Grandpa’s Paint Can

It hit me that all our lives are like his paint can, with each day represented as a streak of paint. We can choose the color our days will be.

When I was 13 years old, I thought that I had life all figured out. I thought that I had all the time in the world, and so did everyone else. Then something happened—something that had an eternal impact on my life—and I realized that I had a lot left to learn.

In the spring of my 13th year, my grandpa, my mother’s father, died. He had been very ill for six weeks, but still his death was unexpected and very sad for all of my family.

Because my grandmother had died the previous year, their home was now vacant. All of the activities that had taken place there for the last 25 years were now only fond memories. The house in Salt Lake City stood there with birds on the roof and tall trees hugging almost every corner; within its walls the memories filled each room with an empty silence.

As my mother and her two sisters worked to remove everything from my grandparents’ home in order to sell it, they would come across objects that recalled a certain precious time or event in their lives. Even a small object, such as a vase or a book, could revive a feeling that had faded with time. When an especially meaningful object was found, they would draw lots to see who would get the privilege of keeping it. It was the most fair way of deciding what to do.

Through this process of drawing lots, my mother acquired my grandpa’s old paint can. My grandpa had been a painter for most of his life. He painted cars mainly but would do other things, too. When I was little, I sometimes used to watch him work. I used to watch his skilled hands in awe as he slowly, yet with confidence and pride, painted our car. Grandpa loved his work. He had an attitude of perfection and always did his best. I wondered why he did his job this way, since he received the same payment regardless of how carefully he worked. I later came to realize that an inner pride made him want to do his best. From this attitude and the quality of his work, he earned a reputation as an excellent painter.

At first I couldn’t understand why my mother even wanted the old paint can. It was dusty and bent, with many different colors of paint streaks dripped down its sides. It was puzzling to me why my mother was so happy to have it. Personally, I couldn’t see that it had worth.

After a time, my mother decided to use the paint can to hold the paint brushes she uses for her hobbies. She washed and dried the can with a solemn reverence. My dad carefully straightened a bent part on the can as if to try to bring it back to a former state of perfection. My mother then sprayed the can with clear lacquer.

When she had finished, I couldn’t believe the transformation that had taken place before my eyes. It was no longer an old, dirty paint can, but a powerful remembrance of a life.

Every streak of color represented a day in my grandpa’s life. He had spent hours at work doing a job, and when that job was finished, he went on to the next one, and the next color. The pattern that was left was unique and varied—as was his life.

As the months passed, I thought more and more about my grandpa’s paint can. One day a thought struck me. All of our lives are like his paint can, with each day represented as a streak of paint. Whatever we do, we are exchanging a day of our lives for it. We can choose the “color” our days will be—some days are bright and others dark; some days overshadow others. Some days can even be redone by wiping out a bad “color” through repentance. When our lives are finished, we want to look back at them and be proud of how they turned out, as my grandpa was proud of his work.

Whenever I see my grandpa’s paint can, I always think of his life. I hope that somehow he knows how much he has influenced my life for good. He has inspired me to do my best. He left me a legacy—his example, his love, and his paint can.

[photos] Family photos courtesy of Heather Mary Ann Smith’s family; still-life photography by Philip Shurtleff