Leafing through one of my decades-old sketchbooks while unpacking from our exciting but exhausting move from Boston to Philadelphia last summer, I flipped through, with casual curiosity, the sturdy paper stock pages of pencil drawings, mostly of superheroes and baseball players and my dank cabin at my first (and only) sleep-away camp.
As I turned a page expecting yet another visual array of characters who inhabited my imagination — more amazing exploits of The Fantastic Four or Red Sox outfielder Carl Yastrzemski running down a long fly ball in front of The Green Monster at Fenway Park — a sudden, involuntary intake of breath accompanied a rush of flushed feeling. I was at once taken aback at seeing not an image wearing a cape or a uniform, but something infinitely more powerful. There at my fingertips, gazing calmly back at me from the pulpy page with soft but semi-serious regard, was my dad in the summer of 1975.
Instantly, the nearly forty-four years that have come and gone since that sketch slipped away, and instead, I was transported to the long-passed present. We were in our living room with its cheerful red rug, inviting maw of the ancient stone fireplace, and my Uncle Will’s hand-built bookcase containing dad’s shelf of black backed, silver-leafed book club editions of great literature. I smelled the lingering sweet scent of pipe tobacco. It was one of those many leisurely weekends that seem to stretch like a yawn when you’re a kid. My dad was sitting on the sofa reading the paper. My mom and brother were somewhere else in the house, doing weekend things.
That’s when I asked him if he would mind staying stay still for a few minutes so I could take a crack at drawing his portrait. I must have had my sketchpad with me. I nearly always did during those days.
Mildly surprised at the interruption, he said something like “oh, sure, right now?” gamely before placing the paper beside him on the sofa or the coffee table at his knee, taking off his bulky black-rimmed reading glasses, and fixing his gaze toward my direction. The illustration you see here is him patiently watching me fashion his face from a blank page in that suspended moment. I recall feeling a little self-conscious at his direct gaze into my eyes, blue into blue, me looking down trying to get the shapes and contours of his face and features right, and then tilting back up at him for renewed inventory every few seconds.
In the quietude of that room in summer, he’s posing but relaxed, despite the slightly furrowed brow I notice now (which likely meant he was just concentrating on being a sufficient muse and not making any sudden distracting movements that would wreck the momentum; when I was in the drawing groove, my hand carried me forward in a quick, instinctive rush of lines coming to life).
Dad knew that feeling, himself having been a talented cartoon-caricature-style artist, as was his mother Fern (though I didn’t know it then), who worked in pencils and watercolors. My younger brother Chris drew too, so a knack for illustration beyond conjuring rudimentary stick figures or bored-during-math-class 3-D ice cubes is a trait that runs in our family.
It’s August 9, which was a Saturday, according to my helpful handwriting at the time. Dad is wearing a short sleeve collared shirt, slightly bunched at the bicep, his left arm likely resting across the arm of the couch out of my pencil’s view. The still-dashing cleft on his chin is prominent and his silver-black hair is neatly swept back from his forehead for critical cover at the crown.
Dad is 53 and in firm middle age here, an improbable two years younger than I am now. But contemplating the picture, I can feel him regarding the 11-year-old me at work, perhaps wondering how it will all turn out. I’m glad I got his eyes right. Looking at his visage — or, rather, my interpretation of it — from this vantage point, the sensation I get is of us both being alive together and frozen forever that weekend afternoon. In reality, my drawing probably took all of ten or maybe fifteen minutes, far less time than it took for an episode of “Happy Days” to air that Tuesday night on our black and white TV.
For me, there’s a unique intimacy to this hand-made rendering that, by contrast, taking a standard photograph with a camera wouldn’t have captured. I don’t think a color Polaroid would have seized me in quite the same way.
I’m thinking about all of this because today, March 8, would have been my dad’s birthday. I’m sure back in 1975 we all duly celebrated the occasion with slices from mom’s homemade (never bought!) cake with generous dollops of icing (because dad liked it that way best), and clumsily wrapped presents of drugstore pipe tobacco from Chris and me. I hand-drew my homemade birthday cards to him back then, even occasionally taking an ambitious stab at rendering a picture of dad “in action,” as I did when he turned 50 in 1972. Today, Dad, who was born in 1922, would have turned 97 — a nearly impossible stretch, I know (although mom is still alive at 94, so you never know).
My father may be gone but I still have him here, in my hand. He’s only, and always will be, 53 years old. It’s a comforting suspension of years and perception. But here’s what strikes and warms me about that familiar, knowing gaze on the page: Ever since I met it again on a new August afternoon a lifetime later, this forgotten portrait, preserved for a posterity I couldn’t conceive of at 11 or fully understand, has indeed felt like a birthday gift presented across time. But this year, unexpectedly, it’s from him to me.