Sea Blue Lens

Man of Mystery


This week’s Be Still – 52 project is still-life family portraits . . . creating a photographic “portrait” of a person without the person! That sounds impossible, but I liked the idea and knew immediately that my subject would be my father.

This past June marked the twentieth anniversary of my father’s death. Twenty years! So hard to believe it’s been that long. Dad was a complicated man, and also a somewhat mysterious one. As a child, I knew nothing about his background except that he was from the Midwest. We had no extended family. I once overheard a snippet of adult conversation saying that his name, the name I knew him by, wasn’t his real one. But I was a shy child who didn’t ask questions, so I tucked it away in the back of my mind and mostly forgot about it. I sensed it was something I wasn’t supposed to know about, anyway.

My sister, who is ten years younger than I and much more direct and outgoing, challenged Dad in his later years to record his life story for her. She gave him a tape recorder and some tapes. After his passing, I found notes he’d jotted down about his early life, and one tape that he’d begun, expanding upon those notes.

And that was how we finally learned a bit about who our father was, by following clues in those notes and doing some detective work on It wasn’t a spy-novel-secret-identity sort of story after all, just a sad family drama that caused a young boy to run away from a troubled home at age 14, in the middle of the Great Depression. In the same way that we didn’t know where he came from, his family never knew where he went. He took the name of his biological father and changed his birth date to appear four years older than he actually was. It must have required all of his intelligence and ingenuity just to survive in those hard times.

How I wish we had known all this while he was still alive! Sometimes I wonder if he would be pleased that his secrets have been revealed. We are pleased, anyway. My sister and I have been able to connect with both sides of his family and have learned we have a plethora of cousins through both his maternal and paternal sides. We have so much more understanding and compassion for the more difficult aspects of his personality, now that we know something about his birth and early years.


The still life I created in Dad’s memory is comprised of some of the few items I have that were his. Even they are mysterious! I have no idea of the source of the pewter box and the larger jade elephant, but remember them being around all my life. They were the only things I really wanted of Dad’s after he died. The “Birthdays ‘Round the Year” book was a gift to him from a woman (not my mother) on his birthday, two months before I was born. There’s an inscription with her signature, “Jhana,” inside the cover. The poetry clippings were inside, dated in his handwriting. The book is filled with dates of births, deaths, weddings, and divorces in various handwritings. Dad’s own death is recorded there in my own hand.

Those are his World War II draft registration and ID cards, with that incorrect birth date. The cuff links remind me of the white dress shirts he wore as a bartender, leaving for work each night as we children were getting ready for bed. I found the handful of tarnished old coins, mostly foreign, in the bottom of an old cigar box. Dad loved unusual coins, and always checked through his tips carefully for anything of interest. One of these is a United States seated liberty quarter dated 1842, worn so smooth that it’s barely readable.

This is such a tiny part of who he was, and what he was. It says nothing of his warmth, his beautiful singing and speaking voice, his sense of humor, his love of books, his talent as a gardener that he turned into a second career after he retired from bartending. It also says nothing of his demons, his alcoholism, his delight in shocking and aggravating his neighbors, his ability to build up and tear down with his words. As I said, a complicated man. I loved him and sometimes I hated him. But he was my father, and in the end, it’s the love that remains. I miss him very, very much.

Image processed with Kim Klassen’s textures bestill and appreciate.

23 thoughts on “Man of Mystery

  1. A beautiful and eloquent still life portrait of your father in image and words.

  2. So interesting- so much of our past makes us who we are & it’s all so complex. Family is complicated too- people who you love but wouldn’t necessarily choose. Im glad you were able to find out some things about him. I like your still life, love the colour of the cuff links.

  3. This was beautiful! I can feel your emotions in your words. Such few treasures but they carry such meaning for you. That is great that you were able to track down his family and connect with them. Such hard times those days were. Our kids are so fortunate.

  4. Stunningly beautiful with sadness . . .
    One of the most meaningful posts I have read since I began my blog.
    Excellent . . . “the love remains . . .”

  5. Sighs….and misty eyes…this is ALL beautiful!

  6. What a beautiful post this is, Lee, and I so enjoyed reading it.
    I am glad you were able to get this information.
    Thank you for sharing here.
    Have a wonderful day, my friend!

  7. What a fascinating story, told so well through your words and pictures. I’m glad you were able to get more information about him, to help you understand your “complicated” dad. I, also, had a complicated dad, who had lots of secrets that I began to discover after he passed. Yesterday was his 100th birthday and I thought a lot about him. I felt the sadness of not knowing him better, and also the love. Thank you for sharing your story.

  8. Beautiful image and an amazing story. How hard his life must have been leaving home so young. When I read that you’d found his family, tears came to my eyes. Well done post!

  9. Love the tribute to your dad! Nice.

  10. This is so beautiful – so raw and real. Such an amazing story. Beautiful image and post – so lovely.

  11. What a beautiful and emotional discovery for you and your family. Thank you for sharing your father’s story, I can’t imagine feeling that you had to keep such a secret from your family.
    Donna Wagner aka extremely fickle

  12. Heartfelt and poignant. It is funny how our parents, as people, remain a mystery to us.

  13. Your words are touching….you should write a book about him!

  14. Captivating, beautiful. I’m glad you did a piece on him.

  15. Thank you for sharing your father’s story so interesting. I know very little about my father, he died when I was 15 and he never talked about himself at all.

  16. I feel like you have been able to captured the true essence of your father in these images – even if they don’t necessarily show all facets of what his personality was. But they surely radiates with the close relationship between you and your love for your father.

  17. what a fantastic post, really moving

  18. So interesting. Once again you put the words & the photo together so eloquently. Impressed at your dedication to doing the photo/writing exercises—I lack this self discipline at the moment.

  19. It is a lovely portrait that obviously brought back many memories of your father. I especially like the bit about him checking through his tips for special coins–that’s the kind of detail that is too often lost once a person has passed. I’m also glad, despite the challenges he presented, that you retain both good and bad memories, but you remember most the love you had for him. A beautiful post…

  20. This is a lovely tribute. Thank you for sharing.

  21. I really like this idea of a portrait. Really pushes your thought and creativity. Must try it myself.

  22. Lovely post! I’m so happy to have found your site via Kim’s link up. Beautiful photos!

  23. What a lovely still-life arrangement to remember your dad. He had such a difficult start to his life. Finding out more about him has helped you and your sister understand him so much more. That’s really nice that you’ve connected with other members of the family on your dad’s side.

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