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Father’s Day Ghosts

June 26, 2013

For Father’s Day this year, we invited my father-in-law to join us at the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia.  My father-in-law is an artist, and his five children grew up surrounded by his paintings and schooled in abstraction and expressionism the way my siblings and I knew tools and baseball.  My husband remembers visiting his dad’s office as a child, checking out all of the markers in the entire Pantone spectrum that his dad used in his job as a graphic artist at an ad agency–the job that paid the bills.  My husband and his siblings grew up with an appreciation of art and a grasp of artistic technique that is perhaps noticeable, and irregular, only to those of us on the outside.


My children are not on the outside.  Grandpop is a painter, and that’s that.  They love visiting the studio on the second floor of his house to see his latest works-in-progress.  They don’t blink at the nudes that bear his name hanging from the walls. When my first grader had to draw an Echinodon for a school project this past year, he asked me to drive him to Grandpop’s for a tutorial in dinosaur sketching.  He wants to be an artist when he grows up, “just like Grandpop.”

As a child, I didn’t know anyone like my father-in-law.  My own father was a pipe fitter.  He didn’t have an office.  Instead, he labored at construction sites around town and, when the economy tanked, in towns farther and farther away, wherever the jobs were.  It’s impossible to see my dad’s individual signature in any of his work, so my siblings and I tend to claim all of it for him.  State Farm’s cooperate headquarters in Bloomington, Illinois.  Dad did that.  The grocery store on the corner of Pershing Street and Woodford Road in Decatur.  Dad.  The addition to Decatur Memorial Hospital. That was Dad, too.  But he was more than his work. My dad’s first love was the Dodgers although he rooted for the Cardinals.  He loved to eat (potato chips, lunch meats, burgers) and had the belly to prove it.  He made corny jokes.  He read the newspaper, Popular Mechanics, and  the Bible.  He was a union Democrat and a Vietnam Vet.   He rarely drank or swore, didn’t smoke, never owned a gun.  He was a faithful, church-going Lutheran, generous, humble, honest, and passionately devoted to my mother, his high school sweetheart.  He wasn’t perfect by any means.  His quick temper and his shouting strained our relationship, but by the time I graduated from college, I had made peace with who he was, and wasn’t.

My dad and father-in-law met once, shortly after my husband and I were engaged.  My parents had just arrived back in the States from a dream trip to Europe before driving out to the East Coast to check out our wedding venue and to meet my future in-laws.  I don’t remember much about the visit because I didn’t know to sear the memory.  How could I have imagined that my father would be diagnosed with cancer and dead before the wedding ever took place?  I do remember that everyone got along well.  My father-in-law had not grown up in tony circumstances.  His own father was a cab driver.  In many ways, he must have understood the man my father was, or didn’t notice, or didn’t care.  In turn, my dad liked people, good people, honest people, so I’m sure he liked my father-in-law, too.  When my dad died early the next year, my father-in-law made the trip from Philadelphia to central Illinois to pay his respects, and that, I will never forget, how he traveled over 800 miles to say good-bye to my dad, a man he had met once, just because this man was my dad.

IMG_4486I was 30 years old when my dad died and didn’t need a replacement father at that point.  My father-in-law didn’t try to play that role, nor did I want or expect him to.  But he is a father figure in my life nonetheless, and a grandfather to my children, and while he is so very different than my own father, he is like him in all the ways that count:  He is proud of me, he supports me, and he loves me back. He’s never said an unkind word to me, never questioned my choices, never picked a fight.  We entered each other’s lives well beyond all that, and so, in that sense, I enjoy an easy relationship that perhaps only an in-law can. I harbor no disappointments, no expectations, just gratitude that he is there, gratitude undoubtedly magnified by my loss.

My relationship with my birth father, who came into my life nearly ten years after my father-in-law did, is much more complicated, in part because there are no easily definable roles for a middle-aged man and a grown woman who are related but otherwise strangers. Like my father-in-law, he is also very different from my father, but  those differences have been harder for me to blink past, perhaps even to forgive–maybe because my father is dead, maybe because my birth father could have been my father.  In that sense, my birth father is left to compete, unfairly so, with ghosts–the ghost of the dad who was and the ghost of the dad my birth father might have been to me.  I loved my dad so much that the mere thought of never having him makes it difficult for me to appreciate fully my birth father’s loss, the loss that became my life, and my dad.  Sometimes I wonder what, if anything, might be different had my dad been alive for this reunion journey with my birth parents.

