my father was a painter

Saturday, December 29, 2018


"Oh, you've grown so much!" the stranger in front of me exclaims. A middle-aged woman, mesmerised by the fact that I, an adolescent human being, had in fact grown in size. Shocker.

"You were just a baby when I last saw you!"

I'd never seen her before in my life.

"Your father and I go way back," she continues.

"You look so much like him."


---

On the rare occasion that this happens, my mother would do most of the chatting for me if she were there. I never know who the stranger is, until after we separate and she gives me the short biography.

"She went to school with your dad, I think."

"Daddy played golf with him years ago."

"They were in the same club. Plenty of mutual friends."

Each encounter helps paint a picture in my head of who my father was; at least, to other people. A friend, a colleague, an all-around-good-man. A lot of it felt sugarcoated; surely nobody would say bad things about someone who's been gone for years. But eventually, I came to accept that the picture I paint of my father in my head, will never be complete.

A part of me feels mocked by these stranger encounters. They remind me that there are dozens of people out there, who knew him better than I did. Whose lives he also touched. Who had spent much longer time with him than I had; his daughter, of all people.

In this mental picture I try to create of my father, the stories people tell—of who he was when they knew him—are nothing but splatters of paint on the canvas. They told me of what schools my father went to, what events he'd normally attend, what cities he lived in. But they never tell me of what would make him laugh the most. What first impressions he had of people. What sort of clothes he liked to wear. What kind of songs could make him dance.

I don't think I've ever seen my father dance. I don't think I know the answer to any of these questions.

In reality, we smile and wave goodbye. I'm left with the tiny bit of information the stranger presented, and I never see them again. Both my mother and I usually forget about it the next day.

But in my head, I listen to what the stranger says. In an alternate universe, I sit them down, or ask for their number, so I can ask them questions about him. I'd laugh, possibly cry, learning new things about my father; the man who raised me, but the man whom they knew more. I'd write everything down, record it. I'd sit there for hours, across the stranger, painting my picture.

"Please," I'd say, repeatedly, "tell me more about my father."

---

Research says that kids forget a lot of what happened to them before the age of 7. "When brains are busy growing lots of new cells," they write, "they don't store memories that would otherwise be long-term."

I was 7 years old at the time of my father's passing.

My memories of him are so faint, and few, that I find myself repeating the same scenes. And I repeat them so frequently, that now they feel no more real to me than just dreams I had as a child.

This discredits many of the memories I once had of him. I only have a handful left that I trust. The rest feel altered, ethereal, because they'd fallen into that gap between what's real and what my young mind might've made up.

For years after he passed, I was convinced that my father died on a Thursday. I was wearing my Thursday school uniform when it all happened; the same one they make us wear on Tuesdays. Then one day, my mother corrected me, "It was a Tuesday, honey, not a Thursday." I felt offended that she would think I would forget about such a significant moment. I was there when everything happened. Clearly, she was in the wrong, not me. All it took was a quick Google search. It was a Tuesday. I have stopped trusting many of my memories since.

If memories are movie scenes, in the ones I have of him, the edges seem to be closing in. I lose details and timeframes, and the dialogues turn into murmurs. There was a time when they were still very tangible, but now, over a decade later, my mind is running out of things to grasp. Time, unfortunately, doesn't retrieve memories, but erases them, gradually. Without asking for permission.

---

The trick he did of making rings of cigarette smoke float in the air. The smell of oil paint from the living room, whenever he was making one of his grand paintings. The sound of the piano, or a very old guitar he would play. The fizzing of a freshly opened bottle of Coke. The way he cleaned his glasses with the bottom of his shirt, raised them in front of his face, and squinted to check if they were clean.

Some memories are more relevant than others. I know my father was a painter. But I also know that he never left the computer too soon after he shut it down. "Before you leave," he taught me, "make sure that every screen and light is off." He also taught me it was rude to stare at people. If there were any other life lesson he had passed onto me, I fail to remember them.

Possibly my favourite detail of him, though, was one I obtained from my mother. One day, in one of our mother-daughter gossip sessions, she told me about what he thought about the lifestyles of the rich and privileged. "He had his money," she said, "but he strongly disliked how some people treated theirs." Economic privilege, he believed, should never be taken for granted.

