I’m standing in the doorway watching my little cousin Ricky draw a landscape portrait of the lake and hillsides at our grandparents’ cottage. He’s sitting on their bed, quietly poking through a big box of half-used crayons, making his selection, testing it on the box, and holding it just above his notepad. Pausing, he carefully assesses his subject matter before drawing a deliberate outline of the area to be coloured in. It’s a little hard to see from the doorway, but it looks like he’s doing a good job, though I might not agree with all of his colour choices. His sunset seems heavy on purple.Looking at the crayon box, I remember repairing the hinges on the lid with Grandpa. He built it to last and I’m sure the box will live beyond even what he intended. The only drawback is that the box weighs more than the crayons. As little kids we were taught that this would help us build strong muscles. I remember the proud day when I was able to lift it all by myself. It was a rite of passage, the rule being that anybody who was strong enough to lift the box was strong enough to put it back after they finished colouring. It was a great way to get me and my cousins to clean up after ourselves.The surface of the box looks alive from all of Ricky’s crayon test marks. I drew a lot with those crayons when I was a kid, though I never had the maturity to look at my surroundings and try to draw them. I stuck to what I knew, imaginative characters and the like. It looks as if Ricky’s finishing the orange section of the sky. Here we go, back to the box for another crayon. I can see remnants of my own doodling on the outside of the box, a stick-man action sequence complete with laser guns and explosions, faded over years. Ricky has his next crayon in hand and he’s tipping the box slightly away from himself to make the test mark. I’m noticing that his test marks are done in what looks like a pattern. I stand on my tip-toes to see better. I think I see him adding to one of the explosions in my stick-man laser gun drawing. I feel a measure of pride at having my drawing chosen for refurbishing.When I was a kid I just drew over whatever faded drawings had once graced the outside of the box and my siblings did the same. We didn’t draw over each other’s drawings immediately, not that same summer, but the next summer it was as if the box were fair game, ready for the doodling. Now the outside of the box must be many layers thick in childhood fantasies. It’s funny how we did that, how it never occurred to me to add to, instead of colour over, the previous drawings. I guess we were all pretty competitive kids whereas Ricky is essentially an only child. My uncle Barry re-married late, making Ricky 15 years younger than his half-sister. I feel bad for him sometimes, that he’s on his own when the rest of the cousins had such a good time growing up together. Maybe that’s partly why he’s adding to the faded drawing: it’s a way of interacting with the imaginations of the kids who have gone before him.Now he’s back to the landscape drawing, filling in the red parts of the sunset. He’s placed the box beside him, and it appears that he’s been gradually adding to the faded doodles on all sides of the box as he goes. Characters with bulging eyes and oversized heads have newly defined features, and some even have entirely reconstructed backgrounds. I crane my head to get a better angle. I’m still standing in the doorway, at least 10 feet from where Ricky is sitting, and it’s difficult to see from this distance. I start to take a step into the room, then stop, not wanting to disturb this peaceful scene. There must be an alternative. Immediately I think of the binoculars, but then I see them lying beside Ricky on the bed. Darn!I remember there being a second pair of binoculars in the living room. Slipping away silently, I tiptoe through the kitchen, see my reflection in the window and realize that I’m being ridiculous. I stop, smile to myself and shake my head, then notice the second pair of binoculars sitting on a window sill. I pick them up and return to the bedroom.“Hi Ricky,” I say.Ricky turns around, “Hi Mike.”“Mind if I join you?” I ask.“Sure. It’s a nice night,” he says.“I noticed you’ve been adding to the drawings on the box. I like your work, and your picture of the sunset,” I say.“Thanks,” he says.I take a good look at his drawing of the sunset and notice that the purple is now part of a gradual spectrum of colour, making the sky look very real, but his lake is a solid blue. Through the binoculars’ limited view, I am able to show him how the colours of the sky actually reflect in the water of the lake. He compares this with his drawing and becomes interested to see all the colours reflecting off of the lake. He discovers that the more he looks towards the sun, the more the water takes on the colours of the sky, and that the hills around us reflect as well. As the sun disappears behind a hill, we sit back and watch the rays reflect off of the clouds. I take a second look at his drawing. The sky is just right. I make a mental note to encourage him to draw in the future. He’s got something.“Do you know whose drawing this is that you’re colouring in?” I ask, pointing at the box and the newly coloured explosion in my stick-man action shot.“Did you do that?” he asks.“Yep,” I say.“You’re pretty good,” he says, still staring at the box.“Thanks,” I say, “though I’m not as good as you.”The corners of Ricky’s mouth curl in a slight smile. I get up off the bed and leave him in the room to admire his own work. It’s dinner time.
