn. I was, again, a first-grade child.
Thirty Fingers, Thirty Toes.
What would we do without you?
Those words of thanks were penned on our first Grandparents Day card this past September. Just four months prior, our daughter, Laura, gave birth to not only our first grandchild, but to our first three grandchildren. We were blessed three times over with triplets and were happy to help them in any way we could.
Suddenly, with her being only 30 weeks pregnant, we received a call our daughter was in Abington Hospital, which is eminently known for their superior medical staff in handling high-risk pregnancies and premature births. All medical efforts were made to keep the babies in the womb for a longer period, but 24 hours later the babies entered this world.
A team of 13 doctors and nurses, along with other professional staff, crowded into the delivery room. Their orchestrated performance resulted in delivering two boys within a minute of each other, and a girl just two minutes later. The babies were quickly whisked away to the neo-natal intensive care unit (NICU) in a blink of an eye. 3 pounds, 7 ounces; 3 pounds, 3 ounces; and the third weighing 2 pounds, 14 ounces.
Within a few short hours, but seemingly like an eternity, we were able to see our daughter and son-in-law, Isaac. They were the proud parents of an instant family, and my wife, Joyce, and I, were no longer the parents, but the grandparents. Eli, Jeremiah, and Layla now were joyfully a part of our family as well. I was affectionately being called Opa.
Opa and Oma prepared to go to the NICU with our daughter and son-in-law to see our grandbabies. A friend, Joel, whose own daughter gave birth to premature twins just a few years earlier, advised us to be prepared. Joel’s straightforwardness and blunt words were always refreshing in today’s world of guarded speak. He came right out and said we should be prepared upon seeing the babies. “They won’t be pretty,” he said. I chuckled and shot right back to him, “Oh, come on. All babies are pretty.”
We scrubbed and then scrubbed again before entering the cavernous room where 60 incubators and beds were all neatly in rows. The number of monitors, tubes, wires, lights, and sounds was overwhelming. The staff all calm and carefully, yet routinely, were carrying out their tasks. Passing by incubators where name cards and vitals were attached, one could easily read 1 pound, 12 ounces, two pounds, 10 ounces, 3 pounds, 11 ounces. All appeared smaller than the dolls our daughter played with as a child.
In the middle of the room were our three grandchildren. Each with tubes and wires attached to their tiny bodies. Each with a knitted cap covering their heads. Their eyes were protected from the light of the lamps hovering above. A miniature diaper hung loosely around their midriff. Their arms and legs long and thin. Their skin, almost milky in color, was certainly not the glowing plump and pink skin of a full-term baby. Their fingers and toes all perfectly formed.
We were told we could touch them through the portals of the incubator. We scrubbed our hands again. The instructions were not to stroke their skin. Doing so would cause too much stimulation for them. We simply were told to touch them and hold our fingers in place applying only slight pressure against their skin. With three babies, there were many openings to choose from. We all gathered around them. I stopped breathing for a second when my finger touched Layla’s hand. No words or thoughts could be spoken. The quietness of us all remained. We all felt life in these three tiny bodies. The only movement was in switching incubators, ensuring all were able to touch each of the newborns.
As the weeks passed, the babies remained in the NICU. It was not only painful for our daughter leaving them, but for us as well. As our daughter recovered from her surgery, we transported her back and forth to the hospital to see the babies. Days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months. But, they were all progressing and growing. All were over 4 pounds, with Jeremiah pushing 5 pounds.
Our world those first few months was consumed by the babies. Even though the staff so expertly handled everything, traveling to see them was rewarding and comforting. Yet, our worlds needed to resume normalcy. Isaac went back to work, Laura continued to recuperate, Joyce continued volunteering, and I went back to writing my manuscript about my fraternity brothers and the letters we’ve shared with one another.
Sitting at the desk in the home office staring at the monitor, my mind couldn’t always focus. So, I quickly opened another window on the computer and logged into the hospital’s secure website where I could see live all three babies in their tiny beds. Individual cameras were installed and attached to each incubator focused on the babies’ heads. How delightful just to see their tiny bodies and their torsos contracting and expanding as they learned to breathe on their own. Their tiny fingers and toes clearly visible. You desired to touch your own monitor as if to touch their hands.
When I finished watching my grandchildren, I returned to writing. Staring at my own hands touching the keyboard, I saw some sixty-year-old weathered hands, slightly scarred and ragged. My mind jumped back to the babies. What would their fingers in the years ahead be typing on their keyboard? Would they even use a keyboard to record their words? Their fine, delicate fingers have so many years ahead of them.
