Back home in the racist flatlands of Northern Indiana to visit my old man I decided to not hassle him for one day, twenty-four hours of no judgements, accusations, or advice.
By day two I had lots of advice: “Get your shit together Pop! Don’t be depressed. Learn to cook. Spend some of your money on yourself. Figure out what to do. Get some sleep!” Telling a hungry, lonely, ill, depressed insomniac to “get it together man” is like shouting louder when someone doesn’t understand a foreign language. He’s made himself and now he’s going to have to live with it.
Before I went back to the midwest I consulted my therapist who advised me not to get caught up in my father’s negative vortex. I stayed pretty cool for a couple of months but can take just so much of a miserable suicidal person complaining until I snap, which is what happened, and this is how it happened:
Forty years ago a soon-to-be famous artist, Roy Lichtenstein, gave our family a couple of paintings, he and my father had both been professors at Oswego State on Lake Ontario. Roy went into New York where one of the paintings was hanging on the wall in a bank, took it out of the frame, rolled it up, and brought it back across the river to New Jersey for us to take to the new job at Ball State in Muncie, Indiana. Roy was a very nice human being, often gave his paintings out as “permanent loans,” and after decades of having these pre-pop paintings gracing our homes we considered them our own. Forty years later the six foot by four foot painting “The Kiss” Roy took from the bank was still tacked up on the wall unframed.
After the divorce one painting was to go to my mother and one to my father. It was their brilliant idea not to agree on which painting each would get, they couldn’t decide. For many years while my younger sisters were in the old brick farmhouse on the hill in Fort Wayne my mother had both. When she remarried and left town I rented a U-Haul for sixty bucks, laid the unframed painting flat on the bed, drove it across town to my father’s house, tacked it up on a wall once again, and then he had both paintings.
After a month in town I was leaving for Vermont to visit my mother, suggested to him that I could take the smaller painting to her in my pickup truck, and he offered reasons why that shouldn’t happen.
“She’s not really settled over there,” he said. “She’s renting, it should be up to the estate when I die.”
I wasn’t having it. “Look Pop,” I said. “One of those is hers and she just told me on the phone that she’d like me to bring one over to Vermont.”
“No, no!” he said. “Why are you starting on this now?”
That was a good question. I should have known that anything, any change was going to disturb him, but after listening to him say he was going to kill himself for the last week I think I was probably trying to give him a heart attack.
“So you won’t give Mom one of the paintings?” I said. “Well, then you’re immoral, a crook, a con-man, and a thief. This was a morality test and you failed miserably!”
He was very upset and got on the phone to my sister telling her I’d accused him of being immoral and a crook. Then he said, “Okay, I’m calling your mother.”
They talked for an hour, longer than they had in the previous twenty-six years since the divorce, refreshing each others’ memories with the story about how they got the paintings. After a while I left to walk to the store thinking, “I can do no wrong, I’ve got them talking again after all these years!” When I got back to the house everything had calmed down.
“Pop,” I said. “Jessie wants me to bring back her music cabinet.”
“What?” He replied. “Now you’re starting with that?” Before I left California my sister had asked me to bring back the beautiful antique which had been my great, great grandmother’s.
“She never mentioned anything about it when she was here last summer,” he said.
“Why should she?” I said. “She flew here, there was no way she was going to take it back then, she was dealing with reality.”
“Reality,” he said. “Don’t give me that ‘reality’ crap.”
“Okay, look, I’ll call her up and she can tell you for herself that she wants it.” I called California, was told that she would call back the next day, and continued doing my Indiana thing, ie reading the New York Times ad nauseam.
Later Pop came down the stairs muttering some insults at me and that was it. I told him I was leaving right then instead of waiting till the morning as planned. I started hauling my stuff downstairs and packing it up. He came down, saw my bags, and said, “I want you to take the music cabinet.”
“No,” I said. “Its best to leave it here, I’m not taking it.” He began to frantically empty the drawers, where he had stored some personal papers, out into boxes.
“I’m not taking it Pop!” I started to call one of my sisters on the cordless phone, he tried to take it from me, and we struggled for it until I finally gave it up. He was like a coup leader, a dictator, who immediately upon seizing power takes over the national radio station, and he was seizing the communications apparatus! No longer could I follow him around threatening to call 911, the mental hospital, or my sisters, though I could still use the rotary phone on the wall but it just wasn’t the same.
“You’ve got to take it now,” he said. The drawers were all out and he was dragging it toward the front door. “If you leave now and Jessie calls in the morning you’ll have trumped me.”
He wanted to drag the antique outside where it was misting and wet and I went over to try to stop him from moving it out the door. He was sobbing now. “Take it! Take it! Just take it!”
“No! I’m not taking it. I told you I wasn’t.”
“You gotta take it now!”
“No!” He was pissing me off so much I screamed as loud as I could, “F___ you, a__hole!!!” and the windows shook.
Now he was really mad and he looked around. Not the golf clubs I thought. Yes, the golf clubs. He reached into the bag, pulled out an iron, and came at me. I had anticipated it, picked up a chair to block the swinging metal, and easily knocked the club out of his hand. I muscled him over to a chair and pushed him down into it.
“Just settle down,” I said. He kept getting up so I kept pushing him back down, about seven times, until the chair broke. He grabbed one of the shelves from the music cabinet and hit it harmlessly against my leg.
“Be cool.” I said.
“Take the cabinet,” he whimpered. He was crying now. “Just take the cabinet.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll take the cabinet,” I said and he calmed down.
I took one of the paintings to my mother in Vermont and came back a week later on my way back west. I felt my work wasn’t done, researched for a couple hours, and found an art restorer who could frame the other painting, as well as an appraiser for insurance purposes.
“Look Pop,” I said. “I know you’re not into it and probably nothing’s going to happen but I’ve contacted a conservator and an appraiser and it could be done.”
“No, no,” he said. “I don’t need to do anything. Roy always said we didn’t need to frame it.”
“But don’t you think the paintings should at least be insured?” I asked.
“No,” he responded.
I couldn’t help it. “Then I guess you’re an idiot.”
“Just leave now; I never want to see you again. You don’t care if I live or I die. You just want my money!”
This was too much and I started to cry. “How can you say that?”
“Oh, I didn’t mean it. I’m just kidding,” he replied.
I drove out to the store to buy a bunch of Amish chicken to cook and freeze. “If I don’t care if he lives or dies then why am I making him all this food?” I thought. I made so many chicken breast dinners that I realized he’d probably die of boredom if he ate them all, since I’m a lousy cook it was a labor of love.
A few days later I went into the garage, took his rope down off the rafter, flung it into the corner, and kicked his chair down.
Then I hit the road.