“You look just like your mother,” Dad said all the time.
I wasted hours alone in my bedroom as a teenager comparing our pictures. Freckles and ponytail and brown eyes that disappeared when we smiled. From what I could tell, Mom rarely wore makeup and Dad never mentioned it, so I never got into the habit. It simplified morning routines and saved money I’d rather spend on art supplies.
In pictures, Mom looked confident and poised. I am a perpetual ball of anxiety, which manifests itself in chewed-off fingernails, feet that never stop bouncing, and constant frown lines across my forehead.
“Doing okay?” Dad asked all the time. “You might want to tell your face.”
That never seemed to help matters, but I know he meant well.
Mom died young. One morning, she just didn’t wake up. Because of her age, all kinds of tests were performed and no one offered any reasonable explanations.
“I am so sorry, sweetheart,” my grandmother told me through tears. She gave me a hug and a stuffed animal. I was only five years old. I still have the stuffed animal.
Mom died a month before I started kindergarten. I do have a few real memories with her, but nothing extraordinary. Playing at a park. Eating ice cream. Going to the zoo. For most of my life, it was just Dad and me.
Dad never fully recovered from losing Mom. He never remarried or even went on a date. He carried a picture of her from their wedding day wherever he went. Dad learned how to fix hair and took pictures at all the holidays and baked birthday cakes and successfully navigated all the awkwardness of puberty.
That was a major answer to prayer.
Dad was a teacher. He taught high school English and told anyone who asked him that it was his dream job.
“I have been tasked with the joy of engaging imaginations and guiding thoughtful conversations about the most important topics with the brightest students on the planet. And I get paid to do it!”
At the beginning of every school year, students flocked to his room to tell him stories of their summers and what books they’d read and get his advice on their future educational pursuits. At the end of every school year, students flocked to his room and stacked up their yearbooks so he could sign them. Every night for weeks, he would bring home dozens of yearbooks, carefully and creatively signing each one long after I had gone to bed.
At the funeral, one of his students introduced himself to me.
“My name is Daniel. I dreaded taking your dad’s class because I couldn’t read. I had figured out a way to manipulate the system and pass classes, but I was miserable. It took your dad exactly two class periods to diagnose my struggles. When the bell rang, he asked me to stay after class for just a moment. ‘Young man, if you will give me two hours every week, I can teach you how to read. It’ll be our secret. I can help you with your homework in other classes and you don’t have to fake your way any longer. For each hour you agree to stay, I will provide whatever snack choices you desire.’ Your dad was the only reason I went to college, and he was the only person I wasn’t related to who watched me receive my diploma. I now teach high school English in Nebraska, and owe my life to your dad.”
I never had Dad as a teacher. Some random, ridiculously outdated school system rule about parents not having their children in class. Instead, I had Mrs. Cotton. She was brilliant and exactly who I needed in my life at that age. While Dad did paperwork after school, I’d sit in Mrs. Cotton’s class and do homework. She’d bring snacks for just the two of us, and helped provide a needed feminine touch and listening ear.
Sometimes I’d complain about Dad’s oddities and obsessions and Mrs. Cotton would just listen.
Sometimes I’d rant my frustrations and air my grievances long before Festivus became an oddball of a cultural phenomenon.
It was Mrs. Cotton who taught me things about Dad he’d never tell me personally.
“Did you know he keeps a fund in his desk for students who need help paying for lunch? And he always gives them extra and tells them to buy an ice cream, too,” Mrs. Cotton said.
“Did you know he bartered with a local used car dealership to find and provide a car for a senior student whose mother worked 12-hour shifts in the neonatal intensive care unit? She was trying to provide for herself and her four children. Your dad found a way to get them a needed second vehicle.”
“Did you know he’s turned down multiple lucrative offers from private schools so you can stay here and not have to move?”
My dad was weird like that, too.
I like to mix mediums. It was a style I started developing during college, combining ink, charcoal, pastels, acrylic paints, and graphite. Sometimes, on accident, I even combined a little blood. Gross, I know, but true. Every semester, I’d bring home a couple pieces to show Dad. He positively gushed over every single one.
“One of these days, museums will be begging to display your works on their walls.”
“That’s not exactly how it works, Dad.”
“But this, this is incredible. Surely they’d see the genius in this piece, in all of these pieces.”
Dad thought everything I created displayed genius. He framed a stick figure drawing I’d made of the three of us and hung it in his bedroom.
“My head really is that big in proportion to the rest of my body. I do have freakishly long arms. And you and Mom are exactly the same size. You captured it perfectly,” he said.
When I first started playing with watercolors, creating splatters and intentional drip lines, Dad was convinced I was a prodigy. He carried some of my pieces with us wherever we went so he could brag to strangers. I sold my first piece for $25 to the waitress at The Cheesecake Factory on another one of our adventures. I’m fairly certain Dad left a $35 tip, too.
Dad doesn’t know anything about art.
He’ll stare at the hues, layers, and textures of an abstract piece and nod his head before attempting an interpretation.
“This piece reminds me of the patch of tar I stepped in as a kid in the parking lot of the grocery store. It was so hot that day, tar was literally melting. You could smell it, almost taste it. I wasn’t paying any attention, and it stuck to the bottom of my shoe, completely coating the front half of my favorite pair of sneakers. My mom made me take off my shoes before I could get in the car, and then clean them before I could come inside. But the harder I tried to clean the tar, the more it spread, until we eventually just had to throw the shoes away. Is that close?”
“The theme I was given was politics. So I’d say you pretty much nailed it.”
Dad laughed at the dogs and poker painting every single time, and he had a Velvet Elvis hanging in the guest bedroom. He was equally impressed by Monet, Michelangelo, and spray-painting street vendors. One summer, we went to the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., and he tried to thumbtack one of my paintings on the wall. I was thoroughly embarrassed when the security guard started yelling at us. Before we left, he and Dad became friends. Dad sold him the painting for $40. I bought another souvenir book at the gift shop.
Dad always asked me which of my paintings was my favorite. It took me years to realize my favorite piece was whatever I was currently painting.