About a year ago I found a fat envelope in my mailbox from a man in rural Pennsylvania. He is 88 years old and enclosed a cover letter explaining he is an artist and wants a gallery show. Then there were maybe 20 small drawings, collages… he tried everything-- abstract, Miro-esque colors-- even a few erotic line drawings like Picasso-- a Calder-ish piece… "Hurry up," his note urged-- "I don't have much time left."
I've been meaning to write him, to acknowledge how I appreciated actual paper in this digital email universe, and that among the 'samples' I really could frame and enjoy one or two. I have yet to do this. After all, this is not the response he wants. He wants to be acknowledged, to be known, like so many in this world of cheap fame and public narcissism. Or maybe he wants to be loved, and he is 88 and this is maybe a path to some kind of invitation. And like so many artists and musicians in this culture, he is prematurely exhibiting work that has yet to find a purpose-- he is promoting a passion that has not quite matured, and offering goods that are half-baked. He'll figure this out-- or he won't. He may be a member of that majority of Americans who walk into MOMA and say their kids are better artists than Pollock or de Kooning. He can't see the process or the soul-- he can only see his own need.
And there are just so many examples of contemporary artists whose fame far exceeds their merit-- anything I write him would be a little useless, so I still struggle with this task, see the envelope on my desk every month or so-- worry that his obituary will precede his exhibition, and hope he has found a more productive occupation, or a wall somewhere.
My father died last week. I should say 'passed away' but he was not an easy man and nothing was peaceful or smooth. He seemed to have inverted his life in a way; he was a true decorated hero of WWII-- one of the Band of Brothers-- Captain of the 101st Airborne, awarded silver and bronze stars, several purple hearts-- led his troops on the beach at Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge-- suffered wounds, took bullets-- and in the end refused to self-aggrandize for the television journalists, knowing the true heroes went to their graves, and for the survivors-- no matter how admirable their victory-- it's not military macho-ethical to bask.
Then he married my Mom-- a true love story-- 75 years together, 70 as husband and wife…had kids-- and somehow suffered in silent stoic self-denial the post-traumatic stress of his heroism. He didn't like me much. I was slated to be the ivy-league hero of his version of the fairy tale. But I took a hairpin turn. Not exactly a rebel-- just an independent thinker-- someone who learned from watching the parachute of his life become a claustrophobic soft-fall of personal angst and a kind of failure. I mean, military accolades and medals--presidential commendations at 25-- like starting out playing Madison Square Garden, the Kennedy Center-- where do you go from there? Having some kind of fame or acknowledgment too young can fuck us up-- all rock and rollers know that-- it comes with guilt and regret and self-doubt and success is not always good for ambition.
In my generation failure became a kind of cult. The alternative-- the nerds-- the skinny girls were suddenly beautiful -- the confessional songwriters and Leonard Cohens went straight to our hearts.
I watched my father, witnessed his tough love, his disapproval of my poorer decisions. He never forgave me for rejecting a Harvard Law scholarship-- I guess to him that was a version of his military medals-a curt and potent reply to the question How is your daughter? Action that speaks. And here I am-- farther and farther from his paternal dream… the Princeton girl playing in dive bars, struggling home on subways, having a baby in a public hospital, raising kids on my own-- wearing used clothing and eating shitty food. It infuriated him, disrespected him, humiliated him. I'm a woman now-- a failure, in his esteem… no closure, no accolades that he could comprehend… no house in the country, no husbands he could play tennis with. He did love my son… an apple that fell just far enough from the tree to please us both. Then again-- I don't expect kids to fulfill my dream-- I pray only that they fulfill their own.
