Published in the Sunday Evansville Courier & Press – Father’s Day 2010 —
On the day I was born my father bought a new ’57 pink Chevy. I want to believe the color was in honor of his first girl-baby; frankly, it probably wasn’t. My father—now almost 80—is a pragmatist and most likely bought what he found available on the Chevy lot on the hot July afternoon.
My storybook ideas of life and his stoic realism stand at the heart of our complicated father-daughter relationship. As I’ve grown older, I more fully understand what makes my father tick, and how these lessons of nature and nurture shaped me.
Our childhoods were polar opposites. Neither of his parents graduated from high school—I suspect they didn’t make it through elementary school. My father was born with a disability and spent the first few years of his life in and out of Riley Hospital in Indianapolis.
His family lost their farm in the Great Depression. His father died when Dad was four. Until after World War II, his family worked the fields with a team of horses, and lived off the land without electricity and indoor plumbing.
My dad went to college with funding from Indiana Vocational Rehabilitation, the first person in his family to go. Using his farm experience, he further honed his education and became a high school science and agriculture teacher.
Both of my parents graduated from college, (though I admit suffering through their continual Boilers vs. Hoosiers debates). I was the Baby Boomer, born in the baby bumper crop year of 1957, growing up in a small Indiana town duplicated in numerous television sitcoms. With annual vacations, our family “saw the USA in our Chevrolet.” My younger brother and I enjoyed what the Greatest Generation never had but gave—freedom from want and worry.
No early morning chores in our little yellow prefabricated house—we picked up our toys after the snap, crackle, pop of Rice Krispies and watched Captain Kangaroo on our black-and-white Dumont television set. We played; my father went to work every day.
Dad had the same job for thirty-seven years. In the summer, he helped adult farmers with their financial records. He volunteered as a 4-H leader, church officer and Lions Club Tail-Twister. He carried a “little black book” in which he scribbled in his illegible handwriting all of his commitments, which he then kept.
And he still had the time to take us on walks in the woods, where he knew the color and texture of every leaf mentioned in Fifty Trees of Indiana.
Sunday mornings were for church. No questions. No arguing. As Dad drove our family to the little country church six miles from our house, he commented on the rural scenery, regardless of the season. Winter offered the contrast of bright red barns against snowdrifts. Spring showcased early wildflowers blanketing hillsides with purple, yellow, and pink blooms. In the summer, he drew encouragement when the rains came, then the planting of corn, then cornstalks rising from the rich, black Indiana soil.
And autumn, the season of harvest, is his favorite. He often quoted James Whitcomb Riley, “Ain’t God good to Indiana?” in celebrating the economic and spiritual victories of harvest. He enjoyed the autumn palette painted across golden fields against an orange and red stand of oaks and maples.
I never appreciated this side of my father until I was long past the age of playing chicken with my brother in the backseat on the way to Sunday school.
In my forties, I realized exactly what my father had given me.
When he was a small child, Dad saw a photograph of a painting in a book. The painting featured a group of horses parading through a wide boulevard of the city. On Thanksgiving Day 2000, Dad asked me to help him find a copy of this painting.
While he could not remember the title or the artist, Dad described the painting to me in such vivid detail I could visualize it. He remembered details: the flowing white manes of large draft horses at the center of the painting, the burst of motion as the great beasts moved through the city, the intensity of the handlers. We searched the Internet for hours and finally gave up.
Two weeks later I was visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, wandering through an exhibit on French mid-19th century paintings. After several hours, I experienced “museum fatigue” and nearly left the building.
One more gallery, I thought. I rounded a corner and came into a gallery containing one painting. A work in oil dominated the room, almost eight feet high and sixteen feet wide. A shiver slid down my spine, as this huge painting was exactly as my father had described.
The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur featured a dozen muscular horses on a Paris boulevard. In the center, a white horse reared up and shook his handsome mane. This was Dad’s painting.
I bought a small poster which I gave him several weeks later at Christmas. This was indeed the painting he remembered from his childhood. What long-forgotten book was it from? He did not know.
Standing alone in a New York City gallery that December day, I never felt closer to my father. I’ve never been interested in agriculture. A life on the land never held any appeal for me. But born of my father’s rural childhood was his tremendous eye for beauty, something he has continued to teach me all of my life.