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.