My Dad, Age 9: some baggage

My Dad, Age 9 by Miss Birdsong
My Dad, Age 9, a photo by Miss Birdsong on Flickr.

For the “Baggage” print portfolio exchange coordinated by Rainbow Ross (who is currently finishing out a year of teaching in South Korea), I intended to do something completely different. I was working on a small plate about a vivid dream I had a few years ago. That plate fought me every step of the way. Finally, mere days before I had to get the edition in the mail, I broke down in frustration. What was I going to do? It looked terrible. It wasn’t up to my standards at all, not even close – I could hardly stand to look at it myself, much less give it to other people as an equal trade for their work.

I had this little plate of my father as a boy, drawn from one of the few photographs I have of him, sitting on my shelf in the print lab. I’ve been working on it here and there, conceiving it as an illustration for a short story I wrote. After admitting defeat with the other plate (at least for this deadline), I had to print something. I hesitated over this one of my dad, and Daniel looked at me archly and said, “It’s not like it doesn’t fit the theme.”

Okay, so it does. The other plate I was working on (and will yet conquer!) was also about my father, I suppose. In the dream with the crow, I dreamed that I was ill and went to see a doctor, who had me lie down on a table after eating some kind of special food. As I lay there, a huge crow flew in from a high window and landed on me. I could feel its claws poking through my shirt. Somehow I knew that the crow was my father, coming to deliver a very important message, but I couldn’t understand him. All I knew was that it was urgent. And then, when I understood, the crow flew away, and upon waking I forgot what was so important. The dream continued to haunt me for days. I sometimes have breathtakingly vivid dreams, and that one was more powerful than any I’d had in years.

The print I actually sent for the exchange, obviously, is my father: as a boy with a silly, buck-toothed grin. The sadness inherent in that little print did not come upon me until I was packaging up the edition for the mail. As I wrote the title, medium, and website address over and over on the back of the pieces of glassine sandwiching each print, it occurred to me that I was seven when he died. My brother was two weeks shy of his ninth birthday. My father never got to see his children be nine years old, as old as he is in this school picture from forever ago.

My dad has been dead for twenty years, so I’m more than comfortable with the idea that he is gone. I grew up with it. It’s as familiar to me as the freckle below my mouth, which used to occupy much more space and be much more noticeable. As I grew, the freckle stayed the same; while it didn’t really change, everything else around it changed and grew, making it smaller by comparison. If you haven’t studied my face, you probably never even noticed it was there, though it was quite conspicuous when I was little. It is a tidy parallel for my father’s absence: I grew, but it stayed the same, until its place became smaller and less distinct, and began to exist in proportion to other important life events.

But Daniel is right: my dead father is emotional baggage. I will miss him until the day I die, even though I can no longer remember the sound of his laugh or the smell of his hair, or what it felt like to be hugged by him. Even though he is just a collection of old photographs, second-hand stories, and a little ache somewhere in my psyche – nothing more – my father will never leave me. I know him by his absence.

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