A Portrait of my Father

My Dad is not a smiler.  He will tell you so himself.  He will say that people who go around smiling all the time obviously don’t understand the gravity of the situation. He will also say that “smiler” is not a word.  And from this brief description, you may think he’s not a very friendly guy, but it’s not true.  In fact, his dry, quick wit can make you smile even when you don’t mean to do it.  So the non-smiler is skilled at making others smile.  Huh.

When I think about my father, I feel overwhelmed by how impressive he is as a person, without seeming so.  He is a modest man; yet his obvious intelligence makes him a natural leader (even if he doesn’t like to lead).

It’s harder for me to write about my dad because my love for him is more complex than the warm hugs and softness of my mother’s love that I recall as a child growing up.  It’s a love that has really grown by understanding who he is, appreciating the parts of him that are also in me, and enjoying the parts that are quite different.  It’s a love that has come from his loyalty and devotion to us, and feeling his pride in us.  It’s a love that is spelled, RESPECT.  The greatest blessing for me is that I know my dad.  So many kids never really get to know their parents, but I do.  And lucky for me, I like him too.

Some quick facts that he may appreciate me remembering (because he loves history himself and is a great storyteller himself):

My dad read the encyclopedia as a kid…for fun.

He never learned to swim and nearly drowned as a teenager while vacationing in the Adirondacks.  His father actually rescued him, wading out in the water, a pipe still clenched between his teeth.

He was a catcher on his Little League baseball team.  His younger brother also played and his Dad was a coach.  They were a baseball family.

As a child he also was featured on TV as a ventriloquist.  No, I’m not making this up.

He got a scholarship to college at Johns Hopkins University where I believe he learned to play backgammon with his fraternity brothers, and didn’t attend too many classes but still passed the exams.

At the age of 18, he traveled to Europe for a few months, got a broken heart tattoo in Copenhagen for an engagement that didn’t work out, took many amazing photos, but his camera was stolen so much of the film was lost.

Shortly after his trip, he came back, got a case of mononucleosis and decided to use his down time to create a large 4 x 4 foot mosaic depicting a scene from Tangiers, Morocco (from his Europe trip.)  Again, I’m not making this up.  He later gave me the mosaic when I noticed it stowed in a dusty corner of the basement.  It now hangs proudly in my master bedroom.

Sometime after college, he worked as a repo man for GMC, repossessing cars in sketchy neighborhoods but somehow living to tell the stories.

He drove a cab in Baltimore for a time.

He got married, had a beautiful daughter but the marriage didn’t work out and they parted ways.  I can’t and I can imagine how that felt.

He drove his beat-up yellow Volkwagen across the country to stay with his brother and sister-in-law after his first marriage ended.  His car broke down in the desert on the way to California.  Upon returning home, he found that his apartment had been robbed.  It was a bad year for him.  I think he was 28.

Shortly thereafter, he met my mother, got a new job selling tax-deferred annuities to school teachers, and somehow life just kept rolling.  They had me and my brother and we lived in a suburban neighborhood making memories.

We took vacations to the Adirondacks and all over the country with trips my dad earned in his business.
On one especially long drive home from the Adirondacks one summer, he taught my brother and me the following bizarre poem and told us that by the time we learned it, we would be home.  (he was right and now I can’t un-learn it.)

One hen, 2 ducks, 3 squawking geese, 4 limerick oysters, 5 corpulent porpoises, 6 pairs of Don Alvarzo’s tweezers, 7 thousand Macedonians in full battle array, 8 brass monkeys from the ancient sacred crypts of Egypt, 9 apathetic, sympathetic, diabetic old men on roller skates with a mark and propensity toward procrastination and sloth, 10 lyrical spherical diabolical denizens of the deep who hallstall around the corner of the quo of the quay of the quivey all at the same time.

Meanwhile, he ran a side business in art and antiques.  He would scour flea markets and estate sales for paintings, furniture, and pottery, and either keep or resell them.  Our house gradually became a museum of sorts.

