On Monday night I was in Detroit, visiting my grandparents, who have lived in the area, on and off, since forever. These days are hard for my grandfather, who is sharp enough to know that he’s been sharper. He is railing against old age, sometimes cursing it and sometimes ignoring it. He mistakenly subtracted two decades when he told my husband that he is 66, and more than once he stared meaningfully into my eyes as though he were counting seconds.
We walked out of the Middle Eastern restaurant and into the unseasonably warm night. I carried the leftovers, and my grandmother had a tight grip on my grandfather’s arm. After helping her into the car, he reached in and handed me an envelope, which had my name, first and last, sketched out in perfect, vibrant all caps. In the movies, I think, this would have been a last will and testament. “Read it when you’re by yourself,” he told me. “I want to know what you think.”
The Detroit suburbs are a sprawl of strip malls and planned communities ribboning out past miles of abandoned and unloved property, much of which is too defaced or neglected to show any sign of the life my grandfather remembers. He is resistant to visiting those areas now, but still, he wants to remember. “Too Old, Too Soon, Too Late, Too Bad,” is the title of the one-page essay I hold on the flight back to New York.
The words and the sketches inside are the story of his need, quite simply to tell his story. It’s the story of Paint-by-Numbers – a 1950s leisure phenomenon born in Detroit when my grandfather sketched out a prototype that’s now my Twitter avatar. Abstract #1, he called it. (It’s pictured above.)
“Does anyone care?” he had wondered aloud, over piles of chicken shawarma. Yes, we insisted, but his unspoken questions about his legacy hung in the silence and now in the distance between us. Sitting there, in the middle of a city that has, in his lifetime, risen and fallen with the American car, I didn’t know what to say. I still don’t, though I know there is a story there, about one man’s desire to create an image and a nation’s interest in putting their own stamp on it.