Shaping by Hilary Schaper
All men will resemble one another in the way they use
their feet. But no one can tell what any given man will
do with his hands. . . . The hand is the direct connect
with man’s soul. . . . When a free spirit exists, it aches to
materialize in some form of work, and for this, the hands
are needed. Everywhere we find traces of men’s handiwork
and through these, we catch a glimpse of his spirit.
My father stands before a worktable in a small greenhouse that adjoins the living room. Nearly six feet tall, he towers over a nine-inch weeping hemlock bonsai, or perhaps a Chinese elm. His engagement is total, forehead creased in concentration—perhaps he does not hear his children and wife screaming at one another on the other side of the door, engaged in their perpetual feud. His work demands a surgeon’s precision, though his blocky fingers often get in the way. He bends a branch—not too much for fear of breaking it—and, from a spool, unwinds a thin wire, which he twists to secure the limb. He forces another bough outward, mooring it as well with steel thread. A third, he clips, and a leaf no larger than a fingernail falls to the table.
“Why does the tree look that way?” I asked him once as a child.
“It’s a miniature of a larger tree,” he answered.
“But why? Why does it grow like that?”
“It’s trained, shaped. It’s an art. A beautiful art.”
“It’s horrible. Why can’t you let the tree grow like it’s supposed to?”
“This is the way it’s done. It’s very exact.”
“I hate it. Hate it!”
As I ran from the room, I heard him say, “You’re wrong.”
As a child, I knew my outrage over the bonsai trees spoke to a deep identification, but I couldn’t have described it that way. Like them, I stood helpless before him: an object to be shaped at his whim. The wire wrapped around an errant branch pierced my upper arm. The metal thread used to train a branch sliced a trench across my thigh. Each twist of the steel prevented me from following a passion—acting, teaching preschool—and positioned me instead to do something I didn’t want—studying and practicing law.
My father scrutinized everything, from how I packed a suitcase to how I changed a light bulb. He even dictated what I should eat when I traveled to France during high school. For months before I left, often at the dinner table, he would criticize my aversion to cheese and mushrooms, two foods he loved. “You have to eat them, or you’ll miss a big part of the country,” he insisted. His badgering was relentless, inescapable. It threatened to crush me and my excitement. Because I couldn’t differentiate his doubts and anxieties from my own, I worried that his prediction would come true. Now, I understand that he was expressing his enthusiasm about the opportunity to encounter a different culture, as well as his uneasiness and trepidation at my traveling without the family. He wanted to assure my safety and success.
During my teen years, he exhorted me to read the dictionary from beginning to end, as though that were the highest measure of erudition. I never even made it to “aa.” His loftiest ambition materialized when I was in college: I should write the “great American novel,” like Heller and Hemingway, Bellow and Mailer. That I had never expressed a desire to write—or had written at all—didn’t matter. Neither did the fact that the themes and concerns of these writers were alien to my interests and sensibilities. I wonder now whether these were aspirations he harbored for himself. Though unrealistic, he kept assuring me—assuring us both—that they were within my reach.
Were I to ask now why he exerted so much pressure, he’d likely maintain that he was only trying to help. He didn’t mean to hinder me. His training, once imposed, needed no reinforcement. Like the bonsai, I grew in on myself. My efforts to fulfill his expectations—of how I should behave, what I should do, who I should be—undermined my self-confidence. Even when I did what I wanted (marrying though he disapproved of my choice of husband, quitting the law), I obsessively questioned every step and found little satisfaction in the freedom I’d won. Even the day before my wedding, I worried that I was making a huge mistake—I wasn’t—though I loved my fiancé.
It was my father who took me to museums, initiating me into a consideration of beauty and wonder. There, Memling, Renoir, and Tintoretto shimmered on the walls. As if outlining the constellations, he sketched shapes in the air, his thick index finger like a stylus. His enthusiasm in the presence of masters knew no bounds. He wanted to share his passion, to teach me to see. Because I loved and admired him, I wanted to be like him, to possess his knowledge and insight. At the same time, under his ceaseless instruction, I felt trapped as if in a confessional, space pinched, walls close, ceiling low, the priest’s breath near.
My father studied art extensively, and his tastes were wide-ranging. Often, we would stand side by side before a painting, his left arm on my shoulder as he drew me close to explain. I felt proud that he’d created a shelter for the two of us—a private viewing chamber—and that he spoke to me alone, siblings nowhere in sight. My eagerness and devotion set me apart and earned me, for a moment at least, the coveted position of favorite child. Even so, as his voice swelled in the stillness of the gallery, I grew uneasy. Did excitement cause his tone to grow more urgent, or something else? I peeked at the guard to see if he was staring or would approach to ask my father to pipe down.
Once, when I was an adolescent, my father took me to an Andy Warhol opening. There, amid giant boxes of Corn Flakes and canvases of Campbell soup cans, I stood gaping as he explained that, by co-opting and incorporating images of familiar objects, the artist upended society’s preconceptions and flouted the conventions of traditional art. The work was dazzling in its boldness, its color, its size, but most magnetizing was the museum director’s silk-screened Warhol tie of dollar bills. Dollar bills? Dollar bills! It was astonishing and exotic and crazy that the image of a dollar could be fashioned into clothing. I appreciated the irony in the director’s choice of attire for the splashy, avant-garde premiere.
Another afternoon, at the Whitney Museum, he led me to the installation of Alexander Calder’s circus figures, crafted from wood, wire, cloth, cork, and yarn. “Stand here where you can best see the acrobats,” my father directed. “Now, go over there. Look at the trapeze artists swinging on the wire.” The performers’ intricacy and miniature size was captivating. There were so many: the lion, the parachutist, the horseback rider, the stilt walker, the flag-waver, and the circus ring itself.
