The Dad Who Loved Women

He’d never exactly been a model husband. Or parent. But years of infidelity had taught him how to start over—which was just what his daughter needed to learn

by Gabrielle Selz
Photograph: Douglas Friedman/Trunk Archive

Today my mother’s hair is parted down the middle and pushed behind her ears. Hardly gray at 80, she looks young, as if Alzheimer’s, in smoothing out the pathways of memory, has erased age, too. She no longer resembles that wild, untamed woman in her portrait but instead what I imagine the first version of the painting must have looked like, before Appel caught her on the brink of her divorce, gazing out at her own uncertain future.

Two turquoise stones set in silver dangle from her ears, and when my mother turns to greet us, my father’s face lights up with a big, goofy grin. For a long moment my parents stare at each other. Then my father blinks in disbelief, and I know he sees the vacant, passive look in my mother’s eyes. It’s clear she doesn’t know him anymore and is no longer waiting for his return.

I’ve watched her memory fade, stage by stage, but this lack of recognition is such a surprise that I sink onto her bed. I want to tell her, “Look who I’ve brought to see you!” But why disturb and confuse her for my sake? Her yearning for him is over. And that’s when I realize that I’m the only one left clinging to the ghost ship of their relationship.

Like my mother, I always wished that my father would stop chasing so many things—the women, the renown, the adventures. I wanted stability and permanence. But that’s just not what he’s good at. What he does know how to do is embrace change and greet life with exuberance. My mother knew this and loved him despite his restlessness. Together they modeled a connection through friendship and their mutual passion for art that, regardless of divorce, endured a lifetime. And watching them together now, I realize with a clarity I can only call grace that starting over begins with acceptance.

Though my father’s smile fades, he rallies. He’s come such a long way: all the way across his life for one final meeting. Doffing his beret, he bows and in a sweeping gesture presents my mother with her flowers. She bends her head and smells the lilies. “You’re a nice man,” she says. Then she reaches out a long hand, the one that had once worn his ring, and offers him the only other chair in the room.

My father sits down.

“I’m Peter,” he says, extending his own hand toward hers.

Gabrielle Selz’s memoir on growing up in the art world is forthcoming from W.W. Norton.

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Originally published in the June 2012 issue

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