Sunday, June 19, 2011

That's Papa

Papa! by bohemea

There’s a chapter in Tina Fey’s book Bossypants called “That’s Don Fey”. In it, Tina describes her father: a well dressed, serious, hard-assed, conservative man. Tina adores her father. She admires how his demeanour makes other powerful men respect him; she’s glad that the fear he instilled in her caused her to grow from an obedient, hard working child to an obedient, hard working adult. Tina Fey’s father is intelligent, well spoken, level headed and reserved, and these traits have contributed to the raising a remarkable woman. I’m sure Tina Fey’s mother has admirable qualities, but stories about Fey’s mother are less admirable and more anecdotal.

I read Bossypants over the series of 3 nights, aloud, to SB. The “That’s Don Fey” chapter was an amusing glimpse into Tina Fey as an eager-to-please, but sometimes fumbling child. I enjoyed the way Tina shaped her father into a character, and I always love to read a profile of a person written by someone who adores the person, it always lends insight to the author. My father, who I also believe raised me well, is as close to the opposite of Don Fey as possible, while still being a human male. As a father’s day tribute, I’d like to profile the man that helped shape me into the woman I am today. I’m less open with things like last names though, so I’ll refer to him the way I do in life, as Papa.

Papa is a large man. He resembles what Santa Claus would look like if Santa Claus was a boisterous hippy. When forced to wear a top, Papa staunchly refuses to close more than 3 buttons of his collared shirt, and never wears something as ridiculous as an under-shirt or a tie. A few years ago Papa traded belts in for suspenders, which lent to his Saint Nick appearance. Everything about Papa fills a space. He’s spectacularly rotund – his belly is large, his gestures are wide and his voice carries. Even as he approaches his mid-50s, he has a strength rivalled by none, his hugs feel like the definition of embrace; they’re tight and whenever I’m wrapped in his arms, I always want to rest there awhile. I haven’t tested this theory, but if we were at an old-timey circus and Papa was challenged to hit the bell at the top of the tower in the strong-man game, he would wield a hammer gracefully and clang the bell effortlessly. His fingers, though dexterous, are meaty and substantial. Papa is a handsome man. The parts of his face that peek out amongst his unruly beard are robust with humour. His pale verdant eyes actually twinkle mischievously. He wears his hair long and he tosses it vainly when teased about its length. He has spectacular posture and carries himself like a man very aware of his outstanding size, shoulders tossed back, head held high. He likes to flex topless in front of a mirror and admire his brawn, if he had it his way, he would be rarely clothed. He smells of graphite and no-nonsense soap.

Papa speaks well: when you ask him a question it is answered with a story, a tutorial or a joke. He is a patient teacher who uses applicable metaphors to aid instruction. After Papa makes a joke he bellows a joyous laugh that is affected, but honest. He has various isms. He says, “You can pay my electric bill!” when asked “Can I help you?” by a service person. He says, “I’d rather owe it to ya than cheat ya out of it!” and when asked how he’s doing, he replies, “If I was any better I’d be arrested!” Papa is adored by strangers because strangers never stay strangers for long in Papa’s company, he charms everyone in his company into the kind of comfort that says, “If you want to speak, I will listen, but if you want to sit quietly, allow me to entertain you.” Sometimes when I spend time with extroverts I feel a little unnerved when the extrovert strikes up a conversation with an outsider. I cringe, worrying that the unknown person doesn’t want to be bothered. This never happens when I’m with Papa, in fact, I find myself thrill when Papa speaks, smiling, proud to listen as he speaks and observe as his new friend’s attention focuses on the big affable man’s words. Papa always draws his company into a conversation with a new-comer, even if the facts he shares aren’t entirely accurate.  As a child my pertinent information was often muddled. “This is my daughter (correct),” he would begin. “She’s a straight A student!” (correct) “She’s in the fifth grade!” (second grade). “She’ll be 10 (8) in April (March). He never learned my friends or pets names, instead choosing to rename them. “Your cat Webster (Wilbur) got out again! Mom says to go find him before your friend Juniper (Jessica) gets here.” He calls SB Clarice and Celeste, alternately. Neither name is hers, but they have become her affectionate nicknames. When I was young, these factual errors were mortifying because I thought it was important that everyone, even strangers, had an accurate description of me, now I find it charming because I realize those details don’t really matter in small-talk, and it’s just another trait of Papa’s that makes him unique.

