My father, had he lived, would have been ninety-four years old on September 15. He died of a mix of what I think of as modern ailments – diabetes, high blood pressure, and a persistent melanoma that began on his leg and eventually traveled to his brain. He passed in February, 2002, a few months shy of his 84th birthday, and shortly before publication of my first book, Sodom Laurel Album. That he didn’t live to see the book, or hear my lecture on the book at the Library of Congress, is one of the great regrets of my life.
Dad, and my mother too, was a product of the Great Depression and that experience was communicated to me, his oldest child, in the form of suggestions regarding what I should major in in college. I wanted to study history and anthropology and English although at the time I certainly had no idea how one made a living with such esoteric interests. Dad, thinking practically, and with his long memory of difficult times as a teenager, suggested business because I would always be able to get a job.
I got my degree in Personnel Management, but business didn’t stick with me. I spent more than a few years searching for the right fit, eventually coming back to my first love of writing and, a later learned-love, photography. My decision to pursue my art was difficult for both of my parents to understand or accept. Why would I not use my degree? Why would I choose a profession with such insecurity attached to it? Why would I pick something I knew so little about? My father, while mystified, also told me he would be proud of anything I did as long as I was productive.
Some years later, after some success, when it seemed my decision had been the right one, my father revisited the decision that sent me to business school. We were at an exhibit of my work in Charlotte and he was talking with a friend who was filming the conversation for posterity. He explained his insistence that I take business, my pleas to study the humanities, and my ultimate stubbornness about following my own path. At that point in the conversation, he looked around the gallery and said, “But this is really nice work.”
That sentence was perhaps my father’s most important gift to me. In those few short words, he gave me acceptance and understanding while showing me his own ability to change and be flexible. But most importantly, he gave me an important message about parenting, about accepting our children for who they are, not who we want them to be.