Sketching from Life
Dad disliked holidays, celebrations, all that hoopla, so it's just as well cancer led him away early on a Monday morning during Holy Week, a month shy of his 74th birthday and my 50th. Married for more than half a century, dad didn't even want to renew his golden vows with mom in a church ceremony because "the first time was good enough." He had stopped going to church anyway because of mom's poor health, but he read the local newspaper religiously. Dad talked little, at least at home and on the phone, yet he knew how to smile and sometimes laugh. On Sundays, though, he grumbled about visitors after they left and "joked" about needing to leave early whenever he found himself sitting in someone else's living room or kitchen.
First and foremost, dad was a welder who worked in the same factory for 43 years, mostly alongside his older brother, creating giant gears and other parts for strip-mining power shovels and drills. On Saturdays, when dad wasn't running errands and caring for mom or working overtime at the factory with his brother, he liked hanging out in his brother's garage outside of town. They'd smoke Pall Malls, drink coffee, and wave to the freight train engineers going by on the tracks behind his brother's house.
In the spring and summer, dad and his brother would look under the hoods of their cars or trucks and plan vacations to Indian Lake in their boats. For firewood in the fall and winter, they'd chain-saw and split with an ax the dying elms and unwanted maples that a farmer across the road said they could have. In any season, they'd fire up his brother's Hobart arc welder and turn scrap metal into ashtrays the shape of a cross or a log, as well as stands for U.S. flags, gong-like bicentennial bells, and tiny statues of the mud flap girl.
Dad gave me some of his welded pieces before I went away to college, got married, and moved out of state. After his brother died, he took up photography as a hobby, mostly close-ups of the squirrels in the Chinese elm, hawthorn, and dogwood trees in his small lot on a busy street corner. And he began adding news clippings and witty postscripts to mom's detailed letters to me.
Besides the few welding artifacts, some personal photos, and laconic expressions, dad also left me with three sketches to consider when he died, two that he drew himself and one that mom drew for him.
Dad's first sketch, which he did as a boy with a carpenter's pencil, shows a Depression-era locomotive used to pull coal and freight trains. He squeezed it onto two sheets of blue-lined exam book paper joined with gummed reinforcements. The long horizontals and short verticals were made ruler straight. The not-so-round wheels wobble though as the locomotive's nose heads west off the page, as ready as Huck "to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest." Below his signature in the upper right are some crossed-out words, unreadable even when held up to light.
Mom's sketch, a self-portrait, was done before she eloped with dad at the end of World War II. She drew it with color pencils on tan construction paper. Her long brown hair is brushed back and off her forehead, and she's wearing light eye shadow and soft lipstick. Her blue sleeveless summer dress has a round high collar and double rows of flowers stitched from shoulder to shoulder and running through pleats from her neck to her chest. Her fingertips lightly touch a leather purse on her lap. She looks past the viewer, to her left. She's calm, assured, as she crosses her right stockinged leg smartly over her left, with the hem of her dress covering her right knee and her feet in dark high-heeled sandals with thin ankle straps. In the lower right corner, there's a note, "#1 'OY'," for her "Number 1 Boy," who unbeknownst to him was about to be adopted and "sivilized."
Dad did one other sketch that I found on his kitchen dinette table the week before he died. He drew it with a ballpoint pen in blue ink on a brown envelope containing a coffee-table book I'd mailed him for what turned out to be his final birthday the year before. The book describes giant earth-moving equipment and mining shovels, many of which he and his brother had helped to make. In the sketch, an arc welder holds a burning welding rod in his left hand. A wire descends from the rod and loops over the welder's left shoulder. The rod points toward my return address at a 90-degree angle, sparks flying in all directions. Under the welder and on the back of the envelope, dad wrote in script with a black permanent marker, "Keep My life, 5-18-2000, 73." Below the cancelled postage stamps are words dad repeated more than a few times to me and to everyone else except his brother, "When you have seen the rest come see the best."
a hand-welded bell
in the breeze
On the Monday afternoon of the day my dad died, an elderly funeral director recovering from a spring cold shook my hand. He then interviewed my sister and me using a one-page obituary questionnaire, with the information appearing verbatim in the local paper. In his high-ceilinged back parlor of a restored Victorian home not far from the business district, we talked with him quietly for a half hour about our family, some of whom he thought he remembered. We sat on the edge of his flower-patterned velvet sofa that our grandparents would have admired. Without pressuring us to choose one model over another, he also led us upstairs for a guided tour of his caskets.
Like a dog looking for lost bones, I dug the next day with both hands into plastic grocery sacks containing loose photo packets. For years, dad had tossed them rubber-banded on top of bound albums behind a corner couch in his cluttered living room. I struggled to choose representative images of him from his youth to his old age, from his confident slim self gripping a welding rod as he stood on the factory floor to his worn-down overweight self clutching a hat as he paused in a relative's driveway. Pushing thumbtacks around the edges of two dozen photos, careful not to puncture any of them, I created a montage of dad's life on a corkboard the funeral director's assistant loaned me. My sister and I stood beside it on Wednesday afternoon as we and our mom met and greeted relations, neighbors, co-workers, friends, and a few strangers in the same room with his open coffin.
Before the funeral service began, my cousins gave me a silver frame, "In Loving Memory of My Father...," with a photo of dad and me shaking hands and smiling on one of our birthdays 20 years before. A pianist played favorite hymns, the new minister from dad and mom's church did the eulogy, and solemn men from dad's lodge performed from memory a ceremony in his honor. Asked to say a few words, I merely recited with a bowed head Psalm 23 from an open Bible.
rain on a road
before his coffin is closed
touching dad's hand
Richard S. Straw copyedits technical documents and prepares bibliographic databases on health and substance use. He has lived in or near Raleigh, North Carolina, since 1984. Before then, he lived in central Ohio, where he taught freshman English composition at Ohio State University, edited technical papers for a trade journal, proofread for a digest of news from the former Soviet Union, and graduated from Ohio State University (BA in English, 1977; MA in English, 1980).
He has collected and read books of haiku, senryu, haibun, and haiga since 1966. In the late 1980s, he served as an editor of Pine Needles, a quarterly newsletter for the North Carolina Haiku Society (NCHS). He self-published A Hiker Sees His Shadow (2001), an eight-page chapbook dedicated to the memory of his dad. Selections of his published haiku are available at http://nc-haiku.org/haiku-by-us.htm, courtesy of Dave Russo of the NCHS. Along with other NCHS members, he attends monthly haiku meetings, ginkos, and the annual NCHS Haiku Holiday.