When I first met my birth father, he told me about a recurring dream he had in which my sister and I showed up at his front door, dressed in identical trench coats, long dark hair–like my birth mother’s when she was young–flowing down our backs. He could never quite make out our faces, and so we were ghosts to him, too.  And then there are the ghosts of expectation, the unreal shadows that are always beyond our grasp although we might, at times, swipe our hands through the mist.  When I first visited my birth parents at their home in Colorado, I came back from a run along the snowy mountain roads near their house to find my birth father sitting at the dining room table, waiting for me to join him for breakfast.  He looked up at me and beamed.  “Can you believe it?” he said, his face lit with joy and wonder and love.  “Could you ever have imagined it, us here, now?”  I could not, and yet I was very happy to be there, too.

At the Rodin Museum. my seven-year-old and four-year-old paused to examine The Three Shades, the three fused larger-than-life figures that Rodin imagined from Dante’s Inferno.  These are the sad, miserable men who also link arms atop Rodin’s The Gates of Hell.  

“What are Shades?” the seven-year-old asked.

“Ghosts,” I said.  “Lost souls.”

“Why do they look so sad?”

I thought for a moment, trying to find an explanation.  “Because they have lost everything.”

My son took a few steps back and looked at the bronze sculpture, gleaming in the hot June sun.

“If their knees were closer together, it would kinda look like a heart,” he decided.

I stood there juggling my son’s words and the ghosts and the fathers until somewhere, somehow, in the midst of all that woe, I found the heart, too.


11 Comments leave one →
  1. June 29, 2013 6:14 pm

    Jenny- beautifully written, as always, but what I enjoyed the most about it was being able to hear all about your father. It is also a beautiful tribute to Peter’s father. His 800 mile trip to pay his respects to your father is telling. It made me think a lot about Ed’s father being stuck like glue to New York for a week while his son sat at his own son’s bedside in the PICU. My father in law is a man of few words and not touchy-feely like my own dad, but his love and dedication are evident in so many ways. I am very grateful that you have found so much love and support in your life.

  2. Laurie permalink
    June 29, 2013 2:29 am

    Thanks, Jenny, for this beautiful essay, and so good to see the heart. So good, in every way.

    • twinprint permalink*
      August 7, 2013 7:47 pm

      Thanks for your kind words, Laurie.

  3. theweeone permalink
    June 28, 2013 2:51 am

    So beautifully said.

  4. Peg McGahey permalink
    June 27, 2013 2:41 pm

    Jenny – This is a very touching and beautiful reflection….Once again, thanks for including John and me in your family’s memorable Father’s Day outing! Love- Peg

    • twinprint permalink*
      August 7, 2013 7:47 pm

      Thanks so much, Peg. Love you both.

  5. June 26, 2013 11:40 pm

    What a wonderful tribute to all your fathers! I so love your writing, Jenny, makes me feel as though I am seeing everything you see. Blessings, many blessings to you and your family .

  6. June 26, 2013 8:45 pm

    Out of the mouths of babes. Great post.

  7. June 26, 2013 8:16 pm

    Twin Prints – I was just driving across town and thought of you. About to write my 200th post so that’s given way to thinking about influences. Your story and your always fine writing would be in that category. Elegant, careful, good storytelling, looking at a central fact from all angles – long, short, sideways – but never boring or redundant in any way. I loved this one because of the focus on fathers and especially love the thread from all of your fathers to your son. Beautiful piece.

    • twinprint permalink*
      August 7, 2013 7:50 pm

      Thanks so much, Jan. I feel the same way about your posts–and your writing. If I’m ever in Milwaukee, I’m looking you up. 🙂 And I’m thoroughly enjoying the 100 little essays project…. If you don’t know this blog/literary magazine, check it out: It’s one of my absolute favorites.

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