Joel, you’re wrong. All babies are beautiful. All gifts from God.
Thirty fingers, thirty toes. Yes, what would we do without you?
During my first week of retirement, I knew I had to clean out my clothes closet. I know it sounds a bit cliché, but trust me, it was necessary. I braced myself, standing in the midst of the four walls. Facing me was a row of 21 suits hanging at eye level. Below, on another row, 40 starched dress shirts. After 38 years as a banking professional, wearing the required uniform of a suit and tie each day, I was now free from that obligation.
Unless you wear a suit, you don’t realize all the subtle shades of blue, gray, and black with the accompanying pinstripes, chalk stripes, and muted glen plaids. I had them all. And the shirts— white cotton pin-point button-down oxford was the shirt of choice. Early in my career, a white shirt was the only acceptable shirt to wear. However, as the millennials entered the work force, colored shirts, even with some stripes, became fashionable. Again, I had them all.
The morning ritual was to pick the suit on the right-hand side of the row and a matching shirt below. The evening ritual was to place the suit worn that day back into the closet on the left-hand side with the shirt thrown into the laundry bag. The following morning, it was back to the right-hand side, which was repeated daily. This was my way of keeping order, and all suits and shirts were worn equally. Also, I didn’t have to think.
With my head full of thoughts in the morning about upcoming meetings with clients and the pressures of being a corporate lender, I really did not have time to ponder what to wear. It was my way of balancing my wardrobe — just like balancing the debits and credits I reviewed daily. And, it provided some order, not knowing if my day would be orderly or not.
So the exhilaration of purging my closet was obvious. I no longer had to retain the semblance of order in my closet. I quickly chose 12 suits that would be sent to the cleaners before donating to the community thrift shop for resale at a price of $20 each. It didn’t matter that the original cost of those new suits was in the thousands of dollars. I was lightening the weight, literally, in my closet, along with my spirit. The same for the shirts. At least another dozen or so were quickly picked to donate.
My closet now had room to breathe again and perhaps become refilled with flannel and casual shirts, bulky sweaters, khakis, and shorts. Filling buoyed by releasing so many items, I continued to purge other clothes as well. The bags and bags of donated clothes were quickly piling waist high outside my closet door. I then came to my tie rack.
Ties, admittedly, are my obsession. I’d buy them by the handful. It was the one component of my wardrobe that expressed my creativity. It allowed me to demonstrate my mood, my feelings, and mindset by wearing a certain crimson red, gold solid, or diagonally striped tie. The tie rack was bulging with many draped over one another. I pulled them out and threw them on the bed. I then remembered the boxes of old ties on the closet floor.
When moving to our current house, after living in our former home for 23 years, I was packing up my closet to move everything. I ran across some old ties that were slung over wooden hangers and tossed in the back of the closet. I never liked to throw ties away – I simply stashed them into the dark corners. So, facing the movers’ arrival the next morning, I quickly took all my ties and dumped them in several boxes. I taped them shut and allowed them to be moved to our new residence. Now upon retrieving those boxes, I opened and tossed the contents of those boxes on the bed as well. I started to count them. I lost the accuracy of the count somewhere around 350. Ties from the 70s through present day were now piled high.
The first thing that struck me was color, variety, and patterns. What a diversity of silk along with other fashionable materials through the decades. At the same time, my life flashed in front of me. My burnt orange wool tie from my bank interview in the late 70s, the maroon and black silk tie worn for my promotion picture to Executive Vice President. The smooth silk solid silver tie worn for my daughter’s wedding and, yet another silk silver tie with a diagonal texture of silver worn for my other daughter’s wedding. Also, the tie worn on my last day of work. The champagne stain, a result of opening several bottles at my party, was only slightly evident among the yellow, black and tan paisley pattern.
I realized my life was connected to all these pieces of material. My creative juices began to flow. I could not release these ties to a thrift shop for someone else to purchase and wear. These items were too personal.
Being released from occupational conservative order and balance, I now wanted to express my newfound creativity. I decided to someday cut all those ties into small pieces and create two quilts, the pieces all randomly sewn together. Color would be splashed everywhere. Design patterns would clash. The two would be similar but unique. Someday I will give the quilts to my two daughters, passing along to them my life. How they choose to use the quilts will be up to them. If they want to stash them on the shelf in the hall closet, that will be fine. If they want to pass them along to their children, or use them as a picnic blanket, it will make no difference. If they wrap themselves in their quilt after my death giving them comfort, then the work in creating them will be worth it.
Yes, creativity is not work— it is love.