Part II: That’s Cool
I walk back into the kitchen daydreaming of Ricky’s future success as an artist and my role as the older cousin who guided him. I see myself in pictures, standing in the background, with the caption reading, “Richard Talbot, acclaimed painter, accepts award, accompanied by his cousin and mentor Michael Blackburn.” In the picture, I’m holding a cane and sporting my Panama hat. I consider whether he should change his last name to something more artsy, like Pasteur, and then it dawns on me that my last name, Blackburn, is even less artsy than his. Finally, I catch myself daydreaming and come back to reality. I’ve got a cloth in one hand, binoculars in the other, and I’m wiping the dust off of the window sill where I first found the binoculars. I’m not sure how I picked up the habit of mindless cleaning, but it comes in handy for keeping the cabin tidy.Ricky carries the box of crayons into the kitchen and places it on the kitchen table. He has taken my cue to heart and is sitting down to finish refurbishing all of the drawings on the outside of the box.“Are you going to finish your sunset?” I ask.“Yeah, tomorrow, when the light is better,” he says.“If you want more light, I can set up some lamps for you,” I say.“No, I want daylight,” he says.“Ahhh, because daylight is better, not just brighter?” I say.“Yeah,” he says, “for a sunset.”“That’s cool,” I say.“Yeah, that’s cool,” he replies.I remember that I’m looking after an eight year old who’s absorbing everything I say and do. I make a note to myself to articulate my thoughts better.“What I mean is, I like the confidence you have in what light to use,” I say, attempting to provide a thoughtful replacement for, “That’s cool.”“That’s cool,” he says.I decide to ease off of the mentoring and get dinner on the table. I’m still holding the cloth I used to wipe the window sill. I toss it into the sink and then ask Ricky what he wants to drink and grab a beer for myself. A pot of stew that Aunt Mable made for us is sitting on the stove, already warm and ready to eat. I serve us each a bowl, cut some slices of fresh bread and bring it all to the table. We eat quietly. I let him continue colouring at the table. A new image appears in my head of Ricky working in his own studio, the walls covered in canvasses, and me visiting on occasion, mostly to say “hi,” but sometimes to buy paintings and support his work. And I’m older, wearing the Panama hat to cover my receding hairline and using the cane for support, instead of just for style as I had originally imagined.
Part III: Heroes Make Their Own Fun
As the drawings on the box come to life, I remember my childhood fantasies of playing the role of the hero and saving the day. That’s me in the stick-man action sequence, fighting off the bad guys, saving the damsel in distress, defending the city under siege and battling a world gone mad. I like to think that I’ve matured and adopted a more realistic view on life. Maybe I have, but I also realize that I’m still the stick-man in the action sequence, playing hero to my little cousin Ricky, my imagined artist prodigy, defending him against the evils of the real world and guiding him towards stardom, and myself with him. At least in part, it appears that my real world views have simply been adopted by my imagination as a new context in which to place me as a hero. With that thought, I make a silent toast to saving the day and finish my last swig of beer.“Mike?” Ricky says.“Yeah,” I reply.“Mike, when are my parents getting back again?” he asks.“They’ll be back tomorrow at noon,” I say.“Oh yeah, right” he says.He stops colouring and stares at the box. I wonder if he’s bored. There’s no television set here, which means we have to make our own fun, and I am getting the feeling that my usefulness as a playmate is dwindling rapidly. I get up, clear his half-eaten bowl of stew and suggest that he get ready for bed. He grumbles, but I assure him that he doesn’t have to go to bed right now. Then I suggest that he help me with the dishes and he disappears into his bedroom. When I’m halfway through the dishes he reappears in his pajamas. I ask him to dry and put away dishes, and I get him a chair to stand on so that he can reach the cupboards. For the next half hour we play a game of “Where does this dish go?” putting dishes back where they fit, some I’m sure in the wrong places. I tell Ricky that if Grandma was still around, she might not be pleased to see our reorganization of her kitchen. Ricky assures me that the way we put the dishes away is the best way. Ricky returns to the kitchen table to colour the crayon box. It seems the dishes did the trick. I thought for a moment at the end of dinner that I would be vainly trying to entertain him, if only to sustain my own sense that this cabin is a place where boredom dissolves and fun naturally surfaces. Fortunately, we managed to occupy ourselves in a good way.I wander into the living room to read my book and invite Ricky to join me. He picks up the crayon box and sets himself down on the couch beside me. I read while he colours. Just before he has to go to bed, he asks me which drawings on the crayon box belong to me and which ones belong to each of my siblings. To the best of my ability I tell him. He labels each one carefully, and leaves a question mark beside the ones I can’t identify. I tell him we’ll identify the rest at Christmas, which is the next time the extended family will be getting together at my grandparents’ cabin.
