June 20, 2010

Father's Day 2010

This article ran in the Evansville Courier and Press today.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

On the day I was born, my father bought a new '57 pink Chevy. I want to believe the color was in honor of his first child; frankly, it probably wasn't. My father — now nearly 80 — is a pragmatist and most likely bought what he found on the lot that hot July afternoon.

My storybook ideas of life and his stoic realism stand at the heart of our complicated father-daughter relationship. As I've grown older, I more fully appreciate what makes my father tick, and how these lessons of nature and nurture shaped me.

Our childhoods were quite different. Neither of his parents graduated from high school — I suspect they didn't make it through elementary school. My father was born with a handicap and spent the first few years of his life in and out of Riley Hospital in Indianapolis.

His family lost their farm in the Great Depression. His father died when Dad was four. Until after World War II, his family worked the fields with a team of horses, and lived minimally off the land without electricity and indoor plumbing.

My dad went to college through the blessing of Indiana Vocational Rehabilitation, the first person in his family to go. Using his farm knowledge, he furthered his education and became a high-school science and agriculture teacher.

Both of my parents graduated from college, (though I admit suffering through their continual Boilers vs. Hoosiers debates).

I was the penultimate Boomer, born in the baby bumper crop year of 1957, growing up in a small Indiana town that duplicated the set of numerous television sitcoms. With annual vacations, our family "saw the USA in our Chevrolet." My younger brother and I enjoyed what the Greatest Generation never had but provided — freedom from want and worry.

There were no early morning chores in our little yellow prefabricated house — we picked up our toys after the snap, crackle, pop of Rice Krispies and watching Captain Kangaroo on our black and white Dumont television set. We played, my father went to work every day.

Dad had the same job for 37 years. In summer, he helped adult farmers with their financial records. He volunteered as a 4-H leader, church officer and Lions Club Tail-Twister. He carried a "little black book" in which he scribbled in his illegible handwriting all of his commitments, which he then kept. And he still had the time to take us on walks in the woods, where he knew the color and texture of every leaf mentioned in "Fifty Trees of Indiana."

Sunday mornings were for church. No questions. No arguing. As Dad drove our family to the little country church six miles from our house, he commented on the rural scenery, regardless of season. Winter offered the contrast of bright red barns against snowdrifts. Spring showcased early wildflowers blanketing hillsides with purple, yellow and pink blooms. In summer, he drew encouragement when the rains came, then the planting of corn, then corn stalks rising from the rich, black Indiana soil.

And autumn, the season of harvest, is his favorite. He often quoted James Whitcomb Riley, "Ain't God good to Indiana?" in celebrating the economic and spiritual victories of harvest. He relished the autumn palette painted across the golden fields against an orange and red stand of oaks and maples.

I never appreciated this side of my father until I was long past the age of playing chicken with my brother in the backseat on the way to Sunday School. That is, until I realized exactly what my father had given me.

When he was a small child, Dad saw a photograph of a painting in a book. The painting featured a group of horses parading through a wide boulevard of a city. On Thanksgiving Day 2000, Dad asked me to help him find a copy of this painting. While he could not remember the title nor the artist, Dad described the painting to me in such full detail that I could visualize it. He remembered vivid details, the flowing white manes of large draft horses at the center of the painting, the burst of motion as the great beasts moved through the city, the intensity of the handlers. We searched the Internet for hours, and finally gave up.

Two weeks later, I was visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, wandering through an exhibit on French mid-19th century paintings. After several hours, I experienced "museum fatigue" and almost left the building. One more gallery, I thought. I rounded a corner and came into a gallery that contained only one painting.

The work in oil dominated the room, nearly eight feet high and sixteen feet wide.

Immediately, a shiver slid down my spine, as this huge painting was exactly as my father had described.

"The Horse Fair" by Rosa Bonheur featured a dozen muscular horses on a Paris boulevard. In the center, a white horse reared up and shook his handsome mane. This was Dad's painting.

I bought a small poster which I framed and gave him several weeks later at Christmas. He affirmed, through tears, that this was indeed the painting he remembered from his childhood. What long-forgotten book was it from? He did not know.

Standing alone in that New York City gallery that December day, I never felt closer to my father.

I've never been interested in agriculture. The life on the land never held any appeal for me.

But born of my father's rural childhood was his tremendous eye for beauty, something he has continued to teach me all of my life.

John Keats said a thing of beauty is a joy forever. So is a loving father. Happy Father's Day, Dad.

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