We’re all cut from our parents’ cloth. It falls to each of us to finish their unfinished business.
Following my mother’s death, it fell to the three sons and our spouses to clean out the apartment and arrange for distribution or disposal of the belongings.
My father had died two years earlier.
Don, Bob and I spent an afternoon alone in the apartment using a rotation method to divide the belongings. By order of birth, we would each choose what we wanted. Round one: Gordon, Don, Bob; round two: Gordon, Don, Bob – I-2-3; 1-2-3 – until everything any of us wanted was chosen. The rest would go to auction or to Goodwill.
Among my parents’ personal art was an oil painting of my father. In my early years, I loved that painting. Handsome man. Robed in his clergy robe, dignified, smiling, tender eyes, a man of stature, our Dad. The painting had been in the family for as long as I can remember and, as best I can recall, had hung in Dad’s pastor’s office at Marple Church when I was a teenager. Now it hung in the narrow hallway just inside the entrance to my parents’ apartment. It was the first thing a visitor saw – a reminder to all who entered that Dad had once been someone special, a man of the cloth.
One-two-three, we chose our favorite pieces. We agreed that monetary value made no difference to our selection process. All that mattered the value each of us placed on an item. The grandfather clock was clearly worth the most in dollars, but the clock had been purchased late in our parents’ marriage ; it bore only the most recent memories, not the memories of home. It could not compare with the knicknacks – one of our mother’s Hummel figurines, a Baltimore Oriole paper weight, my father’s dog tags from World War II, a dish, a lamp, a photo, or the original painting given by a parishioner that reminded me of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” – artifacts of precious times now gone except for memory.
But there was another painting, a portrait of Dad in his ministerial robe.
As we went around the room, the painting didn’t move. Nobody picked it. Finally, Don asked “who wants Dad’s painting?’ Deferring to me, Bob chimed in. “You’re the oldest. You should have it. It’s okay with me. I don’t want it!” “Sure,” said Don, “I don’t want it. Go ahead, Gord, you should have it.”
We all looked at each other and began to laugh about the elephant that had been sitting for years in the living room.
I looked at the picture. There was Dad, clear as day, a keepsake that had meant so much to my deceased father and mother, and we didn’t want his picture? “I don’t want it,” I said. I started to say more, but I couldn’t finish my sentence. Grief had overcome me. I couldn’t speak. I shuttered and convulsed with sobbing.. My brothers watched and waited in silence. When finally I composed myself enough to complete the thought, the words came out slowly, in painful gulps. “I hate that thing! I always wanted to rip that robe off him! He never took it off! He was always the minister. I just wanted him to be his own naked self. I just wanted him to Dad.”
Reflecting on it years later, that moment was one of many breakthrough moments of taking off my own robe. I hadn’t worn mine for five years and hadn’t missed it. When I had hung my pastor’s robe in the closet after 30 years of ministry in search of my naked self, I found myself by the grace of God working for a poverty criminal defense law firm founded by the American Indian Movement, where unconditional love was not a creedal statement but a daily fact of life, the treasure of grace held by many kinds of vessels.
I took the painting of Dad and took him with me on the flight home to the Legal Rights Center. When I got there, I put the painting in storage, as a reminder that the work isn’t finished for me or my offspring. Who knows, someday one of the great-grandchildren may want it.