Monthly Archives: June 2017

My Dad, the Artist (Inspiration series, Week 22)

Dad on his wedding day, June, 1962


My father never really fit the traditional American father mold – probably because he wasn’t American by birth at all. He was Swiss, and retained a certain European-ness, in his tastes, his speech, his clothes – he loved football but would never have been seen in a jersey (I don’t recall him ever wearing a t-shirt).  He was even cool when smoking – he preferred Benson & Hedges, the brand from London. He had monogrammed shirts and loved James Bond. To be fair, he did also have a fondness for Jack Nicklaus and John Wayne.

What set Dad apart, other than his clothes and his accent, was his creativity. Though he earned his salary in marine insurance, he had an artist living inside him, one who came out often, around the holidays, on birthdays, and even on vacation.

He was famous for his Christmas cards, which were made by hand each year. From a pen and ink rendering of our Teaneck home to linoleum block prints featuring Christmas trees and wreaths, a Roland Rueger original was something to treasure. Many people kept them all and continued to display them year after year.

His handwriting added to the beauty of the things he made. One year, when a dollhouse from Santa to my sister and me would be late, Dad penned a letter from him to let us know. It was impeccable and left no doubt in my mind that it was, indeed from the North Pole.

When a good friend and neighbor turned 40 in 1976, Dad wrote a poem for him that was silly and slightly bawdy. The family has it to this day.

Knowing his love of jigsaw puzzles, that same family presented him with an all red one as a joke. I’m not sure how long it took him, but he finished it – then promptly turned it into art, scrawling graffiti and having it framed, then returning it to the gifters.

Dad’s art came out on my birthday, too. He would take fingerprints of each partygoer and under his pen they became animals – fluffy rabbits, a duck – that he would carefully place in a little wooden circle frame. I still have one of mine.

There was perhaps no better outlet for his talent than the beach, where we’d spend two weeks every summer. Dad could only get time off for one, and by the second morning was usually on the sand before most of us were up.

He made us race cars, big enough to sit in and good for hours of fun, especially when the waves were too big or I just didn’t want to get wet. The details, from the wheels to the lights and dashboard, were stunning.

The highlight of vacation, though, was the sandcastle. Dad would haul out his equipment – buckets, shovels, and all of the little carving and shaping tools – and get to work. He was at once serious and light, totally focused and yet peaceful, in a state of calm. Back and forth he’d go to the ocean to fill a pail with water, stopping only for lunch and perhaps a quick swim.

Crowds would gather as they realized this was to be no ordinary structure. Kids would get too close and I’d want to warn them off. The pride was overwhelming. This was my dad building, doing something that was so obviously better than anything around.

The castles came complete with moats, bridges, windows, and towers. They were huge, at least in my memory – big enough to imagine myself in as the princess. I don’t have tons of memories from childhood, but I can picture Dad walking around his creation, sculpting staircases and trees with the wet sand he’d let drip though his hands. It was magical.

Watching him draw was too. He’d sit at the dining room table, instruments in hand, and it was like another person emerged. One day when I was about 12, I found a big red book of Dad’s – the “Famous Artist’s Course,” a correspondence class that taught the basics and then some. It was a sign to me that though art may have been a hobby for Dad, it was also very real and deserved a commitment. Over the years I’ve worked through bits of it. Perhaps that will be my next project.

The circumstances of life meant that time with my father- especially as an adult – was limited, and there are days when the unsaid words and experiences hang heavy in the air. If I could do it again I would open up more, share more, and for sure, get him to talk more about the art he made and what it meant to him. Though I can’t do that, I can remember the very real artistry that ran through his veins and thus, through mine. I can work to fulfill my own creative dreams, in honor of the man never let go of his.

I believe that art – whether done as a painter, a singer, an architect, or a landscaper – runs deep in the genetics of humans. The desire to express ourselves is always present, and we each seek our best and most natural path to do just that. It is one of the most indelible marks of a life well lived. I am forever grateful for a role model whose artistry left a huge impression on me and spurs me to nurture my own.

I miss you, Dad, today and always.

The Unexpected Hero (Inspiration series, Week 22)

Just two weeks after a terrorist attack killed 22 of her fans, Ariana Grande took the stage for all of them.

If someone had told me that I’d be celebrating a 24-year old pop star for this series, I’d have laughed. I knew who she was, having watched her in Victorius and then Sam & Cat with my niece. Cat was goofy, often daft, but always sweet. But I wasn’t going to start listening to her music. 

I went on with my suburban life while Ariana went on tour, building a legion of young fans. And then, after what I’m  sure was like any other wildly successful concert, a terrorist blew himself up outside the arena, taking 22 lives and injuring more than a hundred. Fans – many 16 and under – scrambled and shrieked as they (mostly) escaped. Not old enough to drive, they were made the target of madmen seeking to wreak havoc and destroy whatever they could. Victims included young women and men, parents, and a police officer.

One can never truly know how they’d respond. But I can see myself taking a month – or 3 – to recover from a trauma like that, if for nothing else than fear that someone would try again. Ariana chose a different path. She visited with victims, expressed her horror, and then, two weeks later, despite yet another attack in London, took to the stage once more, this time with an even bigger purpose.

The concert she organized had a name – “One Love Manchester” – and it resonated throughout the show. More than once she looked like she might not make it through, but she held her head high and sang with the kind of emotion that reached far beyond her target demo.  She brought in a high-energy team of pop stars, from Pharrell and Katy Perry to Niall Horan and The Black-eyed Peas. Oh, and Justin Bieber, who I’d previously thought of mostly as an example of not handling fame very well.

He made me cry. 

Ariana was more than the concert organizer. She was the lynchpin of the event, joining friends on stage, talking about the need for peace, and serving as a beautiful example of what humans can be – a poignant counterpoint to the disregard for life that had brought her there. Standing with her arm around the young and tearful lead singer from Manchester’s Paris Wood High School choir, she took on the role, as comforter, that she surely hadn’t expected. 

I remember another concert, decades ago, that brought together the biggest stars alive to raise awareness and money for AIDS. I watched hours of coverage and marveled at the effort. The passion left a similar impression. To me, the timeframe, her age, and the personal trauma make Ariana Grande’s amazing act of kindness perhaps even more remarkable. 

By the time the first few bars of her last song played, I was in tears. Few songs are as wistful, hopeful, and sorrowful all at once as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” She performed it as though directly to those who had lost their lives, and as a message of healing to those they left behind. 

In a time of uncertainty, when radicalism and hate can reach across the world, powerlessness can seem like the prevailing (and permanent) state of being. But as long as we have artists who will stand up and declare our resistance to the messages of hate, we retain our humanity. As Grande told the crowd:

“I think the kind of love and unity you are displaying is the medicine the world needs right now. So thank you for being just that.”

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