Last night was First Friday Art Walk in, among other areas, the Santa Fe Arts District in Denver, where I am every month, connecting with the people who come to the gallery where I have shown my work for some five years. I meet a lot of really nice and fascinating folks every First Friday, and I strike up conversations pretty readily anymore. I find that strangers and I inevitably find some interesting connection – geographic history, life experience – something – as I explain inspiration behind my paintings when they inquire. Yesterday also happened to be what would have been my father’s 85th birthday, and he was heavy on my mind. Here in a couple weeks, it’ll be four years since he died in our arms from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Daddy was with me last night; he crept into my conversation with a veteran, mentioned in a context of my father embracing regulation and integrity in his business dealings as well as order in his home life, because Dad had been a Green Beret. He appeared as a brave fighter in another conversation I had with a nurse over his cancer when she was asking about a painting I’d done that hinted that I too am a survivor. And Dad popped up again when I was talking to a nice man named Howard, telling him how full of verve and autonomous my octogenarian mother is, and how stubborn I am, and how Daddy used to call each of us “in-de-damn-pendent”. Howard, a writer, really liked that word; so did Dad. It suited Mom and myself in Dad’s eyes, because he always wanted to help us, and we were so confoundedly self-sufficient it frustrated him to no end. It was a term always laced with underlying respect. He may have been extra protective of me since they had me so late in life, but regardless, I think any loving man with a driven wife or a headstrong child could relate to Pop’s proud, conflicted exasperation.
Dad grew up during the Great Depression in a family that was already floundering financially. Into the beginning of and through World War II, he worked sometimes as many as three jobs as a kid, to help contribute to the family’s survival: bicycle repair tech, newspaper deliverer, and soda jerk. He worked like this often to the detriment of his studies. I think it was early on that he vowed that his children wouldn’t struggle that way, and when that season of life came to pass, like many well-meaning parents are known to do, sometimes he overcompensated.
Of course, in my more naive days, I was willing to take assistance as he gave it, without much thought to it…but I started working in my teens and did realize what effort money entailed. I also had a close friend who lost her father in her mid-teens…and I became acutely aware that my own parents wouldn’t be there forever, and perhaps I should figure out how to stand on my own two feet – and I knew I wouldn’t get good at it overnight.
I had worked for almost a year as a proofreader and typesetter for multiple publications at my local newspaper during my senior year of high school. With that, I funded most of the purchase of a little used 1980 Honda Accord LX hatchback that became my first car. Dad insisted on helping me with the scant rest of the balance – the whole price was a whopping total of $2800. Looking back, I can’t remember how many times someone had to tow that vehicle. Sea-foam green with squeaky brakes, I named it “Cricket” (because we always name our cars in our family). It got me around Springfield when I went to college, despite what seemed like everything on it getting fixed twice: the brakes, the air, the heat, the radiator…but it was my first taste of freedom, and I was terribly sentimental about the thing.
One weekend I came home to visit from college, and saw a brand-new Camaro IROC-Z in the front lawn. For some years I had become accustomed to strange vehicles appearing there and vanishing, ghostlike, as Dad had to repossess cars from time to time for the bank. Parking downtown was limited, so sometimes he would store repos at our place till they sold, or payments were brought back current by their owners; he tried to work with them. Considering how the road we lived on was regularly utilized as a drag strip by local youths, it wasn’t a bad marketing move. Now, a Camaro in the late 80’s lacked the seductive, edgy lines it had in the 70’s – but it was still a coveted car in some circles. It was white and sleek and just plain looked fast, even just sitting there on the gravel next to the garage. I could hear it growling, revving and purring at me, “Come on; let’s scrrream across the countryside together, my darrrling.” Ooh, an American car with a strangely European accent. Well, it was a truly exotic machine in my sphere at any rate. I peered inside – score! It was an automatic – which was all I could drive. I admired its shiny newness, and my little Cricket seemed to deflate a little, whining and waxing melancholy as my eyes caressed the gleaming interloper.
Being in the habit as he was to watch for me whenever I came home, Dad met me on the driveway. He lit a cigarette, returned his lighter to his pocket, and motioned to the Chevy, tendrils of smoke following his hand. “What do you think?” He almost sounded like an announcer on a game show presenting the grand prize.
“It’s nice,” I acquiesced. “Another repo?”
He nodded. “Another fellow over-bought and couldn’t keep up on the payments. It was for his son. The kid doesn’t even have a job.” He puffed on his ciggie; I loitered and toed the ground, wondering if I should go in and say hi to Mom. We exchanged the how’s-school-it’s-fine ritual. He studied me a spell, and then proceeded to do the unthinkable: he offered me the car on a silver platter. Keep in mind that I was eighteen, in school with a part-time, minimum-wage job in the University music department, riding my bike more often than not to save on gas money, subsisting on ramen and Vienna sausages, and he was presenting me a no-strings, free, brand-new muscle car that was basically sex on wheels to anyone with eyes, ears and nerves.
“You’re kidding. That’s not funny,” I said, my face absolutely serious, fists clenched at my sides.
“No – I mean it. I could buy it easy as anyone else,” he stated plainly, shrugging.
“But I couldn’t.”
