Ghost of His Father
“It’s quite simple. He proves by algebra that Hamlet’s grandson is Shakespeare’s grandfather and that he is himself the ghost of his own father.” —James Joyce, Ulysses
When it comes to my diaries, especially the 1977 diary, it’s not what’s openly reported, but what’s obviously omitted.
One date in question: Wednesday, Sept. 28, the middle of homecoming week, with all the drama that entailed, and the high school pizza party that evening at a local nightspot, Surfside. Scrawled in the upper left corner of the page: “Dad has been in the hospital for heart treatment. He’s alright but staying there since yesterday for tests.”
No further elaboration. And no follow up in later entries through October.
Three years earlier Dad had a heart attack that put him in the hospital. It was around the time he “helped me” type up my short stories by having his secretary do the heavy lifting. When he made substantive changes to my story, I lost it. I was angry that Dad didn’t think anything of altering my writing, and I expressed my resentment by refusing to see him in the hospital.
In early October 1966, while we still lived in Broad Ripple, Dad concocted a Family Project Art Project Day for lil’ bro and me. You see, Dad’s newfound passion was painting: he was turning out Picasso-like abstracts, obviously stagey still-lifes and scary portraits of clowns. God knows what became of his early work, but he took up painting again while in Florida retirement, mostly amateurish landscapes and the occasional portrait of his grandsons. I have none of these paintings. Somewhat embarrassed to admit that I noticeably flinched upon first seeing them.
The painting I produced that October day is pictured above right. I was six years old, but clearly recall its composition. I wanted to paint a character (hence the stick figure in black) with a word balloon coming out of him, stating something for all to hear (that became the green bubble). Dad insisted I use less black and instead “add some color”—a lot of color—because that’s what Dad was into at the time. I’m even willing to bet he painted the palette that’s to the above left of my stick figure, just to show the colors available to me.
Well, that really set me off.
When he stepped away from the canvas, I proceeded to Paint Everything Black. I can still see his horror when he came back to inspect what I’d done. “No!” he bellowed. “You have to leave room for your signature!” Which is why the lower left corner is still white and contains “my” signature—penned in, of course, by Dad.
I keep that painting now as an emblem of personal pride, the first real moment I was defining myself as an artist, a writer, my own ghost. It brings with it a host of other moments, of Mom reading my poetry and asking about its meaning (“The arrow whistled forward, struck center, and the target lapsed into freedom”?) or my willingness to goof around and disrepect authority and institutions (playing Tom Lehrer’s “The Vatican Rag” for the folks while watching them writhe and guffaw uncomfortably—Mom less so than Dad).
So here’s the deal: on the battlefield between son and father, who wins? Does Dad want son to succeed? By Dad’s measure of success? I still recall Dad’s harshness on that painting, his repulsion of black. I remember my sharp reaction and rebellion—begun likely at that very moment if not just before, about how outside forces impinge on the artist and how the artist has to push back.
People say, “Michael, you are so like your father!” I don’t see it outside of the occasional sigh, yawn or snort, much like he did. Perhaps I too recoil at things I initially dislike, and feverishly try to “make it right.”
My father’s ghost points to a firm direction: Avenge my death by finding your own life. Others will offer you a palette of choices. On that palette may be nothing you wish to use; perhaps you will choose something entirely different.
Or perhaps your character will at last find something to fill his word balloon.