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 with a smile, “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. You’re the oldest!”
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 our father and mother, and we didn’t want his picture? “I don’t want it,” I said, and started to say more but couldn’t get the words out. Grief had overcome me. I couldn’t speak. I shuddered with sobbing. My brothers watched and waited in silence. When finally I composed myself enough to complete the thought through the tears, the words came out slowly . . . in staggered 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 be 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. I began to find my own naked self bereft of the robe while working for a poverty criminal defense law firm founded by African American civil rights activists and founders of the American Indian Movement. Unconditional love was not a creedal statement; it was a daily fact of life, the treasure of grace held by many kinds of vessels. “We hold this treasure in earthen vessels….”
I took the painting of Dad and took him with me on the long 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 bring Dad’s painting out of the closet.