“You don’t have to,” he smiled matter-of-factly.
“Not the issue,” I countered, and pointed to the Honda, on which I had paid off the balance to him by then. “That,” I added with pride of ownership, “is mine.” Cricket straightened her posture, trying in vain to look shiny after a speedy, hot, and dusty ride down I-44, highway 96, and 71 Alternate.
Dad was atypically pulsing with excited nervous energy, and clearly he was growing impatient and eager. I found it mildly disorienting – but more than that, amusing. “Listen,” he said, “I don’t get one of these every day. It’s a good deal. It’ll sell fast – he doesn’t want it back – the kid won’t work for it.” Some birds quarreled in the nearby Bradford pear; smoke eddied around Dad’s head in the still air. I was still secretly breathless from my impetuously swift race home. “Do you want it or not?” he asked bluntly.
One of my thin arms cradled the other’s elbow, which led up to a hand holding and worrying my chin; my face pinched in pensive consideration. I was hard pressed to think of any of my peers with a finer piece of car, or such a generous offer. I knew it would be somewhat more reliable than my little roller skate. I knew it would have a certain allure, a je ne sais quoi if you will, I mused of the flirtatiously foreign-posing domestic. I knew a lot more than that, having grown up with a savvy financier like my father. I suspected a test, but Dad wasn’t that manipulative. He wanted to please me, but I looked at the bigger picture, knowing there was more to this situation than merely that, which bore sober reflection. To myself I dialogued: does he really want me in something that fast? I can’t handle that much car…I’ll wrap myself around a tree…ugh and the upkeep…the cost…and I just plain don’t need it…. He squirmed on his hook; I let him off it.
In a staccato breath, I answered, “Nope. No thanks. Not for me.” I meant it. He knew I meant it.
Still, his jaw dropped. He threw his cigarette down to the ground, John-Wayne-style, and ground it into the gravel with a twist of his sole, rather than dropping it into the old tin peanut can into which he typically deposited expired butts. It wasn’t common for my old man to be speechless. He fidgeted briefly and then pierced my eyes with his as he found his voice. “Do you at least want to give it a test drive?” he tempted.
“Why torment myself?” I answered him. I was starting to think that he wanted me to be a foolish teen! Vicarious? Perhaps. But he already had my brother’s automotive genius in theory and practice, who offered all kinds of wonderful fodder for the wish-I-had-wheels-like-that-at-that-age fantasy. My brother was legendary in the local clandestine drag race circuit. I even suggested that Dad offer the same deal to him. He mumbled something about him having enough cars already that work better than mine. I shrugged; mine was working right then, I observed.
It seemed we were at an impasse. Dad pivoted forth and back, and rubbed his head with a perplexed grin, tousling his salt-and-pepper hair. “Can you tell me one thing…why?” he finally asked, his blue-gray eyes sparkling with curiosity.
“Well,” I answered thoughtfully, and started ticking points off on my fingers as I looked up at the sky where, apparently, my mind had written a list, “It’s a gas guzzler for sure – my monthly costs would go up on that alone. Two, the insurance has to be astronomical. And, it will likely be a target for vandalism and theft by some kids who might be jealous of it – I’d never have that problem with the Honda! Plus the cops would probably target and pull me over in a car like this, whether I sped or not…I don’t need extra tickets either – I already have a lead foot!” I finished with a firm voice, but visually I was likely a contradiction, with round eyes and a forgetfully open mouth – I do recall having surprised myself. “Lastly, it projects an attitude of…I don’t know…aggressiveness, that isn’t in line with my personality and with which I don’t want to be associated.”
I think Cricket was hyperventilating behind me.
Dad’s jaw was slack from awe once more. He took a breath, and slapped his hand firmly on my shoulder; I was a tad anxious. “I sure got a good turn on you,” he proclaimed, his voice breaking a little. “What a sensible listing of reasons – right off the top of your head like that…wow, kid. I didn’t think you listened to me all these years, but clearly you did. I can’t wait to tell the guys at the bank how my teen-aged daughter turned down a new sports car!” He shook his head, beaming at me. “Come here,” he said, grabbing me with a beefy arm and hugging me. I was surprised and teary, and could barely breathe from him squeezing me so. We wobbled apart, and he patted me on the back like a faithful apprentice, and said, “Come inside and say hello to your mother; she’s cooking dinner.” And in we went. Cricket slyly stuck her tongue out at the haughty-yet-wounded Camaro, who – at least in our brief possession – never got a name.
I fed on that look of pride in my dad’s eyes that day for years; it was worth more than any car he could have offered me, even a McLaren – not that I could drive one (what would be the point of making that with an automatic tranny?) There were times I still let him help me, as I could see it physically hurt him when I refused his assistance. I knew that was part of why he had worked so hard to become successful: to provide for his family and help others – and that this was fused with his very purpose in life. But I picked and chose the circumstances, and didn’t take abusive advantage of him or allow myself to become codependent.
These many years later, I look back, and wonder if Dad ever knew that the Camaro episode was the principle event behind all those intermittent times I subsequently turned down his help and money – because I was “in-de-damn-pendent”, as he called me. I came by it honestly…after all, so was he.
Happy Birthday, Dad.
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