Papa is the sixth of seven children. He grew up in a largely Swedish community in the mid-west. His parents instilled in him an excellent work ethic, and an ability to live frugally. His father built their small but well made home. His home was also my childhood home and the room he papered with Mad Magazine pull-outs is the same that housed my youngest brother’s crib. Our house caught fire when I was 10 and Papa was my current age. It was completely destroyed. Papa immediately set to rebuilding it himself, but this time the house was fanciful because Papa, while he admires practicality, is a fanciful man. Papa has dreams, ideas, visions, head- in-the-clouds flights-of-fancy that sometimes come true. This is a wonderful way to live; it has taught me that even when the world outside us is causing us strife, we’re always safe inside our head. Papa may not have inherited that Scandinavian sense of practical frugality, when sent to the grocery store with a list for milk, bread and cheese from my more practically frugal mother, he may return with a 30 inch sausage pizza, a latch-hook rug-making kit, a can of purple paint, a bunch of roses for Momma, and a new kind of cheese, but his parents would be proud to know that his work ethic is second-to-none, and that he can live happily with very little monetary items. Projects, music, art, film, books, images, conversation, sex, food: all can be enjoyed with no money, and all keep you stimulated, keep you feeling alive.  

A couple of years ago I accompanied Papa on a job. Papa’s day job is selling kitchens at a home improvement warehouse, and while he’s an excellent salesman, I believe his true skills are carpentry, drafting and teaching. The job I helped with was the installation of an elaborate set of kitchen cabinets in a rich Southern lady’s home. I use the word helped loosely; mostly I just failed at lining up screws and instead fetched tools while Papa worked, then tidied up after Papa was finished. I was eager to try my hands at carpentry work; I thought the fact that Papa traced his carpentry roots back to Jesus and my being a lesbian would lend to talents in his field. I was wrong. I did, however, have a blast watching Papa work. His work, even in the smallest task, is meticulous. He works at a quick, but not rapid pace; never hurried, he is methodical, and focused. He welcomes distraction, but continues to work, measuring through a discussion, sawing along to a song. I find that sort of genius such a delight to observe; a person who can perform a task inside his head while interacting outside in the world is inspiring. I always need to live completely inside myself when I work, but Papa is simultaneously inside himself while interacting with the world around him. 

In the middle of one work day Papa made ticks on a piece of lumber and asked me to use the table saw to cut along each mark. I did as he told and as I cut he collected more wood. He then asked me to measure, mark, and cut a couple more pieces. He handed me the carpenter’s pencil tucked behind his ear, tossed me a measuring tape, and watched as I performed the tasks. Next he lined up the pieces and instructed, “Screw here,” pointed, “and here,” adjusted, “and one more time here.” I had no idea what we were creating, but I felt just like a student with a patient shop teacher. When we finished he declared, “You just made a magazine rack!” That night he brought it home and affixed it to the wall in his bathroom before loading it up with Momma’s bath-time romance novels and his bathroom-time men’s magazines. It was rough, something a child could have easily made (perhaps with an adult doing the sawing), and I was 30, but I was proud, and I’m pretty sure I would have received at least a B on the project.

Papa likes to be doted on, and as a person who likes to dote, he’s one of my favourite people to tend to, especially since any kindness is met with delighted enthusiasm. My favourite way to dote on Papa as a girl was to unlace and loosen his work boots. He would tease me and ask me to remove his socks and I would wrinkle my nose prissily and refuse. He would shrug, toe his boots off his feet and fall into a deep restful nap, socks on. Papa beams when delivered a plate of food or a drink as he reclines with a Star Trek rerun. He also likes to make odd requests, like that Momma prepare him a cheese platter, arranged in a concentric circle, and deliver it to him in the bath. His favourite snack when I was young was a peanut butter and butter sandwich on white bread. I found the combination of peanut butter and butter abhorrent and refused to make it, though I would gladly prepare him anything else. “Surprise me!” he’ll exclaim when asked what he’d like to eat, and then he’ll relish the dish, balanced easily on his happy belly. He rarely smokes, but sometimes when he’s outdoors working on a project, he’ll request a cigarette from a smoker brother. He’ll use the cigarette as a prop, smacking his forearm like a catapult and attempting to catch the flying cigarette between his lips. He will then proceed to sing aloud to a 1970s rock radio station while the cigarette dangles smarmily from his mouth. When Papa knows he has an audience he’ll discard the smoke, lean back, push his sawdust decorated belly forward, and bellow the lyrics lustily into the atmosphere. Sometimes he’ll do this when he’s unaware that he’s being observed, and it’s then that I love him best. 