My father taught me to identify fifteenth-century Flemish paintings by their religious subjects and pale blue landscapes. The Madonna and Christ—the artists’ principal concern, according to him—dominated the foreground. But the distant background of tiny hills and rivers, and castles and turrets, transported me, as though in a fairy tale. On the blue horizon, I could live in a miniature palace or a fortress, far from my daily life.
I remember once standing with my father in front of an Italian painting of a saint. Bending slightly, he thrust his hand toward the image. “What’s this a picture of?” he asked. I looked up at a stiff, skinny cartoon-like figure. How to answer? But before I could even try, he told me: “It’s a saint. People prayed to saints in churches. This piece would have been in a church, maybe on an altar, the table at the front of the church.”
When he asked me, “What do you think it’s painted on?” I fumbled for clues. “It’s painted on wood, a panel of wood.” His voice crowded the gallery space, ceded by my muteness. “That was the easiest material for artists to find at that time.” Silently, I began to repeat his words as they skittered all around me. He pulled me closer, so much so that I smelled the onions he had for breakfast. My interest in the painting plummeted as his enthusiasm intensified. I wanted to stand alone, yearned to observe the painting through my own eyes.
“Now, look at that background. Isn’t it striking? It’s real gold. It’s called gold leaf. Artists at that time painted gold backgrounds in religious scenes. In fact, all art back then was religious. See if you can tell me why.”
I wanted to please him, to demonstrate my worthiness—all to bring me closer to him, all to win his love. But I couldn’t respond. I couldn’t even think. He began to explain and explain and explain some more. A rush of words poured over me, threatening to submerge me. I was dizzy, drowning. I needed to come up for air. “The church commissioned artists to paint scenes from the Bible because most people were illiterate,” he said. “They couldn’t read.”
As if underwater, I saw my father’s mouth move. I longed to break free, to explore the bright shapes and colors on the other walls. Across the room, a painting beckoned: an angel with brilliant red wings and a lily in hand bows to a young woman. The young woman’s expression is demure, but her gesture—one hand raised—seems to indicate fear or alarm. A halo surrounds the woman’s head. The painting is beautiful—the clothes, the gold brocade background, the small town in the distance through a window. I can’t pull my eyes away. There is much to see, much to understand. Why is the angel bowing? Why does he hold a lily? Who is the woman? I move closer and look deeper into the painting for a clue to its meaning. I feel as though I am on a treasure hunt, excited about the discoveries that await me.
But my father’s grip on my shoulder anchored me. When he finished explaining, when he decided what he wanted to show me next, when he was ready, we would move to another piece of art. His arm propelled me in the proper direction. I know my father meant to open a universe to me, to share his passion for art. This may have been the one unadulterated pleasure he could pass on. For him, art was a refuge from the demands of a medical practice, or from family battles. In the presence of art—in museums and private galleries—he found a place to renew himself. Art was his faith: a belief system, miraculous and awe-inspiring. And yet he approached it with his usual rigidity, intellectually, analytically. Though he appreciated beauty, he needed first to understand its conceptual and historical context. Looking at art was a serious endeavor, demanding rigor.
Bonsai cultivation is also a meticulous practice, guided by age-old custom. While imposing a distinctive aesthetic upon small trees, it also encourages creativity. Perhaps it was this that attracted my father: the balance between order and improvisation. Equally appealing, I imagine, was the possibility of sculpting a living species to his specifications. My father yearned, I think, to express himself artistically, but within knowable bounds. A blank canvas may have proved too daunting, failing to offer the measure of control he needed even over his desire to produce art. Growing bonsai, then, was the perfect pursuit.
For this man of few, if any, traditions, the bonsai provided a connection to an ancient practice. It promised, too, a kind of safety: if he heeded the rules, the tree would blossom as it should. How reassuring that must have been for my father, who often recited can-do aphorisms but saw obstacles everywhere. Though intelligent, successful in the medical profession, beloved by family and patients, he felt—as my mother confided many years later—that he never quite measured up. None of his achievements—or ours—were sufficient. There was always something more to chase, to gain, to master: a higher degree, a better job, a greater salary. These feelings, he projected onto his wife and children. According to my mother, he wished he’d been an attorney. Returning home each evening to the unhappy home just outside the greenhouse perhaps confirmed a lurking sense that something was missing. But, of course, none of this was ever discussed.
Distant by nature, my father retreated to his small sanctum, where the world fell away. There, he practiced his art, imagination his only limit. He alone conceived his project—what kind of tree, whether to grow it from a seed or cutting, its shape, size, style—and he alone made it beautiful.
I see my father bend to the flowering quince in the greenhouse. He bends again as he tries to gauge the correct distance between the base of the trunk and the first branch. From the table, he takes a pair of cutters. He edges the first two fingers of his left hand along the top of the branch, and the thumb beneath it. He guides the bottom branch between the blades and snips it at the trunk. The lowest branch is now one-third of the way up the trunk, as tradition dictates. He runs his fingers through the leaves, amazed at their perfect size and shape. Uncoiling wire, he threads it along the trunk.
My father considers how the tree would look if he trained a branch at a particular angle, or lopped leaves off a high limb. What if he allowed the tree to grow upright, or pruned it so that it tapered at the top, or at the bottom? My father visualizes the possibilities of how best to achieve his dream. The perfect bonsai. Imagine him imagining. I see his thick hands move with grace as he clips the unwanted leaves.
Hilary Schaper’s essays have been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize, earned an honorable mention from New Letters, and been a finalist in Prime Number Magazine’s creative nonfiction contest. Her work appears in the Los Angeles Review, Hotel Amerika, The Baltimore Review, and other literary journals. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and holds an MFA in creative writing from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. In a previous life, she practiced law.