We Rhode Islanders revere the reverie of piracy. The dream of adventure and romance on the high seas, with a focus on the concept of buried treasure chests just beneath the sandbars at our nearest beach.
Well, my last and youngest uncle, at the age of 16, transformed the cellar of my then-brand-new house into a den of such thieves and villains. He depicted on the basement walls an image of me (or maybe either of my older brothers) reading “Treasure Island,” with my head resting against the big oak tree that is still standing there despite the cobblestones, and falling asleep as the book slips into dreamland.
The rest of the dungeon is depicted through images, or a Purim play, with Haman villains and a Mordecai mentor and a lovely siren Esther, like a movie version starring a glamorous star. In my uncle’s version, a pirate points a pistol, setting fire to another ship, or counts contraband coins.
This extensive mural was written up in the Providence Journal, and I have saved it, lo, these many decades, loyally and fondly.
This uncle, Herbert L. Fink, became a successful grown-up artist, as well as a soldier in World War II. He was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge, and, like many a veteran, hobbled on crutches as he recovered, more or less, from the scars. He sought solace in his studio.
This uncle graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design on the GI bill, and brought me, his young nephew, there some six decades ago and more.
I have inherited those illustrations on the basement walls of what is now, and has long been, my own residence. And now, it is my time to reclaim that pirate realm in what I call my “id.”
An undergrad professor of mine compared the concept of the human personality to a house. Your superego is the attic, where you keep tokens of your family’s past, such souvenirs as suit the pride of your clan. The parlor is your ego, where, by the hearth, you receive guests and converse as intelligently as possible. But below stairs, where the coal bin, the oil tank, shoot their raw energy upward to furnish the family with its basic needs, that is like your id.
Now, the time has come for me, as it does for most of us, to dismantle my office, my workplace, and I must either toss out my treasures or find a room to store my past, my souvenirs, the tools of my trade.
So I have spent some serious time carting and hauling books, papers, keepsakes, small gifts left by models, disciples, guests and visitors, and endeavoring to find a shelf or a nook or cranny where I can more or less keep these tokens safe and secure.
I acknowledge that wives do not welcome their husbands’ habits of bringing endless, useless grown-up toys to clutter up their dreams of order, peace and quiet, cleanliness and conventional comforts. So I have had to sneak my stuff down those steep steps only on days when my wife is not at home. (But, of course, she is wise to my efforts and my evasions.)
Anyway, to me, this has been a genuine challenge: how to be neat, not overly obsessive, and discreet throughout this adventure.
Growing up, we had a secret “pantry,” where my mother used to keep jars full of the jellies and preserves she concocted from apples or cucumbers, such treasures as might please her three finicky sons. It turned out that this space was perfect for me to stack books, papers and mementos of one kind or another.
It is the metaphor, the poetry of this adventure, that has taken up my time.
Pirates are independent souls, good or bad, romantic or villainous, heroic or cowardly. My uncle used the faces, the eyes, of our shared kin, so my basement is a family album of eyes, cheekbones, hands pointing in judgment.
I may keep the compliments from my students, or a dissatisfied disciple, for balance, and in fact I have been known to declare in class, “You need a teacher who looks down on your work, and also another one who admires and encourages you, both!”
So there, for now, I will leave it, and hope that a photography major can snap a few shots to illustrate, amuse and connect the boyhood of a nephew and the adult adventures of a professor emeritus in the month that recalls the fantasy of Purim, with its good guys plus a lovely and heroic lady and dreadful demons who get what they deserve.
How come Jewish kids enjoy dressing up as the bad guy?
MIKE FINK (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor emeritus at the Rhode Island School of Design.