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.
Over the next few hours, we measure and photograph each painting. I’m astonished at my father’s energy. At nearly 90, he’s still working and very active: finishing a book, writing a catalog for a show in South Korea and next month going to Italy with his current wife so he can see Venice one last time. He’s like an old battleship that just keeps cresting—so dynamic and resilient. Usually his list of accomplishments makes me happy, but today, because my mother is sick and my marriage is ending, because my life is in shambles, I resent him.
Even though my parents split up more than 40 years ago, I demand, “Why did you have to leave?” Thinking, If my father hadn’t left, I wouldn’t be burdened with the responsibility of my mother now. And maybe I would know more about staying married than getting divorced. To have failed twice at wedlock is to come smack up against my own restless nature—a predisposition I’m more than a little afraid I’ve inherited from my father.
“I wasn’t any good at family life,” my father admits. He’s standing in front of the Karel Appel portrait of my mother that she sat for in 1963, not long before the divorce. The story behind the portrait is that at first Appel painted my mother to look as elegant and refined as a Modigliani. But at the last moment he said, “It’s not right. Come back tomorrow.” When she next saw the painting, he’d replaced the graceful woman in the picture with a wild, windblown and uncontained image. My mother was heartbroken and for years hid the painting in a closet. Then one day she pulled it out and realized that, like Dorian Gray in reverse, she’d aged into her portrait. That’s when she proudly hung it on the wall.
My father smiles at my mother’s intense gaze, the pout of her red lips, the black-and-blue zigzag crown of her hair. “That’s certainly worth something,” he notes. Then he adds, “She was an original. She was interesting. I made a big mistake. I should have stayed.”
I’ve never heard him admit this before, and even though it’s her painting he’s addressing, my heart aches to think of the wreckage they made of their happiness. It makes me doubt my choice to leave the father of my child. Though in truth, mine was not a successful marriage, and the decision to end it not entirely my own.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” I tell him. Meaning divorce, dissolving my mother’s house at the same time as my own, finding a new place to live, raising a son and walking into a future that I can’t see.
I’m not sure how much of this my father understands. He’s been a capricious role model, far more connected to artifacts than to family. But he must hear the regret and confusion in my voice, because he strokes my hair to comfort me. “Do you know what I realize?” he asks, as if an idea has just occurred to him. “The best part of my life happened in the middle. Look at you—you have that ahead of you!”
But from where I am, in the center of this hurricane of loss, it doesn’t feel as if there’s anything in front of me except more sadness.
The next morning we drive to the nursing home to see my mother. My father’s hat is no longer sitting lightly on his head; it’s pulled down over his forehead. He’s worried. As a man who is better at beginnings than endings, he’s never been comfortable visiting people who are sick or near death. My usually chatty father looks out the window and speaks only once, to ask me to stop so he can buy her some flowers.
Walking through the nursing home, he’s visibly shaken. It must not be easy for this lover of women to see so many of them wrinkled and slumped over in wheelchairs so far that their heads nearly rest in their laps. Out in front of him, my father carries his bouquet of yellow lilies like a flag, and I think, What a gentleman!
We find my mother in her room, sitting in her embroidered armchair, staring out the window. I’ve done my best to make it familiar for her, bringing in a few of her early-American antiques and family photographs. I wanted to hang some of her paintings on the walls, but I was warned that they might be stolen.
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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