My artist/'stepmother' who took her own life 2 summers ago at 96-- craved fame. At the end of her life she had an acclaimed show which could have been a vanity exercise-- we'll never know-- the gallery owners simultaneously took over half of her coveted townhouse, so it was complicated. But as they say, it didn't suck… and then there was the aftermath-- the future which inevitably comes with more speed than ever, these days… and last month's darling is next month's crumpled flyer. Her work was difficult-- her physical discomfort at 96 was not conducive to execution and she suffered, more than anything, from a kind of denial of loneliness-- fear of death, fear of losing control-- it obsessed and compelled her to suicide in a sort of elaborate ritual. She was angry at me at the end. So was my Dad--
not for anything I did, I must remind myself-- because this is painful-- but because I failed to enhance their personal version of celebrity. I tried-- I tried hard… but I failed both of them. After all, as I said-- I embraced the cult of failure long ago. It is kind of an oath you take when you commit to your own work. Above all, you must be honest and you must dedicate yourself to finding your truth. But grieving for these people who are supposed to be your role models and heroes-- is difficult when you have failed them and know that you are not an honored presence at their burial.
On the day my father died I'd planned to attend another funeral-- a waiter I'd known at BB King's for years-- a proud African with a world-beating smile and a sweetness that oozed from his shining skin. His hugs were healing and wonderful; he never failed to ask about my son; he was playful and affectionate-- had known him since he was a boy. Anani got cancer and died quickly; I was only notified after his death. We knew little about him-- he had no family here, a sole brother in Africa. He lived in his Jersey City church and the small service was held there. I received the news about my father that morning; somehow I felt disloyal attending another's funeral and my tears might have been duplicitous. But at my father's spartan burial, I realized I hadn't loved him; I mean, I honored him and respected him as a daughter; but I had never for a moment felt loved. Me, who weeps over a fallen bird, and finds lyricism in a key trapped in asphalt. I failed to love my Dad. Dropping the shovel of dirt on his grave, I thought of Anani-- the lovely, loving human who was so alone and gave every single one of us so much of his heart. But I also forgave my father for not loving me. I apologized for my choices, and thanked some God-- not his-- that I had followed my passion because we can never make anyone happy in this world. We can love-- we can give generously-- we can comfort-- but for happiness we are on our own.
When my stepmother died, she was so angry at me for not furthering her career that it was easier to let her go. I have learned to protect myself when someone withholds. I am no longer the girl that falls hard for men who cannot give love, like my Dad. I love easily-- I love strangers, I love my band members. I looked at my son during the burial service and I know how I love him, but how I would never put a price on that. I love my nephew and my niece, even though they are cautioned not to trust me. My Dad was a military man; he chose sides and he chose my sister. I don't see things that way, but I accept her enmity and do not waste my heart. We were once children and I had her back and now is now. I know too much. I think I have his brain, but as for the rest, I feel even physiologically allied with my Mom. She has lost her mental capacity, but I know she loved me. I love her as a daughter and as a woman. At the lovely cemetery in the country, I looked skyward for strength on a cold and sunny day. How many deaths were being celebrated and mourned that day… so many… even right there in that place-- they were all around us. Happy families-- sad families-- widows and orphans--life goes cruelly and mercifully on. In the sky above formations of birds were providing a silent funeral dance-- visual music. They fly in unison, these birds-- a kind of harmony we humans must learn and practice. So many of us do not find comfort in our own kind or kin… but that is okay.
When I got home I cooked dinner for my older upstairs neighbors and some newer friends. I love my friends. I felt loved and I felt better. It has been a week now; I've worked and written and found a version of closure. Tonight I put one of my pen-pal-artist's pieces in a frame. At least he will have a private exhibition here, he will be quietly acknowledged, wherever he is, among my home collection of celebrated and uncelebrated artists.. .and that is more than many of us will have. My friend came by and noticed it-- I love that little collage, she said, and who did that? I gave his name, without the history… and now Mr. Aubuchon is having his quiet Warholian moment.
A few extraordinary things have happened this week. Maybe in some version of the story my father will become my angel, my advocate from the afterlife. As I thought that thought today, the word angel appeared on my screen from elsewhere. I am remembering going to work with my Dad, having breakfast with him at the Trattoria near Grand Central, and him showing up for Grandparent's Day at my fatherless son's school picnic. This is progress, this is better. I will always have my stepmother's lovely paintings on my wall--- the best of these are the ones she liked least. They speak to me with clarity and strength; they inspire me. Anani, I will never forget you. The King, your commemorative poster at B B King's called you… because you had a royal soul. You were an angel in life and death; there must be some medal for that in heaven-- a gold heart? Amen. A-women.