In Honor of My Father and the Creative Life

June 17th, 2012

Dad, the year he died

We never observed Father’s Day, which my father deemed a “Hallmark Holiday,” invented to further the cause of capitalism by compelling people, through nationwide emotional blackmail, to offer meaningless purchases in place of authentic love and respect. He said this partly in jest. Perhaps he simply didn’t relish fatherhood. At any rate, since Father’s Day landed on or near Dad’s birthday, gifts were given and we celebrated. After he died, my sisters and I try to gather on his birthday and remember him, though this year, our schedules won’t permit it. And I find I miss it more than I anticipated.

Here is what my father was not: A family man

But here is what he was: An actor | Handsome | Charming | Quixotic | Fun | Charismatic | Playful | A great dancer | An inveterate doodler | Closeted | Secretive

one of Dad’s doodles

Here are some secrets he kept: His bisexuality | His fear | Sometimes the fact of his four daughters

You treasured your time with him. You hated him for being stingy with it. You loved his antics, his fun, his candor and his uncanny ability to tune into your mood. You hated him for withholding all that.

Once, when I was a child walking hand in hand with him along Broadway, just us two, a rare occurrence since my sisters were usually present, he stopped in his tracks. “That couple we just passed,” he said. “What color was the man’s shirt—don’t turn around. If you don’t remember it, invent it.”

At the zoo, when we were children, my father encouraged me and my sisters to mimic the animals, pacing like lions, jumping like monkeys, barking like seals. Another game: to pretend we were carrying a burden so heavy we might collapse under its weight, or conversely, to pretend we were carrying something so light it might float away. We played drawing games, pulling from a hat, concepts or subjects he’d jotted on bits of paper. Then he’d give us half an hour to draw, after which we’d present our pictures and guess the subjects behind them. I remember just one my older sister did, which we supposed were people swimming. But the subject had been “war,” this during the Vietnam era, and she had drawn a picture of bloody corpses floating down the Mekong River.

me and my sisters at the Thanksgiving Day parade

Dad taught me how to ride a bike. He took me to my first movie: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. He was the designated Thanksgiving Day Parade chaperone, getting us out of the apartment so my mother could cook.

On my 15th birthday, after my parents had been divorced for three years and we saw Dad on intermittent weekends, he gave me the gift of an easel. I didn’t use it until I was in my 20s, a protest, to say: Don’t presume that you know me or have any claim to my heart.

He had all of my heart though I couldn’t admit it.

After the separation, my father came upstate by bus from New York City to visit on those intermittent weekends, while my mother went away, usually back to New York City. We lived then in a tiny isolated house on a dirt road, miles from town, and my father brought with him the magic of his life, of theater and fun. Arriving on a Friday night, he brought music and posters and games and sometimes friends, other beautiful childlike adults who smoked joints and marveled over clouds and flowers and birds and trees, and infused our isolated lives with color and enchantment. On Sunday afternoon, my father would pack up his magic and fun and wonder and sparkle; and take it away with him, leaving us doubly bereft, for it’s easier to accept a limited life when you don’t see an alternative.

Dad’s headshot from many years ago

I assumed that if we were amusing or talented or beautiful or smart enough to dwell in my father’s magical realm, he’d give us access. But we weren’t. So he didn’t.

Who could blame him for choosing to ration his time with four pimply, enraged adolescent girls who railed against the world and their own bodies and littered the place with the bloody menstrual pads that the dog sniffed out of the garbage and trailed about the living room? I thought we disgusted him and, as a teenager, never considered that the choices he made had absolutely nothing to do with me or my sisters.

But what I want right now is to praise the gifts he gave, not to assign blame or travel too far down the dark and slippery path of memory. 2012 would have been his 79th year if he had lived past 62. Cancer did him in, as it does in so many people. Even ill, even dying, my father remained, despite his faults, charming, funny and irascible. Once, several months into his diagnosis, he said, “I hate being a hypochondriac. I’ve never liked malingerers.”

Dad in Star Trek

“Having cancer means you’re not a hypochondriac,” I said. “You’re actually sick.”

“Ah yes. There is that.”

High on morphine in the hospice, he once exclaimed, “Oh, I see! I’m only in the second act!”

Dad as a child

He was like a pixie, one of his uncles said at his memorial. Photographs show this to be true: Jake the pixie-child with his irresistible smile. Hand-picked by Gielgud to play Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he was going to be a star.

He was a pixie who fathered four children, which meant that my mother had five kids to care for. If he had been faithful, she would have allowed him his eternal childhood, his stardom, cooked for him, doted on him. But life is complicated. Always forward, never straight, Dad used to say.

Dad, the movie star

“I have loved two women in my life,” he told me when I had become an adult he could talk to. “My mother and your mother, and I threw them away with both hands.”

He never told me about the men he loved. The lesson learned: Love cannot transcend weakness or regret or conflict or shame though we might wish it could.

And yet, and yet…my mother, though she might dispute this, never stopped loving him. None of us stopped loving him. When the bitterness softened, my parents often laughed together and, long after the divorce, they danced at parties like lovers.

Even now, I can see my father’s smile, for it filled his face, it lit him up. When he shined that light of childlike joy and love on you, you bloomed like a flower, petals unfolding—beautiful, gifted, fascinating, special. Until, abruptly, he withdrew it, and left you in the dark: ugly, talentless, boring, forsaken. He had that power.

Mom & Dad, long divorced

But this was a long time ago. My father died in 1994, as I was beginning to know him better, not only as my father, with all the baggage and resentment, but as a person who tried to love the best he could.

6/16/12