He taught me how to paint when I showed interest in his art.   He told me that shadows in the snow aren’t gray – if you look closely, they’re blue.  He would tell me about each of his flea market finds and he would occasionally take me to flea markets so that I could become a collector myself.

He taught me the power of writing.  He once gave my brother and me copies of “Strunk & White,” grammar books as Christmas gifts.

My father was home a lot since he was in sales, so he made it to my softball games and school events and paid for my horseback riding lessons after he noticed how much I loved riding on vacation one summer.

He got promoted within his company and soon success was part of him and us.

He got into a car accident once and he decided to grow a beard and start smoking a pipe after that.  I think it was way more complex than he makes it out to be.  The pipe reminded him of his Dad.  His Dad was suffering from Alzheimer’s.  He wanted to be like his Dad before it was too late for him to be like the man he so admired.

We moved to a house that my father mostly designed, inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and the Arts & Crafts movement.  The house was breathtaking through and through – stained glass windows and oak trim, but to us, it was HOME.  He later wrote an article about the house that was featured in a magazine.

When I asked him to finish the basement of the house with a detailed, written argument chock full of logic, he couldn’t refuse.

Last I checked, there were 2 occasions when he said he wasn’t proud of me.  And I deserved it, but it stung the most knowing it.

He is my go-to person for advice on my own art.  As a painter, I trust no one’s eye more than my father’s and no one will be as honest with me as he will.

He was my first boss after college.  He interviewed me, grilled me, offered me a job, but I’m pretty sure he tried extra hard not to show favoritism even though inside I’m sure he was so proud he could barely stand it.

We traveled together when I was in my 20s for business trips with the company.  As management, he was always speaking at meetings.   He is a brilliant public speaker.  It was the first time I saw my dad as someone other than my father and it was amazing.  I tried hard not to show it but I was so proud of him I could barely stand it.

Although he is great at public speaking, a cocktail party is a nightmare for him and he can’t stand small talk or chit chat.  He’s just too darn smart.

He can answer approximately 95% of the questions on Jeopardy correctly.

He loves to travel and you’ll never see him look happier than when he’s wearing sunglasses on a boat – whether it be on a lake in the Adirondacks, or a cruise ship in the Mediterranean.  A man who can’t swim but he loves boats.

On occasion, he gets creative kicks.  He will paint or write short non-fiction stories about his own life that he calls “snip-its.”  The paintings and the stories are beautiful.  Absolutely beautiful.

He likes his Scotch on the rocks (a “scotch snowball”) and plays poker online.  He’s also competed in poker tournaments and won.

He will admit and joke about his OCD.  He likes things to be in their place.  To be symmetrical, to be perfect.

Did I mention that he loves my mother?  Oh man, does he love her.  He married her again in the Catholic Church years and years after their first wedding.  For her 50th birthday, he surprised her with a red Mazda Miata convertible.  They vacation in Europe together and just quietly enjoy life together.  In recent years, her health has been tough on both of them, and he has stepped up to take care of her and the house when she can’t.  There is nothing more amazing a man can do than to love your mother.

He is deeply attached to and loyal to his family.  I think he would do anything for us.

A life-long foodie, he has finally taken to cooking.  And he’s good at it.  As a kid, the only thing I remember him cooking was bacon, eggs, blueberry (Smurfberry) pancakes, fried oysters, and grilling burgers.  Oh, and picking Maryland blue crabs, but his love of seafood and pepper probably trumps all other food so it really deserves a separate paragraph.

When my first daughter was born, she christened my father, “Dee-da,” in trying to say his chosen name, “Granddad.”  Too bad, Dad, you’re “Dee-da” forever now!

The point is, that goodness, I know my dad and I cherish every little story I have heard or shared with him.  He’s my storyteller, history-keeper, artistic, intelligent, most interesting man I have ever known and I’m so lucky to have him as mine.  Happy Father’s Day.  – Boo




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