Part IV: Awesome Gestures
The next morning, when I get out of bed I notice that Ricky’s door is open and he is already up. To my surprise I find my Aunt Mable and Uncle Barry sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast. They changed their minds about staying the night at their friends’ house and got back not long after Ricky and I had gone to bed. They slept in my grandparents’ bedroom, which is on the other side of the cabin from my room, so I didn’t hear them come in.Scrambled eggs are on the stove and a second pot of coffee just finished brewing. As I grab my breakfast I notice the kitchen is rearranged, with all the items Ricky and I put away now placed in what I instantly recognize as Grandma’s exact order. Not having previously thought of dish placement as being important to others, I take a moment to notice where things are placed. Obviously, Grandma’s order still means something to Uncle Barry.“It looks like you made quite the impression on Ricky,” says Aunt Mable.“Oh, yeah?” I reply.“Yeah, he was in our room this morning finishing a picture of a sunset. He was up before we were. He said the morning light was most like evening light, and that he wanted to finish it before you leave today. He’s quite determined,” she says.Then Uncle Barry adds, “He also wanted to colour the crayon box.”“Yeah, he’s been doing that all weekend,” I say. “He’s returning the box to its former glory.” “Well, he wanted to erase one of the drawings to make room for one of his own, so we told him to wait until you got up,” says Uncle Barry.“Is he still in the bedroom?” I ask.“Yep, he’s been there all morning,” says Aunt Mable.I wander over to the bedroom and peer in. Ricky is sitting on the bed with the sunset picture behind him. It looks finished. I can see that he has coloured in places where we viewed the landscape with binoculars. It’s very realistic.“Morning Ricky,” I say.“Morning Mike,” he says, popping his head up momentarily to acknowledge me.“The sunset looks excellent,” I say. “Is it done?”Without looking up he says, “Uh-huh, finished it this morning.”I walk into the room to see what he’s doing. On a big sheet of paper he is drawing a large scale replica of my stick-man action sequence, exactly as it is on the crayon box, and in full colour. I realize right away that this is his way of asking if he can erase my drawing on the box and colour over it with one of his own.“That’s awesome,” I say.“Thanks,” he says. “It’s for you.”“You’re dad said you wanted a spot on the box?” I say.“Would this…?” he starts.“Yeah, definitely!” I say, “I think it’s a great solution. I really appreciate that you’re making a copy of my drawing for me. Your solution reminds me of something Grandpa would do. He always had good ideas. You must have inherited his talent.”He smiles, relieved to hear my agreement without having to ask for it. I return to the kitchen and tell Aunt Mable and Uncle Barry about Ricky’s solution and they look at each other with pride. After breakfast I do the dishes and Ricky comes to join me to dry and put everything away. He starts to play our game “Where does this dish go?”, and when I say we’re not playing that game this time, he assures me that Grandma wouldn’t be angry, which raises Aunt Mable and Uncle Barry’s eyebrows and gets their full attention. I explain to Ricky that we’re changing the rules and that we’ll ask Uncle Barry where things go if we don’t know. Feeling the watchful eye of his father, Ricky agrees to the new rule. “That’s cool,” he says.