Papa knows lyrics and trivia about nearly every recording artist that emerged from the 1950s-1980s. “Marvin Gaye’s Dad killed him, you know,” Papa has reported to me for the past 20 years. “I suspect they were lovers,” Papa considers as we discuss Simon and Garfunkel. “Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel are straight, Papa,” I will laughingly retort. He’ll have a fact that begs to differ. One time SB & I were riding in the car with Papa and Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” came on the radio. Papa performed the song for us, replacing, the ‘You’re’ in the verses, with ‘I’m’, which translated our favourite line to: “I’d be like Heaven to touch, I want to touch me so much.” As he falsettoed comically, he rubbed his hands along his belly, and closed his eyes and swayed. When the fervent chorus kicked in, Papa rolled down his window, pushed his head outside like an eager puppy, long hair blowing in the breeze, and shouted into the wind, “I love you baby!” I never wanted the song to end.

Papa is a talented artist and lover of art. When Papa was in his early 20s he carved a sculpture of The Beatles out of wood. I own it now and it’s one of my most prized possessions. After many decades of travel, Ringo has been lost, but it’s still magnificent. Papa is my favourite sort of Beatles fan – the kind who, from the start, understood their individual genius and saw the art in each boy behind their mop of hair and amongst the squealing genuflecting teen girls. Papa clipped photos and articles about the Beatles and categorized them; his favourite Beatle is George Harrison, he’s always seemed suspicious of John and disinterested in Paul. Despite his massive ego, I adore John, but my heart belongs to sweet George, and I have Papa to thank for introducing me to one of the artists who has soothed and inspired me best. 

Growing up, our house was decorated with three different pieces of folk art that Papa created. After photographing an interesting looking barn, Papa would recreate the photograph out of tiny pieces of wood. He would then frame the creation. My brothers and I each have a favourite. Mine has steps and a miniscule metal doorknob attached to the barn door. I adore it. The last time I visited my parents I found concert posters Papa created in college, and as I paged through them, I came across a stunning naked lady drawing. My parents are very open with their possessions, nowhere is off-limits in their home, but I felt as if I was trespassing and I quickly rolled the scroll back up, tucked it away, and went about snooping in another, safer corner. One of the reasons I love snooping at my parents’ house is for that reason alone, because there’s always something musty and beautiful to discover, also because they’ll give me anything I ask to take home and make my own. I’ve liberated much of Papa’s record collection during visits, tucked albums amongst my clothing and toiletries in large suitcases and brought them home to be displayed and adored. I’ve done the same with Momma’s childhood photos and her jewellery and trinkets.

I find both my parents fascinating. Momma’s struggles have steeled her spine and her femininity, stoicism and domesticity have lent a loving hand to my development. Her affection with her children is one of the reasons I’m able to love well. I’ve never been afraid to say ‘I love you’ or hug and kiss my loved ones. It’s Papa’s artistry and passion that intrigues me most, and while my hand isn’t as talented as his, I think that his skill to sketch, sculpt and design has translated into my ability to form words into the proper sentences that display my emotions. The part of me that’s most like Papa though is the passion. Before I knew I was gay, I used to find Papa’s passion for women embarrassing. Papa likes to tell a story about a time I saw a picture of a centerfold in his work shop and I ordered him to remove it. As a mature woman who gazes at women appreciatively every day, I know now that Papa’s wide eyed admiration for the female form is healthy and awesome. 

Papa’s adaptive, accepting nature is the reason why he’s loved by so many. Papa will listen as openly to my liberal, bohemian views as he will to his friends’ conservative opinions. I’ll see such admiration in Papa’s eyes whenever I speak passionately. I’m positive he doesn’t agree with everything I say, but I know he believes I have a right to feel the way I feel, just as everyone who has the pleasure of conversing with him feels. He’s listening, he’s absorbing, and he’s allowing you to express yourself. It’s such a gift.

I can’t imagine any art I create or absorb having any sort of true meaning or depth if I hadn’t learned to openly accept and love myself, something Papa always did. When Momma told him I was gay, after I finally came out to her, Papa only said, “Is she happy?” Every decision I’ve made, positive or poor, Papa has accepted, assuring me that whatever journey I embark on, he’ll be available throughout. I know many parents believe they are accepting because they love their children, even when their children disappoint them or make poor decisions, but there is a marked difference between, “I love you even though you’re doing something I disapprove of” and Papa’s simple “I love you.” He loves me. This is what drives me to be a fully developed, kind, patient, accepting, artistic person, this is where my eagerness to please blooms. I never fret that I’ll disappoint my father because I know that he’ll love me despite my failings. I want to please my father because I want to be the person he sees, and that person is lovely because she is loved.

Papa & his Mustang, 1975 by bohemea

cross posted to That Obscure Object