This photo haunts me. This is my father in his late twenties doing two things he loved—boating and smoking. The photo was taken somewhere in Southeastern Virginia when I was just nine or ten years old. The nicotine inside that pipe would kill him several years later.
But it’s the expression that haunts me. Is he smiling? Do you see it? The rounded corner of his mouth, a miniscule lilt that seems blissful, or at least content. Out on the open water with the sun shining and the motor running. Yes, bliss.
Then, there is that squint to his eyes, a response to the glare of the sun, perhaps. Or irritation with the interruption from the photographer (my mother, no doubt). Or is it something more? It’s almost as if he’s cautioning me. “Life isn’t going to be as easy as I said. Sometimes it will take more than hard work and optimism. Sometimes life is going to kick you in the gut. Be ready, little girl.”
Then, I see a daredevil look in his eyes. An undeniable mischievousness. Is he about to open to full throttle? Watch this. Is he asking me to be brave, enjoy the ride? Is he daring me to hold on because life is short?
What I would give for another conversation, another shot at understanding him, another chance at getting answers.
For so long, I only viewed him as a father, the stern but loving, wise and sometimes goofy father who packed so much into thirty-three years. That zest for life was snuffed out too soon. Recently, I’ve tried to understand him as a man, a complicated soul, who ruminated long on complexities but came up short in days to share that wisdom. A man who was not granted the luxury of formal education but remained undaunted in intellectual pursuits. A man who was not one to let much slow him down, including any mechanical apparatus. A man who tackled his frustrations (often at those same mechanical devices) while unleashing a string of expletives—when he thought no one was around, of course. He preferred to give a consistent, fatherly exterior, a man with all the answers. I learned recently that he’d been challenged by how to be strong while also kind, how to be intelligent without losing his streetwise knowledge, how to be forgiving and forgiven.
I have imagined so many conversations, maybe even arguments, with him, challenging his views about people and his perspectives about life. My mother had often reflected that, had he lived longer, we would have had grand disagreements—about boys, race, education, blue or white-collar concepts. About God.
For too long, I viewed him as perfect, on a pedestal, a man whose legacy needed to be upheld with prideful accomplishments by me. But now, I find him more compelling as a flawed, tortured soul, seeking some enlightenment about humanity, some comprehension of a thorny world, some acknowledgment that he was about to be robbed of the most precious gift. Life itself.
When I’m looking for an interesting complexity to a character, I look at this photo and write as a daughter trying to understand her father for everything he was and wasn’t. When I’m trying to find courage, I look at this photo and I am dared to engage in something new and unfamiliar and thrilling. When I’m craving contentment, I search for that lilt in his smile. But when I’m seeking answers, I can only imagine. That is, after all, what writers do.