Still Life With Father and Seaside

It’s the type of canvas that demands big, broad brushstrokes.StillLife1

Just like my late father might’ve painted.

It’s the color of warm white sand. The shushing of waves on a beach, seagulls cawing and squawking above, the smell of seaweed, decaying fish, and salty air—this is the picture I have.

“JAN ’68” is date stamped on the photos, although they were taken on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 1967, on the boardwalk at Ocean City, Md.

This was long before I started writing in diaries, so the only record is some scrawled handwriting on the back of the snapshots: Nov 1967 Paul & Boys at Ocean City Md. The photos were taken just weeks before my eighth birthday.

My brother, then around 6 years old, stands next to Dad with lit pipe, blue windbreaker, both hands thrust into the pockets of his chinos. I’m leaning back against a boardwalk fence rail, buffeted by ocean winds.

StillLife2When I take a magnifying glass to the photo to examine my face, I’ve no clue about what I might’ve been feeling at the time. In another photo, I’d wandered off, surveying the horizon, while Dad looked on.

That image of Dad.

Yes, it’s almost like a painting he would’ve painted. Which is ironic.

It’s a photograph taken by Mom.


I went looking for a moment I hoped I’d noted in my journals many years later.

It was 1992—a year much like right now—and my living situation was seriously in need of change, stemming from career frustration and social stagnation.

I was in my early 30s and had been working as a copyeditor at a direct mail marketing company for seven years. The buzz in the office: Layoffs in 1993. Rather than wait for the axe to fall, I’d planned to move out of my Hopkins studio apartment and find a new place in the city. If I was going to move, then I was also going to change jobs—and I’d decided to try freelancing.

So I began looking for rentals in the summer of 1992. I could’ve chosen Minneapolis, but most of my friends then lived in St. Paul.

Reluctant to tell the Family Project my plans, I thought it better to set things up first and then announce my decision.


Back in 1967, Dad was a Type A personality, big time.StillLife3

Perfectionistic tendencies. Work, work, work. His Way or the Highway.

Show me how hard you worked, then I’ll decide if you did an adequate job, he seemed to say. See here? I’m hard at work. This is how you do it, son.

We often butted heads over the smallest matters. I always questioned things, mostly because I was a curious kid. He’d get annoyed, yell at me to knock it off, and just get back to work.

When I think of that time in our lives, it’s painful. I was emotional and often had nightmares that kept me awake at night, especially when I was around 7 years old. I was dreamy and private and loved monster movies and things that made me laugh.

But I never felt as close to Dad as I did to Mom. Mom and I were so much alike. I wonder what she thought back then, squinting through the viewfinder that camera, of my relationship with Dad.

I’ll probably never know.

That is, outside of these photographs.


“Am I too obsessive about relationships?” I wrote in the journal on Thursday, Aug. 13, 1992.

I’d been dating a woman at the office, Sharon, and wasn’t feeling too solid about us. The journal spells it out:

“Coupledom—as I understand it—is a unique situation. You don’t share it with just anybody. Consequently I tend to think that all this ‘ordering’ of relationships is what has gotten me in trouble in the past. I’m like some sort of malicious Jesus Christ mentally hammering his ‘apostles’ about their allegiance. What happened to me in the past to make me sweat losing so much? I’ve never had a parent or sibling die…what could have been so traumatic that I feign indifference when I’m dying of isolation?

Two months later I’d reconnected with my old girlfriend Thérèse, who was then married and living in Santa Fe, New Mex. We spoke on the phone after many years apart, and I confessed to her my plan to leave a corporate job to write freelance.

An Oct. 2 journal entry describes our conversation: “I said I had profit-sharing money in the bank and yet I was still unsure. ‘Mike, if you’re thinking about doing it, you have to do it.’ I can’t say how much those simple words meant to me. She was as right as rain, as I knew she would be.”

So I read further in the 1992 journal, hoping to find an incident that occurred with Dad that autumn. You see, between Friday, Nov. 6 and Thursday, Nov. 19, 1992, Dad and I had a conversation I’ll never forget.

My only regret is … I didn’t write about it in the journal when it happened.

That Friday I’d finally found a rental in an upstairs room of a 1885 mansion in St. Paul, just blocks from the Cathedral of Saint Paul and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s birthplace. Thirteen days later I moved into that mansion, so our talk must’ve happened in the intervening time.

It was over dinner at the Minnetonka Mist in Spring Park, Minn. Baby brother was absent, probably off at college. We sat in a corner booth … who knows whether I sat next to Mom, or they both sat opposite me, or what we had to eat and drink.

I told them I was leaving my full-time job in December (my last day would be Pearl Harbor Day, the seventh) and that I’d chosen to move into a St. Paul mansion, the landlord of which promised a discounted rent if I helped with renovation work.

And that I would fill in the rest of my workday freelance writing.

Dad went ballistic.

Had I thought this all the way through? Where would I get my business? What would I do for insurance? What was this rental place and what kind of work would I be doing for these people? He flipped out when I told him my first job was stripping old paint off doors.

“What about the paint fumes?!

At that point we’d probably reached shouting level and caught looks from other diners. I don’t recall.

But my plan went forward and I never looked back.

On Nov. 19, 1992, I wrote in the journal:

“There’s more to say about the move and the situation here. I’d like more certainty about things, but I’ve got to realize that Uncertainty can be positive energy. And that’s not just psychobabble.”

StillLifeTopHey, I owe the majority of my life experiences to Dad’s ambition and will.

I get that.

And I’m grateful because I have memories of a happy childhood, with a safe home, books and church and school, trips out west to the Rockies, or to Michigan lake cabins, or Atlantic seasides.

But even at a young age I realized I couldn’t paint my father’s picture.

In my own uncertain way I knew I’d have to create it myself.

~ by completelyinthedark on January 15, 2016.

One Response to “Still Life With Father and Seaside”

  1. Reblogged this on Completely in the Dark and commented:

    Republishing this from last January (ahead of normal Friday posting) so I can rest up and finish two all-new post beginning next week. Cheers, Mike


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