Friday, March 31, 2006

On the Tenth Anniversary

When I was five, my mother married my stepfather, John, a quiet, artistic man. The first man she’d dated that I hadn’t chased out of the house.

I sometimes look at skittish dogs and I smile and hold their gaze. They sense they can trust me; I love them just because, even though I don’t know them. They come over and let me pet them. I think John had this same animal ken with me; a defensive, hard little kid.

That first week we started our new family unit, I climbed into his lap in our new house and asked:

“What do I call you?”

“Whatever feels right to you,” he responded in his even tone.

“OK. I’ll call you dad.” I scooted off to play with my toy cars

My mom tells me she saw his eyes well up before he went to make a ham sandwich.

John had his office in the basement of that house where we would grow up. He’d stand at his drafting table late into the night pasting up ads and product campaigns the old fashioned way.

He was always creating. I’d find him typing away at our brand new Commodore 64. Or at his workbench in the garage. His work always had a certain wry sense of humor. Once he decided to make a shrine to the ham sandwich. For years, an embalmed bun with meat sat in an airtight, glass-fronted, wooden box in a place of honor in the living room.

From John I learned my craft. I learned to sit in a room full of people and watch them reveal themselves. I learned the value of the well-placed witty remark. I learned not to give my dignity away by writing “please love me” letters to the boy who’d broken my heart one summer.

Though it’s technically my sister’s, I currently have custody of what I consider to be one of his greatest works. A monument to his life philosophy.

“What the heck is that?” Is the most common reaction it elicits followed by “Why do you have a giant, white painting?”

Mom was creating a white and off-white living room and wanted a painting to match. So John, a classically trained artist, finished painting the fireplace mantle and took the house paints into the garage. He laid a big, old, much-painted canvas on the floor, set his beer can on it and slapped interior semi-gloss all over it.

“It matches,” he told her as he hung it in the living room the next day. She thought it very avant garde.

He had a way of chuckling under his breath. I know in his way he teased any of us who took it seriously. Trying to understand the painting was like trying to understand him. Was it full of serious content or a joke?

It’s only the people who bother to look, who spend time with it, that begin to see everything. There are tones in the white, textures. Some tell me they see faces, some see city skylines. And they are all there. All that and less.

I usually just let it ride when someone asks me about the painting. Let them come to their own conclusions. That’s what John did. I’m sure he felt criticism of it only belied the artistic ignorance of the speaker. Or their pretentiousness. But sometimes, when comments feel derisive, they hook me and then I play the death card.

“My step-dad painted it," I explain, "…before he died.”

Then the critic squirms: the uncomfortable shifts, the backpedaling, the apologies. It makes me laugh when they then come up with an ad hoc compliment. I think John would laugh too. But then I think maybe he knew it was really about nothing, a giant white painting, no need to compliment or analyze. Maybe he’d be laughing at me for caring so much. Maybe it was the joke he played on all of us.

Of the three of us I was the only child not his blood. Yet in some ways I feel I got the best of him. My sister whom he had with my mom was just a little kid. I’m not sure if he knew how to relate to my brother whom he brought from his first marriage. I was new to him and I’d like to think he recognized a kindred spirit. Yet in death, I am the one with the least claim on him. People don’t get it. They say he was just my step-dad so of course my brother and sister are entitled to more. Not that he had much to leave us. But he shaped such a large part of who I am. He was an equal parent to me just like my own father or my mother.

“Yeah but you still have a dad, they don’t,” is the counter.

Of course that’s true. But does that lessen my loss?

How can we determine who is entitled to grieve the most?

Fortunately, that is a question most dealt without outside our family. Or in my own heart. Among my siblings, we never use the words step or half. For now, I study the painting until my sister gets a permanent home or for as long as she lets me keep it. My favorite part is the ring from his beer can. I trace my fingers around the circle raised in the paint wondering if he sees me and still laughs with that under-toned chuckle. The one I hear in my brother’s voice now.

I can’t believe it’s been ten years. I miss you, dad.

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Blogger writergurl said...

Dads are funny like that. They get to you.

I'm adopted and my family is fractured because of my "mother" and her evil ways... so when my Dad had something similar to a stroke, I didn't know about it until months after the fact. The blood vessels in his head leak and a few years ago, they ruptured. When she finally got around to telling me about it he'd been in a nursing home for at least 2 months.

Once I calmed down, I flew out there to see him without letting anyone know I was coming. When I got to the nursing home, I wasn't surprised that they didn't know he had a daughter. My "mother" had never said anything about me and my Dad hadn't either. Of course, you couldn't blame him, he had an excuse, he'd lost part of his memory when his brain exploded. The nuerological damage is permanent.

(My Dad is blonde, I look more Native American Indian than anything else, even though I'm half Asian.)

Needless to say, the nurse was a bit skeptical when I claimed to be his daughter. She followed me as I went towards his room, and then led me down the hall when he wasn't in there, only to be surprised when she saw him at the end of the hall, and called out to him: "Sir, do you know this woman?"

To which he replied: "Sure. That's my little one."

I'm sure that your Dad knows you loved him. I hope mine knows how I feel.

8:41 PM  
Blogger Heidi said...

Wow, Writergurl. Thanks for sharing that. And thanks for reading. From what you say, I'm sure he knows how you feel too.

7:14 PM  
Blogger writergurl said...

Glad you liked the story. I posted it and then got to worrying that maybe it was inappropriate to be talking about ME, when you're missing your Dad.

I enjoy your blog, thanks for sharing!

11:07 AM  
Anonymous silvia said...

What a lovely reading. I love exploring your world little by little this way.

I wish I had a dad like yours.
Every day I try to reconcile the young woman that I am today with the horrors that I lived during my teenagerhood.
It is unbelievable to me to this day how little I know the person who is my dad, and I find myself on the other side of the world still running away from him...

I sincerely think that yes, your dad smiles with you every day, every time you think of him, every time some idiot looks for some intellectual explanation to his art...

12:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My "stepdad" and mom never married, but he left an indelible mark on my heart because he loved me just as I was (he died 10 years ago, too).

12:23 PM  
Blogger Kid Sis said...

Beautiful, babe. Take a great dad in any form. He's yours to claim.

1:04 PM  
Anonymous Seester said...

My loving seester ~
How can I compete with all these other writers, even in their responses, they come across poetic...and I can barly spell...

I'm so glad you posted that. I could see you, brother, Mom, and even myself with the giggly curls standing in front of that painting. In the background a noise that could only come from Dad. Those were the days...

Yes, I was very young, but I am so glad that you got what you got from him so you can teach me and show me who he was. You two certainly did connect on a different level then either brother or myself. For the way you honor him, it has kept him alive in a spiritual way for me. Thank you for that.

Reading that, I just realized that I grieve more for myself than I do for him. I not only heard your words, but I heard Dad as well. Thank you for showing me how to listen.

I love you! Here's to the tenth!

7:30 PM  
Blogger Heidi said...

Wow, Ash. Thank you. I love you!

1:31 PM  
Blogger Judith said...

Heidi my dear daughter,

I can't tell you much I enjoyed reading about John. He adored you and spend hours with you in the garage doing school projects. Who else had a display for the art competition that had real water running thru it. Win or not in his book you both won.

Love you MOM

9:36 AM  

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