Tonight Eileen and I watched the movie, “Saving Mr. Banks.” Like so many movies that don’t have aliens, explosions, tanks or hotrods, it wasn’t one I was naturally drawn to. I didn’t bother with it at the theater, and even waited a while after it came out to rent it from Vudu.com. Also, like so many movies that I am not naturally excited to see, I ended up loving every minute and was engrossed, enthralled and riveted to the very end.
“Saving Mr. Banks,” deals with the Author P. L. Travers, Walt Disney, and the making of the book, Mary Poppins,” into a movie. Without giving anything away for those who have not seen it, (I hate that…almost as much as I hate the term ‘spoiler alert’) there were a few things that connected with me in a personal way. The first was the setting in Australia, my home country. The second was the musical and artistic importance in the translation of storytelling, and how possessive one can be about their own characters and work. It’s a sentiment I more than have just a passing familiarity with. The third was a brown, butcher-paper kite…
I didn’t know my Grandfather for long and did not know him well. He died when I was very small, when I was still young enough that to think that all adults were born looking that way, and existed only to listen to my ideas of fancy. His name was Jack, but to me he was Grandpa.
I have a few pictures of he and I, and in them, he looks as I remember him today, but I don’t look anything like anyone I recall. When he would visit our house in the suburbs of Sydney, which was often, he would inevitably find his way to the work bench under one corner of the house, beside the carport. There he would spend time tinkering with whatever he wanted to do. When I think of him, it’s at the work bench that I see him. He would look down at me over his glasses and speak to me in short, soft sentences. I loved him, and remember feeling secure when he was around.
One day, after seeing Mary Poppins at the drive-in with the family, I asked him to make a kite for me. My father was a pilot, and of course I loved anything that would fly. In just a short period of time, Grandpa had crafted a brown, butcher-paper kite with a wooden cross brace, complete with a string through the middle. I was so excited I must have squealed with joy. For the next several hours I dragged that kite around the back yard, trying everything I could to get it to fly. Grandpa stood with his arms folded at the back of the house, watching over me as I tossed it up and ran, laid it on the ground and bolted to the back fence, threw it up into the air and dashed like a wild dog across the lawn, zigging and zagging, pulling the string and hoping to catch the wind.
After a while and quite out of breath, I inspected the kite more closely and found that Grandpa had covered both sides of the kite with the heavy brown paper, making it not only too heavy but also unable to fly. I brought it to his attention, but he said instead that it probably needed a tail. He took the kite back to the work bench and fashioned a long tail from string and brown butcher-paper bow-ties. To this day, I can clearly remember being impressed and inspired by how beautifully crafted the kite was, with its perfectly formed bow-tie tail and long diamond shape. Even the bow-ties on the tail grew smaller in size toward the end. Other than some fresh grass stains from hard landings, it was stout and undamaged. I'm sure I spent a lot more time running around the back yard in hopes that I could get it take off. I don’t remember quitting or stopping, but I have no doubt that I was exhausted when I finally did. That may have been his plan all along, although I doubt it. He really did want to see it soar as much as I.
Later, I showed the kite to my dad. He knew immediately what to do to get it flying, but I didn’t want it changed. Instead, I put the kite in a corner of my bedroom where I could see it from my bed. That corner was home to the things I valued…a guitar, some model airplanes I had built, and now Grandpa’s kite. I wish I still had it.
Grandpa was very creative. He was a master needle point artist, and would also make animals and other shapes from pipe cleaners. (You never see them anymore, but when a man wanted to clean the stem of his tobacco pipe, he used a disposable, thin, cotton covered piece of wire, about 6 inches long). He was also a fine mechanic and possessed many other talents, I'm certain. He also had a darkish side, according to Dad, and would ignore Grandma for days at a time if he was upset about something.
It’s funny, thinking about Grandpa and the kite. What a thing of such beauty, so as to be perceived by me as a small child. It didn’t fly worth a damn, but looking back, I’m not sure that was its purpose. His devotion for me was expressed not in the functionality of the thing, but in its loving and careful construction. To this day that brown, butcher-paper kite that lived almost all of its life in the corner of my bedroom in its place of honor, was perhaps the most perfect of things I have ever known. Now when I build, or weld, woodwork, write or compose music, I can often feel and touch with my mind’s eye, the smooth whittled cross-brace, the crisp clean folds of the fragile paper skin and the perfectly symmetrical wings of the bow-ties that seemed to shrink ever smaller on their way to the feathered string tail that made up the end of the kite. These images serve to motivate and inspire me in ways I am not always conscious of.
I’d like to think that Grandpa lives on in my life like his kite. Not everything I’ve done has worked out. No matter how much I try to “drag” some poorly imagined idea to fruition, more often than just on occasion, it doesn’t fly. I would, however, like to think that the things I build in life at least have the attention and artistry that lives somewhere in my DNA, just like my Grandpa before me. My dad used to tell me, whenever we spoke of Grandpa, that I was the “apple of his eye.” There is something wonderful in that. There is something important in how you hold the vision of someone you are doing something for. There is something imperative between the artist, the beneficiary of that rare gift of an item, a poem or a song, a story, a sculpture, a painting or yes, even a brown butcher-paper kite