A Letter to My Dad — What I read at my father’s memorial

IN HONOR OF MY DAD 9/19/2010

It doesn’t matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was. — Anne Sexton

I am grateful to my friend, Noah BenShea for showing me how to find my way on what I want to share with you via “A LETTER TO MY DAD WHO, I BELIEVE, IS HERE TODAY”.

Dear Dad,

I know where you are. You are here. And…you are in heaven. So, I know you can hear us … and here’s what I want to say.

I hope heaven is making you laugh because I can still hear you laughing, laughing so hard you can hardly breathe. TEARS running down your cheeks, the gasping for air as you try to regain control, but you can’t. The laughter takes over your entire being.

I remember my first really big laugh, my first semester in college. A gorgeous spring day, a bright blue East Texas sky, and a boyfriend made me laugh so hard I couldn’t stop. I fell over in the soft, Kelly green spring grass, laughing and laughing, and oh man. My belly hurt so much, and still I couldn’t stop. And because of your goofy sense of enjoying the moment or the deep appreciation of a good joke, or liking Richard Pryor, Garrison Keillor, Chevy Chase and Gene Wilder, I laugh until my belly aches, and then I realize, YOU gave this very hilarious gift to me. That is why you could wear balloons on your head in the shape of a spider … or a penis. You didn’t care how it looked—it was FUN and FUNNY and that’s, truly, what was at the core of who you were—a little boy, born to make art, first, foremost and last, and to share your genuine exuberance in making art with other people who wanted to learn about it.

I don’t think you ever really grew up, dad. I think life was a cabaret of creation for you from the moment you were born. Making sculptures, making paintings, sewing your own double breasted purple suit, and puppet theatres and detailed gypsy wagons and magical doll houses that lit up and fanciful beds for us to sleep in and jewelry boxes with night garden paintings and mirrors of hand formed wood for us to see our own reflections and 10” dancing pigs or funny mice that could stand free (because I collected pigs and my sister, Jenny, was Jenny Penny Pickle Mouse) and hand stitched fairies hanging from the ceiling on Christmas morning and vanity tables that said “GLORIOUS” or “BEAUTIFUL”, in big, colorful stained glass letters, painstakingly cut out that lit up from inside with the flick of a switch you’d inserted.

I remember being three, riding my tricycle around and around in our basement in Illinois as you were working on a huge painting, your back to me, as usual. My tiny circles widened, and, suddenly, I rode my bright red tricycle right through a giant, square painting of an African American woman’s face. Did you get mad? Did you thump me on the head? No, you laughed. You thought it was very funny. I was Charlie Chaplin, you were Michelangelo.

I remember you taught me to draw a straight line. I’d just sit still in your studio and watching your hands draw without a ruler, without a guide. I remember watching you build shelves all the way around the perimeter of your garage studio in Houston, collecting baby jars from all the neighbors and then filling each jar with your own mix of paints—a rainbow of colors all the way around the room: purples leading into blues and reds and oranges… they all had special names taped on them in your perfect, architectural writing. I remember holding those cool jars of paint in my hands and you sharing a canvas with me so I could learn about painting.

I know I learned from you that listening to what children need is a big part of being a parent. It’s funny how many of the little things that you used to do, I took for granted, but I guess that’s what we children do when we are young. I now not only see myself doing things you used to do, but grateful that I paid enough attention to learn from those moments. When I am with my children, I try to say, “Look at that scarlet sunset! It’s amazing!” or “Look at this tiny, jade green beetle.” When I want to share my passion for life, it is you continuing to share your passion. And though I am speaking, I am sharing your voice.

I remember you loved to travel. As a child, I remember driving up to Nova Scotia and as we passed through Maine, a giant storm came rumbling through. The sky was full of rumbling thunder and bight, white lightening, but looming over the road, through the wall of trees, was an enormous green tail, and, without a hesitation, you pulled right up a long, gray drive into a dinosaur park! It was closed. But still.

That was so cool of you.

Oh, and your made-up traveling stories for the family were the BEST! Your story of a friendship between a little lost worm and a big, black crow still sticks in my heart. One time, you were making up some crazy tale, and made mom laugh so hard, she was crying out, “Stop, stop! Pull over! You’re going to make me pee!” And we girls in the back were laughing, wanting, HOPING mom was gonna pee.

You loved to tell stories. And I loved that in you. You repeatedly told a story that wasn’t designed to make you look good but made you laugh. This was another wonderful lesson for a father to pass to his children. It is often wiser to laugh than to try and look wise. Laughter is life’s own wisdom. Being loving and laughing is the healthiest way to live. These things you taught me too.

I remember in high school our long drive to Arkansas, and our laughter, our confusion, our quiet times, our figuring things out. I was a teenager. It was awkward. But I remember I always told you everything, even when it was embarrassing. Many times I told you my worried teenage concerns over dinner at your favorite restaurant, Steak & Ale. Or over Mexican food. Or over donuts. I told you because even though we didn’t live together, I wanted us to have the connection of stories, mine and yours. Your love of stories, of travel, of food, they all became a part of my desire to entertain others. Thank you for that, dad.

Well…Your death has been a mysterious doorway, and a lot of grieving for me, because I’m not sure where or how that door opens.

