February 13, 2007

I Am My Father's Keeper

I am posting this essay because I was thinking about my father whose birthday would be February 22, if he were alive. It was originally written for an assignment in college, but with some modifications it seemed appropriate.

I never really knew my father, I am not sure that anyone ever could, and yet he is as real and vital to my life as the invisible air that I breathe. I have few memories and few mementos to guide me on the twisted path to understanding. Most of the memories are too violent (I saw him die when I was eleven) and the mementos too fragmented to allow any even handed assessment of his life or his relationship to me. The only tangible thing left is, appropriately enough, a bookshelf. Somehow it survived the last 35 years and still has the place of honor in my sister’s home.

Our father was a journeyman carpenter and a cabinet maker with the soul of an artist. In high school he showed potential as a painter. For many years a small icon-like painting of Christ survived as testimony to his talent. The painting was ugly and awkward, but I remember that it captured some inherent sense of the suffering. The face was battered and scarred but still noble, still unbroken.

The bookshelf is now battered but whole. Somehow it weathered the storms. I think that after it left my mother's possession (I'm not sure how) it went to my stepfather's brother, then to my older sister and then to me and now back to her. It had been in my possession for at least ten years. Somewhere along the way someone sawed off the top part of the top shelf. The shelf is still nearly seven feet high so this was probably done to fit it into an old small house. It survived the decapitation but looks awkward as all the other shelves are tall and deep while the top shelf is barely three inches high. The color is not what it first was, darker, stained by exposure, age and nicotine. There are numerous nicks, scratches and scrapes but the shelf is sound. The battering years have only served to point out the sense of utility and artistic integrity inherent in the homemade design.

He probably originally set out to build the bookshelf as a gift of atonement to my mother as he frequently erred in judgment, but the artist in him would not let him do any less than his best. The quality is evident everywhere from the tongue in groove design of the individual shelves to the beautiful but functional trim. Simple form allowing complexity in function. In this complexity I see not only my father, I see myself. I see my own obsession with details and worrying about every one no matter how small. I see my own need to do a thing well, to make a thing of beauty and of quality, to show the world my own sense of value through what I create.

The shelf was originally to hold my mother's whatnots but has since held nearly everything imaginable. I am a bibliophile by nature and I valued the shelf as a way of displaying my treasures. But the real value is in how and why it was built. It was built by a man in love with his wife, a man who was trying to smooth out a constantly rough relationship. A man engulfed by a marriage that yielded five children by the age of 28. He was a troubled man who led a troubled life, but despite the adversity the artist in him survived. In these tight fitting joints I see the tight embraces of a man's love. In this battered shelf I see the life of a man trying to survive, trying to build a thing of beauty, a thing that would last. Here is that creation, here is that art, here is his immortality. This is the solace found by a man who drank too much and had the weight heavy on him, the terrible burden of being unfulfilled. This is the manifestation of his joy and the triumph of his spirit. It was and is a gift of love.

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