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Sophia Shultz's Blog

Eulogy for my Dad

23rd Feb 2009

Eulogy for My Dad

My Dad passed away this past Wednesday, 18 February. I will be reading this at the luncheon following the memorial mass, which is tomorrow.

I recently got into a dustup with someone because I said something about it being irresponsible for an adult to blame their parents for the way they turned out. Yep, that’s me, able to leap over diplomatic boundaries with a single phrase. I got that from Dad, that tendency to occasionally make statements which were, however true, a little on the blunt side.

I want to talk about how Dad affected the way I turned out and how I’m thankful that he was my Dad. Here’s how I see it: when we’re born, we’re like an empty attic. Throughout our childhoods the people around us—parents, brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, friends’ parents, etc.—each add things to the attic: interests, behaviors, encouragements and discouragements, all the things good and bad, big and small, that, for better or for worse make us who we are. By the time we’re in our twenties the attic is pretty full: not only do we have the contributions of our early influences, but now we have our own interests and experiences stored there too. It’s time to look through our boxes of retained messages, lessons learned, and emotional baggage, make what’s worth keeping ours and get rid of the rest.

In 12-step programs we would call this taking inventory, but for the sake of a broader audience I’ll say it’s time to play “keep, toss, give away.”

Our father wasn’t perfect; no one is. Without intentionally trying to make my brother and sisters feel old, there’s a whole lot about our father that I don’t remember. Rifling through the Dad Box in my personal attic I find experiences of every color, but it’s what we make of the stuff that we’re given that counts. Recently I was told that when life hands me lemons I make wicked good lemonade, so here goes:

Dad was a taskmaster when it came to art. I spent years trying to earn his approval. I distinctly remember being 6 or 7 and trying my hand at doing black and white drawing because he was doing a lot of pen and ink art at the time. I took one of my masterpieces down to the basement, where he was no doubt working on a flip chart at his seemingly enormous drafting table; he looked down at my offering and said, “That’s nice, do more.”

Being desperate to impress him and having a gift for overkill, I went on to produce so much artwork that in the end becoming a professional artist was inevitable. But I waited a long time for any sort of verbal approval.

Dad didn’t believe in schooling for art—or for much of anything. To him, it was always better if you could teach yourself something: he had spent most of his life doing that, and I was expected to do the same. Although I was the first one in the family to attend and graduate from the University of Pennsylvania (sorry all you Villanovans out there), he never said he was proud of me until I had my own portrait business and had landed my first sizeable commission. Believe me, that was one long wait from the little girl by the drafting table to the twentysomething just getting out in the world. And because I was so desperate for his approval, I always did my best work: though I don’t need his approval anymore, I still do my best work whenever I pick up a paintbrush or pencil—and I have the reputation to prove it.

Dad was the one to push me out the door and into business in the first place. I have no independent confirmation that this was not an act of self-defense, since when I was in college I always seemed to be asking for money, but it has recently been pointed out to me that he must have been impressed enough with my work to think it was worth giving a go. It was just like Dad, to never say anything like “I’m proud of you”--and it took an online friend who was reading this over for me to remark on it. I say to you for the record, “Duh.”

To continue: I had been doing portraits of my friends in fantasy settings for a couple of years, and one night in response to my grousing about not being able to afford to go to a science fiction convention in Philadelphia, he suggested that I sell my portraits in the dealers’ room—an unremarkable suggestion until you realize that it came from a man who had been to ONE Star Trek convention nearly 10 years before. He had not remembered the guests, the people in costumes or anything else, but he had remembered the dealers’ room. He financed the first couple of ventures, and the rest, as they say, is history. Twenty-seven years later, though my repertoire has expanded considerably, I’m still going to conventions and doing my portrait work.

I don’t know that I ever said I wanted to be just like Dad when I grew up, but in many ways I am like him. As a kid, I always admired the ease with which Dad interacted with people. While in later years I realized that this facility did not always apply to his own children, I did learn from him and now find it easy to talk to perfect strangers when, for example, in a festival or convention setting. Like Dad, who lettered windows to the fascination of passersby, I am not bothered by kibitzing strangers, and unlike some artists I know, who only work in total silence, I can carry on a conversation while drawing or painting. Similarly, it seems natural that I travel a great deal for my work. And there are the times when I pick up the long, thin liner brush, dip it into the paint and then roll it on the palette until it is perfect for fine lines, just as he did while working on a sign. Of course, we didn’t always agree. For one thing, I never understood his preoccupation with covered bridges and he never understood my preoccupation with rocks.

On a lighter note, I have also inherited several of his more…questionable traits. I have the gift of fire (though I have yet to burn down my yard like he did—more than once), and it’s not uncommon for me to dip my paintbrush into my coffee cup. I believe that these are not learned behaviors: certainly one day scientists will find the gene that causes one to get a little carried away when burning the leaf pile, or inadvertently dip their paintbrush into what is clearly a coffee mug.

I shall always cherish our nights looking at the stars or sitting on the back porch; walks over hill and dale, him looking for birds and me looking for rocks; games of horse shoes and darts; trips to Denny’s at 2AM; hilarious stories from WWII; watching Star Trek or the Twilight Zone or the Outer Limits in the TV room; family reunions; speculation about UFOs, reincarnation or flying Springer Spaniels; hot fudge sundaes, peach ice cream and way too much coffee; his fractured French and the tinny sound of the avocado green transistor radio in the basement; the way he called just about every woman “Gloria” at some point; fallout shelters that fell in; those weird little impulses like the time he gold leafed my fingernails just for the heck of it; watching with envy as he pinstriped cars or laid out windows with a hand so steady it would put today’s computerized sign painting machines to shame. There were kamikaze humming birds, butterfly and moth pursuits, wars against moles and squirrels, and the time the field mouse dropped right onto the drafting table and both Dad and mouse were so surprised that neither knew how to react.

I’d like to close with a funny story because it’s better than getting sentimental and Dad would be really mad if I waxed too sentimental. In fact, he’s probably mighty grouchy right now: he would be saying he had to stay humble. This ought to help:

I must have been in about third or fourth grade when one morning Dad discovered to his horror that, when plugged in, the sacred percolator failed to perk. He determinedly went down to the basement and procured another coffee pot (a survivor of his periodic phases of playing “keep, toss, give away”), which he cleaned up, filled up and plugged in. The percolator made a few gurgling sounds and then suddenly POW! The lid blew off the pot, bounced off the ceiling and hit the floor with a loud clang. I remember laughing so hard I was crying; Dad yelled at me to stop laughing, then, in his pragmatic way remarked, “I knew that must have been down there for a reason.”

Thank you all for coming. Your presence is welcomed, just as his will be missed.

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