I’m at the Hartford train station waiting for my 87-year-old father to arrive. He’s flown from California to New York City and then taken the train up to meet me in Connecticut. When he steps onto the platform, he’s already waving and calling out “Hello!” like a man on parade. His overcoat is buttoned up to his chin against the cold; a bright yellow scarf is tied around his neck, and a red beret set at a jaunty angle on his head. He’s so full of color and vigor and life that when I hug him, I burst into tears.
“Oh,” my father says, stroking my back. “Tell your old man all about it.”
Even though he knows, I wail, “Mom’s sick, I’m getting divorced, and my life’s a failure!”
My dad nods. “Well,” he says with a shrug. “These things happen,” as if a plate has broken and not a family. Then he says, “You’ll be all right. I should know.”
Walking through the parking lot toward my car, my father puffs and pants from the emphysema he ignores. I’m sniffling and feeling sorry for myself. This is a difficult period—my second marriage ending at the same time I’m placing my mother in a nursing home because Alzheimer’s disease has made it impossible for her to live on her own. I’ve just sold her house and begun to pack up her belongings. On top of that, for the past seven years I’ve been working in my husband’s furniture-restoration business; the divorce means I’m out of a job, too. And we have an eight-year-old son. Divorce was hard enough the first time, when I didn’t have a child. Now I realize that this is breaking someone else’s heart as well.
So I’ve called my father, and he’s flown here to help me. Over the weekend, we journey to my mother’s soon-to-be-emptied house to inventory and appraise her art collection. My father is an art critic and historian; he knows the value of her paintings better than anyone else. Mostly, though, I’m scared. I don’t know how I’m going to manage, and right now, despite being well into my forties, I want a parent, someone to lean on when nearly everything central to my life is shattering.
There’s only one problem with this plan: Stability is not my father’s forte.
Before she was sick, my mother used to say wryly, “Your father has a gift for starting over.”
My mother was my father’s first wife. They were married for 17 years and came up together in the New York art world when, in the 1960s, he was the curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art. After they divorced, my father moved to California and remarried four times. Though she had her share of boyfriends, my mother never remarried. She clung to the hope that they’d end up back together. Between each of his marriages—and often during them—my parents would briefly reunite. But the same problem recurred. My father was flagrantly unfaithful. Still, my parents remained close and even worked together on a few projects over the years.
Inside my mother’s house, my father pats the dining room table as if it were an old friend. He wanders around, hands behind his back, smiling and nodding at my mother’s paintings. Picking up the small Renaissance drawing of the Madonna and child by Carracci, my father says with a glint in his eye, “I gave this to your mother when she was pregnant. Don’t sell it; give it to me. Oh, wouldn’t it be nice to have it again.”
This is my father. A guy with a special knack for getting what he wants.
“Are you crazy?” I say. “Mom told me to keep the Carracci. It’s a mother and child. Besides, you took what you wanted when you left. What would you do with it?”
“She’s so beautiful,” he says, eyeing the Madonna as if she were a fair damsel escaping his advances.