Nuestro Papaito 

Que se vaya en paz

Thirty-nine years ago, I was persuaded to join the cast on-stage for a production of The Pirates of Penzance, one of those frothy Gilbert and Sullivan confections of high music and low goofery. I had been in musicals before, but only as a lowly horn tooter down in the pit, largely invisible to the audience.

But six months into my youthful sojourn to Ohio, the friends I had made were all associated in one capacity or another with the local amateur theater group. When the eight-week cycle of tryouts, partying, rehearsals, partying, performances and partying began, it was obvious that to continue to party alongside them, I had to go through the tryouts, the rehearsals and the performances alongside them, as well.

I had been on stages before, too, but never without a trombone to hide behind, and certainly never as a singer and dancer. One can't be in a production of The Pirates of Penzance without having to proclaim--in song, loudly--what a glorious thing it is to be a pirate king, all while hoofing out a jolly hornpipe.

It was an intense and exhilarating experience, and the closer we got to the actual performances, the more intense and exhilarating it got. Yet it wasn't until the sets started going up, when the bare wooden boards were transforming into a barren beach on the coast of England, that I realized, Yikes, this is really gonna happen!

I'll save for a later time what it was like to see the curtain rise from the back side, to know that beyond those blinding lights were a few hundred people you might run into on the street the following day, all while wearing gobs of makeup and a get-up Elton John might be embarrassed to be seen in. What is most relevant to this story I bring today was the man who had volunteered to paint the sets. As we rehearsed, I couldn't help but watch him work in the background--quietly, unassumingly, almost shyly, embarrassed I think to have so many people looking on. It was magic, the way he so rapidly turned flat and featureless plywood and cardboard into three-dimensions, brushing vitality and texture to mossy boulders and sand dunes and even a major-general's seaside manor. Who is this guy? I thought, and why is such a talent here, in Smallsburg, Ohio, giving his gift away to a bunch of amateur theater nerds?

He was an immigrant from Venezuela I was to learn, a photo retoucher by trade, and the father of two of our cast members. He was also the father of a woman I had yet to meet, but who would eventually become my wife. His paintings--oils, watercolors, charcoal and pencil; there is no medium that he couldn't tame--number in the hundreds, if not thousands, and he gave them all away. To his family, to his friends and to his church to auction off during fundraising drives. His seven children cannot remember him ever selling a painting for his own profit. Every stroke he laid to canvas, every splash of color, every swath of shadow and every delicate leaf, were done out of the purest love for making art I have ever personally seen in any sort of artist. And when he was done with them, he gave them out freely to the people he loved. And he loved a lot of people.

His name was Antonio Rivero--Tony--a gentleman if I ever met one. He came to America in the late '50s, when his new wife, Mary--a missionary nurse who had fallen in love with him and his kids--brought them all back to her home in Ohio. Evidently, you can take the man out of Venezuela, but you can't take the Venezuela out of the man. Until his eyes failed him and his hand trembled from advanced age, he painted scene after scene of Venezuela as he remembered it--the flowers and birds, the villas and beaches and gardens, each and every work an eruption of color, life and tenderness. I have lost count of how many of his paintings hang on our walls, and our home is a happier one for their presence.

Tony died yesterday. He was 94. I wrote a column nine years ago congratulating Mary and him on their golden anniversary. I went to Florida--they had moved about the same time I brought their daughter and granddaughter back to Idaho with me--to be there when they renewed their vows. Love may be hard to define for some, but not if they've known a couple like Tony and Mary, even after 50 years together.

Mary died five years ago, and Tony had been in failing health since. He kept trying to paint, but the flesh, as they say, was unwilling. To make matters worse, after a lifelong love of music that was as deep in him as in any musician I've known, he had gone deaf. It is certainly not a blessing to me that he has passed, or to his kids, or grandkids, or great-grandkids, but I suspect to Tony, it may have been. To be imprisoned in silence, unable to participate in the continuing creation, must have been excruciating for that man.

I couldn't not say something about him this week. Right now, in our household, nothing else matters as much. Aside from the pain my wife is going through, his signature has been writ large on the canvas of my own life. My wife and daughters, my home and garden, my history and my future--little of that could be what it is without him.

He was as unlike my own father as you might expect of a roughneck plumber and a refined painter. Yet in the sacrifices they made for their families, in the steady stream of love they provided their children, in the graciousness with which they forgave our failings and the joy with which they shared our triumphs, they could have been the same man. And now, once again, for the second time in my life, I feel like I have been orphaned.

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