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 Ancestry.com. 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.