My mother didn't elaborate much further, but she didn't need to; my mind latched onto this the minute I heard it. I couldn't have a chance to sit by my father, as a young adult, deep in conversation with him. But her little story made me conclude that if I did have it, there'd be so many interesting things he had to say. Opinions he had about the world, and life, and people.

And I would listen. My God, I would listen. To every single bit of them.

---

Events that occur stay in my memory bank like fragments scattered through time. I think I was 6 when I fell off my bike and injured my elbows. Bleeding, crying, I left my bike and ran home. My father opened the front door, saw my wounds, and—without hesitation—held the bottom half of his T-shirt and wiped the blood off with it. I remember so vividly the crimson, ghastly red suddenly smeared over the clean, white fabric.

He took me inside, and we sat on an armchair. On his lap, I cried for 2 hours (or at least, that's what my memory tells me.) He said very little words, only comforting me by stroking the back of my head until I eventually calmed down. The duration of us sitting there is a blur, but this scene—this particular afternoon—is one of the most important that I remember. That I hold onto so tightly, to prevent it from fading away, or from entering that surreal dream-like realm.

So I remember this. And I remember the day of his passing. I remember how much he loved to joke; surprising people just for the sake of a good laugh. I remember that he played golf. I remember how I'd sleep with my head on his shoulder every night. He never complained. He snored. I never complained.

I remember all these; random details, however small, and random events, however large.

Yet today I'm not so sure if I remember the sound of his voice.

---

All mere brushstrokes in the picture I'm painting of the man I call my father. A painter, a musician, a businessman, but I remember very little else.

How does one choose what details define their loved ones who are deceased?

I know he was a Sagittarius. Do I want to set aside my unbelief in horoscopes just for the sake of getting more brushstrokes in my mental painting? To believe that he was, in fact, generous, a born adventurer, and a steadfast friend like the star sign suggests? Would I be so desperate?

Do I romanticise the idea of a father I've constructed in my head, even though I've done nothing but cluelessly assemble puzzle pieces throughout the 12 years he's been gone? Do I handpick the imperfections I remember of him, to keep myself from resenting a man I hardly knew? Do I pull and interview every single relative and family friend, investigative-journalist-style, just to figure out my own father? Would I ask just anyone to fill in these gaps left by the memories that failed to withstand time?

---

With love. My mother had arranged flowers on his grave to form those words one morning last month. November 22nd, to be exact. I awoke to the photo she sent me of it, at 6 AM Melbourne time.

"Daddy's birthday, honey," she texted, with a smiley face. "I know, Mom," I replied.

As if I'd forget the most important dates of his life; the beginning of it, and the end.

My father was a painter, a musician, a businessman, and I remember very little else. He must've been different things to many other people, but at one point, he was a fortress to a little girl who needed one. And the memory of him, however faded, lives on within her.

The picture remains incomplete for now, but she holds onto it like a best kept secret, hoping that one day she'll somehow bring it into completion. Hoping that one day, she can finally look at it—at him—as a whole, with more than just nostalgia. But also with thankfulness. With compassion. With understanding.

I guess, in other words, with love.

---

In loving memory of a painter I wish I'd known more deeply.

---

This will be the first, out of hopefully more, raw, heartfelt written pieces that I plan on making as part of a New Year's Resolution. 

I hold my father very close to my heart, and I've never succeeded to write about him until today. I'm glad I did; I'd be lying if I said I didn't aaaaaalllllmost shed a tear while writing this, but it felt freeing. I think the best kinds of writing is the ones that give you that feeling. 

So I'm serious about going back to this blog and writing a lot more. I don't dare call this one an essay just yet, but essays are what I'm going for. Not necessarily about how my day is or what I had for breakfast, but just pieces that can tell... my story. Honestly, I can get so sick of myself sometimes, so I don't write with the intention of talking about me. But rather, I write to make people feel something. Maybe make them feel less alone. Maybe give the words that can possibly help them describe what their feelings are. In this case; grief, nostalgia, and the early loss of a loved one.

I think you get the point.

Thank you. For reading, for caring, for sticking around.

To stories, and to the courage it takes to tell them.














5 comments

  1. While reading, I was unconsciously reminisce about the people I've lost and the legacy they left behind.
    I hope through your work of words, you can find relief.
    God bless.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Oh, my heart. Hugging you tight. <3

    ReplyDelete

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