Friday, June 18, 2010

My Earliest Memories of My Father

One of my earliest memories of my late father is watching him work behind an easel in the barn that served as his artist’s studio behind our house in Allenstown, New Hampshire. A Ben Franklin stove roared nearby, providing the only heat in this uninsulated building that we called a barn. It was really just a large outbuilding with an abandoned chicken coop tacked on to the end. One winter I jumped off the roof.

Snow hid the dangers that lurked on the ground. I ended up with a nail in my foot.
That occasioned a tetanus shot, despite my howling resistance to injections. An apocryphal story was told about some distant relative in our family coming down with lockjaw, as they called it back then. Surely I didn’t want to come down with that. Young as I was, I figured the story was made-up but reluctantly took the shot. Like most adults, I have long discovered that shots really don’t hurt much — certainly less than what they’re preventing.

Anyway, I remember toddling in to that barn and watching my dad hunched over his easel, making magic on paper. That’s what he did most nights when he came home after dinner, maybe after a desultory round of catch with us boys. But as darkness approached, he would draw or paint, in any number of mediums — pencil, charcoal, pen and ink, pastels. He made his living as a commercial artist, a fancy term for a sign painter, one of the best around first in New Hampshire and later in East Texas. Years after a disability forced him to retire far too young, not much older than I am now, I would come across folks who would talk about how fast and facile my dad was at hand-lettering signs.

Just the other day I got an e-mail from someone who has one of his prints from the Texas Sesquicentennial in 1986, hanging in her study. He and I hatched a plot to print and sell these. We printed a couple thousand, featuring about 10 famous scenes from Texas history, my dad utilizing his great pen-and-ink technique.

Sales were dismal. A kajillion artists in Texas had the same idea, and most had better marketing; a few had better artwork. If anyone out there has a hankering for a Texas Sesquicentennial print, I can hook you up. I realize that is probably a non-starter in Kansas, but I’m just saying.
I have been a father for nearly 32 years, since the day after I turned 23. My firstborn missed my birthday by 11 hours and 21 minutes. I remember looking at that little squirmy, hairless wizened baby in the Nacogdoches, Texas hospital, and thinking, “Oh, gosh, now what do I do?” That would be Kasey, who now teaches autistic children in Austin. Her middle sister, Mere, is assistant to the director of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. She’ll turn 29 next month, on my dad’s birthday. He would have turned 78 on July 24. I adopted my youngest daughter, Kristen, when she was 11. Her earliest memories of me, of course, are decidedly different.

I can’t tell you how well I have done as a father. I would leave that up to my daughters to decide. Kasey says some of her earliest memories are of hanging out at The Rambler newspaper office, starting when she was nearly four years old. That was a weekly newspaper I ran in San Augustine, Texas, back in 1982. She and Mere, who wasn’t quite a year old, would often spend afternoons hanging out in the back of the office while I pasted up the weekly paper. We had a pallet of blankets in a closet in back, and when they got tired, they would grab their stuffed animals and crawl up there and take a nap. I would take Kasey over to Stripling’s Drug Store for a Coke float or some other treat.

Mere remembers riding on the four-wheeler out in the cow pasture, me pretending I was letting her drive. She also recalls reading in my lap, her head on my chest, trying to match her breathing to mine. I loved reading that line when she sent it to me, the thought of this little girl trying to match her little lung’s breath to mine. I never had a clue.

That’s the thing about being a dad. So often you don’t have a clue. You just muddle along. And you never stop being a dad, no matter how old you get. That’s the best part, I figure.
Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, June 19, 2010.

1 comment:

  1. I love you, Dad. I wish I could have been with you this Father's Day. xo