My Father’s Portrait

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.

13 thoughts on “My Father’s Portrait

  1. Well said, many thanks. I’ve been thinking a lot about my late father (who died at 82 in 2000), and mr paternal grandfather who lived to be 88. Both were building contractors by profession, but pastors by choice. My love of good architecture is probably my rebelling against them, since they thot such “eggheads” got in the way of what builders could do fine without them. They were stubborn fundamentalists & as I approach 70 I can admit I’m an equally stubborn liberal Christian pastor.

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    • Stubborn knows no boundaries. It crosses all the other lines? My dog, Maggie, the Westie, is as stubborn as they come…and…the most wonderful dog in the world. I love her fiestiness, which is more than balanced by her playfulness. I didn’t know your dad or grandfather, but I suspect they did not enjoy your playful spirit. Stubborn fundamentalism kinda takes the fun out of life. How about stubborn liberalism? Funny how one day we go to shave and see our fathers looking back at us from the mirror, huh!

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  2. The potato masher and the bathroom poem.

    My family was a mess. Dad a child molester, mom dedicated to a santized fiction of him. But Gramma was another matter. The potato masher actually came from her mother. It’s a solid piece of wood, shaped like a handbell. Gramma and I were close and similar and frequently in conflict. She was my hero. She died in 1992. I got the potato masher and the poem when mom died in 2010. They were the only things I really wanted.

    Gramma wrote and colored-pencil illustrated a poem for the bathroom:

    There was an outhouse in a dirt yard peppered with tufts of grass. Hens pecked about the outhouse, whose door was propped open with a big old catalog.

    “As you sit there comfy cozy,
    mulling problems, hopes and fears,
    fretting ’cause you have no answers,
    wishing for the good old years,
    just be glad you have a bathroom,
    instead of lonesome john and sears.”
    Hazel Marie Bishop

    (Gordon, thanks for the post and the opportunity to remember and share the blessing of my Gramma.)

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    • Love it! I, on the other hand, loved out old outhouse that had previously belonged to a nearby rural one room schoolhouse near our farm place, but across the road. It, from the time I finished sixth grade until I graduated from high school, represented a place I could hide – I learned how to get the hook to latch on the outside – , and was a place where I could hide and be by myself for a bit during the warmer months in ND, hiding from the constant supervision of my then retired old maid aunt who had moved in with us. I would hide old copies of Reader’s Digests in there and actually get a little reading in that wasn’t school books or the Bible. I had painted the inside with left over house and trim paint. and it had a concrete base and good ventilation, so was not unpleasant.

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  3. Having just gone through Mom’s “stuff”…and there was a lot of it, I understand this completely. I have, in the back of my closet a huge portrait of my father as a child. His father had one of each child..ten of them…on the wall going up their staircase. The large gold frame mercifully broke so I could toss it. Guess one of my kids will have to be the one to throw the picture out. I just can’t. As for my mother’s things…it is all about the little things I saw her use around the house. Memories are soooo powerful. thanks Gordon

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    • Interesting what’s valuable, isn’t it. I just came from the meeting at a church set among $1.M homes listening to the pastor talk about loneliness and emptiness being the great need in that community. Sooner or later, if we’re luck, life has a way to teaching what speak of following Aunt Gertrude’s death. Stuff doesn’t matter. We live without it all. But when the memories go…oh, my…when the memories go, we lose everything. The “little things” are big because they evoke the memories. Thanks for sharing, Gwen.

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  4. Because I’ve been through this process three times (from the close sidelines) in the last ten years, I know how objects and memory and family have a potency that is difficult to describe well.

    (My own experiences with this process don’t really fit here. I have no siblings. In my one immediate instance of the death of my grandfather, the order of dispersal was well-defined before I be-bopped on to the scene.)

    But, you’ve done it— you’ve described how this stage of grieving works evocatively. Then you go farther— you’ve given me an intense window into your particular memory. Your history. Your own future.

    After reading this the first time, I have to be honest here— I said the word “WOW” out loud in that slightly flat surprised intonation which only happens for me when I’m truly caught off-guard by something unexpected and beautiful.

    So, please let me say it again, here: WOW.

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      • The pleasure is all mine. Your essay really took me aback. So much craft! So many ideas knitted deftly into one space!

        I love meeting writers who take that bar up another foot in skill level. This essay represents, to me, the next level.

        Boy howdy! I am all ears (metaphorically speaking)!

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  5. A wonderful and sensitive story. Thanks. Just yesterday our group was discussing families who consider the monetary value of things left behind rather than the emotional. How much more important are the memories and reminders of our “carings.”

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    • Thank you, Mona. It’s still a work in progress for us all perhaps. My Dad was an extraordinarily caring man. The memories of his caring are deep. The sorrow is that we didn’t get more of him than the church got. I did the same with my two children, and they are finally breaking the pattern.

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