Painting My Wild West Grandpa


The second time I painted his portrait, we sat outside next to a row of four-foot marigolds that he grew along the side of his house.  Grandpa seemed especially talented at growing things- I always wondered if it had something to do with a lifetime of farming.  It was in contrast with his wild west toughness but I noticed in him a fondness for ornamental flowers: marigolds, daffodils, hyacinths.  I began to paint, and he draped his hand over the side of his chair as he nonchalantly enjoyed the sunshine.  We chatted a bit as I mixed the colors that cascaded over his forehead: golden highlights, warm midtones, cool shadows.

Suddenly, a large wasp made a swift overhead landing onto my palette near the pinks in the upper right hand corner.  It went straight for the pink paint— Old Holland’s Brilliant Rose.  I shot up and abandoned my palette on my chair and tried to shoo it away.  After checking the edges of my chair a few times to be sure it was gone, I tentatively resumed painting.  We continued to chat a bit and I started to work on mixing more colors.  

Then up from the underside of the palette, the wasp!  A sneak attack! In an instant, it had grasped the palette with its spiny wasp feet, alive with tension, and with staccato steps, just to gain its bearings, it shot toward the pink. A stinger pulsed at the end of its sleek black abdomen- all the better to defend its new conquest- that irresistibly big shining bubblegum pink blob of Brilliant Rose.  Before all this had fully registered I had hopped up and let out a squeaking sound as the palette clattered down onto the ground and I jumped a foot away.  “Oh,” Grandpa said slowly, as his brows drew together in concern.  “Are they botherin’ ya?” He asked with unruffled but kindly concern. I explained that I was allergic, and as I regathered my palette and resumed painting, I told him about all of the things that would happen if I got stung. He paused and considered.  “Oh,” he said, and considered again. “Me, too.  Well.... to bees.” I glanced involuntarily to his hand, which was within an inch and a half of the marigolds.  The bright orange flowers were alive with bees in the August sun.  “I suppose,” he continued, “If I got stung, I would need to get in a car real quick and have someone drive me to the hospital.” The way grandpa said hos-pi-tal emphsized all three syllables, and he said it with a slow, uncaring, mater-of-fact tone, as though merely repeating what someone else had told him, and he said it with the mildest hint of distain.  “In fact, if I got stung, I am supposed to have one of those... oh what do you call them?” And he made a shot-like gesture at his arm and looked at me.  “You stick yourself?” “Oh!” I said. “An epi pen?” “Yeah, somethin’ like that.  Well I had one of those, once, in my glovebox... I was supposed to carry it around with me.  And well, you’re supposed to get a new one every ten years or so, or they get “cloudy”.  And mine got old and cloudy.  So I threw it away.  And that was the end of that.”

“What!” I interjected. “So you never got a new one?”


I had to smile.  

I inquired about when he realized he was allergic to bees, and what happens to him of he gets stung. He explained that he hadn’t always been allergic.  But one day in the summer, back on the farm, he was out with his tractor.  He drove near a tree and perhaps he hit a low hanging branch accidentally that had a bees nest in it.  I can’t remember exactly what he said happened, but something he did provoked them. A swam of bees attacked him an flew after the tractor.  He tried to out run them with the tractor and shoo them off, but even though he drove as fast as he could toward home, the swarm of stinging bees kept pace with him.  Somehow, the maddened bees got up under his hat.  He had 20 or 30 stingers in his head and a bunch of dying bees in his hair when he got home. Since that time his body had developed a reaction.  He described what happened when he had been stung since - the swelling and trouble breathing and finally the prescription of the epi pen.  I was shocked.  I had had no idea.  

Meanwhile, as he talked and I painted, the bees buzzed around his hand, happily engrossed in the marigolds.  

“Grandpa! I said, “What about these bees!”— I gestured at his hand in the flowers.  “Do you need to be careful?”

“Oh,” he said, with simplicity, and if it had not occurred to him. Without moving his hand, he said in his measured way,  “They don’t bother me.”

 I, on the other hand, felt jumpy and kept imagining the wasp re-landing on the side of my palette, and couldn’t stop thinking of grandpa, one bee sting away from anaphylactic shock.  Every time I thought I felt something, I startled a bit.  After about a half an hour he said, “Are they botherin’ ya?”  There was no judgement in it, only kindness.  “We can go inside.”  It was true, they were bothering me, and I had to honestly answer yes.  So even though I knew that he was enjoying the sun, I packed up the paints and the palette, and we made our way up the steps to the front door. I finished the study for the portrait as we talked at his kitchen table.  

Melissa Carmon