But you still walk through it and meet me in spiritual ways. This is new to me, the places we meet. It is painful and sudden and funny and weird. Just after your death, I felt your presence at Hobby Lobby, and cried my eyes out when I saw the canvas, the pencils, the paints, and felt your compassion through the encircling arms of your granddaughter, Lily. I saw you in the most beautiful fireworks at Disneyland last weekend with your granddaughter, iolana, who tenderly held my hand as if I was a child, her understanding my feeling that it was your hand painting the sky with explosions of gold and vermillion and robin’s egg blue. I just know you are peering over the shoulders of your grandchildren, when they create a drawing without even trying. You continue on as a part of your daughter, Jenny, as she creates silver jewelry with a fiery opal, or when I sit up late at night, a song popping into my head.

There’s a lot of you in me, Dad. And a lot of Mom. You both gave Jenny and me a love for music, the gift of drawing… an appreciation for a day at the museum, to be able to share knowledge with friends and family about what we’ve learned about Modigliani or Degas or your favorite hero, Matisse.

I know you liked people and people loved you. People thought you were a great guy. I remember all the amazing parties at our house as a child, people dressed in fabulous, thick fur coats, smoking cigarettes, gathered around the piano, singing songs at the top of their lungs, and eating the homemade cake you had carefully hand painted with a nude woman lazing across the top. I ESPECIALLY remember the men joking about who was going to get what piece….

And since you’ve gone to the other side, I’ve had so many people approach me or write me and tell me how you changed their lives, whether through teaching or just listening or showing up with an unexpected gift. I’ve learned a lot about you from people I wouldn’t have met but because of your passing, they have come to me and lovingly shared their memories. Your passing has created anotherlevel of a new community. Thank you for this, too.

I remember I was always trying to find places for you to have an art show because I didn’t understand why more people didn’t know about your amazing gift. Do you rememer, Dad, when I dressed up like an art rep.—in a business suit with pantyhose AND heels— and took a portfolio of your slides to the Dallas Biblical Arts Center. I got you that show because your Christian paintings were so beautiful and I was so proud of your work— I wanted everyone to see it.

Now memories roll from my mind: how you walked me down the aisle, how you were there for iolana’s birth; how you surrounded Lily with stuffed animals on your bed because you were worried she’d roll off. All the purple stuffed animals in your house, on your purple van’s windshield. How you’d fall asleep to football games, go to watch Jenny play soccer, grilling brisket for the Mc Dermotts, burning the popcorn when mom was out of town, cutting the weird silver eel off the hook I caught with cousin Amy when we were all in Padre Island. I remember going to Canton with you and Gaye for antiques, and you bought me a little wooden bucket for tips so I could sing under a tree. I remember you crying in your studio one day, and my asking Gaye what was wrong. I had been singing “Mr. Bojangles” while you painted in the other room and you said to me, over her shoulder, “It’s so beautiful…” and I remember you made me feel proud, you made me feel such deep love.

I remember you singing in church. I remember, as a joke, you challenged me to eat some dog food at the dinner table. I couldn’t do it, but you did, pouring milk over the dried, weird doggy circles, and filling up your spoon and taking that bite and leaning back and saying, “Mmmm…You really should try this!” I was MORE than happy to lose that bet. I remember you loved our guinea pigs. I remember your love of films and galleries and your pride in your students paintings.

I remember after my high school graduation you gave me the light blue bible with my name embossed in silver on the front. Then, just two months later, on July 23, 1981, I went with you to the huge revival at the Astrodome, and you encouraged me to run down on stage and be saved. The preacher hit me in the forehead, & I fell over before I ran back up in the stands to a grinning you. I remember I came home and excitedly told my boyfriend, Gary, who was Catholic but wanted to be an American Indian, I was born again, and his looking at me like I’d lost my freaking mind.

I remember at 12 when you moved away from home. I remember, at 20, walking with you down the streets of Montrose after I moved into the tree house apt. right around the corner from your house, just so I could be close with you. I remember taking your illustration class, and one morning I walked in and you said, “That was a great time last night!” and some of the other students hadn’t figured out we were father and daughter yet. We both got a good laugh out of that one.

I remember how much you loved your parents, and they loved you. I remember picnics on the U of H lawn, back when Shasta was still in a glass cage. I remember riding horses with you. I remember your excitement about moving to New Ulm, showing me photographs about buying a rundown four store front piece of property and turning it into your enormous plum of a studio, guest house and home. I remember hanging out in New Ulm with family and friends, and your one of a kind handmade furniture and your enthusiasm of starting the New Ulm Arts Festival.

I remember you rocking in our backyard, not so long ago, with your white shaggy dog, Max, in our hammock. Smiling. Enjoying the day.

Sometimes families find faults in their dads. Oftentimes dads find fault in themselves. We certainly had our share of being a family that had problems. But, you know what, dad? It’s alright. It’s ok. I can see so clearly now.

I remember when I saw you for the last time…last fall… and you seemed young and happy and wanted to show me something. You insisted. You stood up, and I took your precious arm and we walked around for a bit, and you said, ‘It’s here somewhere. I drew it for you. Hmm. I really want to give it to you. Where did I put it?” We walked in to your art gallery and saw your father’s desk, and I reminded you that it was your fathers desk, and you smiled, and I gently suggested we go sit down some more. You thought that sounded dandy. So we sat and held hands and smiled and talked about wonderful things and we told each other we loved each other and for me, that was a wonderful day. A perfect day.

I looked up to you as an artist. You looked up to me as a musician. We grew, and we stayed childlike, so, Dad, I want to thank you for helping me to find my way. When I think of you I am forever your daughter. And you are forever my father. And I thank you for being the best father you could be. Even from a long way away.

In one of the stars
I shall be living
In one of them
I shall be laughing
And so it will be
As if all the stars are laughing
When you look
At the sky at night.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s “Little Prince”

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