As my father lay dying, on June 29, 1990, I held his ice-cold hands. We didn’t say much, at first. Didn’t know where to start. Then I asked if the legend was true.
His family swore that, as a boy in Wisconsin, my father couldn’t draw, could barely hold a pencil in his stubby fingers. When he was nine, while playing in winter on the Kinikinick River, his hands froze. The pain was so great he begged for amputation. His mother, Marguerite, said no. Dad missed most of that school year. Blisters hung six to eight inches below his fingers. After he recovered, my father gained a gift his family called “the touch.”
“They liked to exaggerate,” Dad half-whispered, with legend-deflecting humility, as I cupped his frigid hands.
Dad was an artist. He taught at the College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. Then, to support three children, he worked most of his life as a commercial artist and painted large, color-bursting canvases in his spare time. Whether or not the legend was true, he did have “the touch,” which was one gift among many.
When my father was born, his parents, George Theodore and Marguerite, called it quits. He was their 11th child and, they swore, their last. To seal their vow, they named him Donald Omega Smith. Then they had Gordon.
Dad disliked that middle name. Throughout his life, my older sister, Shirley, younger brother, Michael, and I suggested alternatives. When we were kids: Donald “Omagosh” or “Oriole.” As we grew older and our reading, and love for the man, deepened: Donald “Odysseus” or “Ouroboros.” The latter was mine. I liked that one, the famous snake biting its tail? Shaped like an O? Dad said nothing. Everyone else just hated it. Family: go figure.
No middle name stuck. Dad was always “Dondo.” Or “Bopo,” my brother’s word for father. When we read Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Dad became “Bopodondo from Macondo.”
They say that ours is the Age of the Absent Father. My dad was the opposite, a present father, as steady as a sequoia. He was never omnipresent or dictatorial, but always, always there, like a backstop or a bottom line, a secure point of return from wherever rampaging youth might hurtle me.
He never used a rod, or a belt, or his fists. But he didn’t “spare the rod” either. If I did something wrong, he’d punish me, only the punishment fit the crime. It was never gratuitous, or excessive, or used me to get at someone else.
He was 5’10”, husky, with laugh-lines deep as scars. His father came from Denmark, descended from “Danish royalty,” Dad’s sisters, who liked to exaggerate, claimed (I’d often ask, “Wasn’t Hamlet Danish royalty?”). His mother — Marguerite, née Rosenberg — came from a Jewish section of Prague (in what is now the Czech Republic). Some of her children denied Marguerite’s heritage.
Dad wore khaki pants (usually spackled with paint), flannel shirts, and a ubiquitous San Francisco 49ers cap. “You’d never know he was there, he was so quiet,” says my sister Shirley, “except people gathered around him.” Guys allegedly courting Shirley would talk to Dad instead. “Donald George’d come to the house and go straight to Dad!”
An old baseball cliché concerns the player, usually the second baseman, whose abilities aren’t readily apparent. You “have to see him play every day to appreciate him.” That was my father. The word’s rarely used today: Dad was a “constant” person.
Shirley: “He never went to church a day in his life, if you don’t count weddings, but he lived every sermon I ever heard. It was a privilege to have him as my father…so unassuming, such gentle strength.”
He was so humble, he revealed his life story in afterthoughts. I once scored 46 points in a basketball game and was furious I didn’t get 50. “That beats me,” he said with fatherly pride. “My high was 43.” Here I’m blithering about 46 points not being enough, though we won the game going away, and Dad scored 43 back in the two-hand setshot days when final scores were in the high 30s. Bragging and complaining: Dad did neither, though he suffered from chronic emphysema the last 15 years of his life. Some traits must skip a generation.
My brother Michael has a gift for concision. He once summed up my first 20 years in a sentence: “Basketball brother’s been reading Camus.” When Michael describes Dad’s sculptures, he describes their maker: “The animals he carved — the hippopotamus, the horse, the turtle…simple, round, just enough definition to give the essence, inside of each an ocean.”
You could say Dad did us a grave disservice. We assumed that all fathers told stories, drew characters for their kids to play with. We assumed that all fathers loved words and the worlds inside them, adored music, hated pretense, took a zenlike view of life’s myriad absurdities, and had a deep, abiding sense of humor. Because our father did it, we assumed that whenever a W.C. Fields movie came on TV, regardless of the hour, all fathers made it required viewing.
As children we probably did him a disservice too. We took his constancy for granted. If we sided with our mother, he’d ask, “But who drove you home from the hospital?”
Three snapshots from a family album:
1.) My mother, Betsy, was gardening in the front yard of our Santa Clara home. Dad and I were watching the 49ers on TV. This was back in the pre-Montana/Rice days when the ’Niners dashed hopes every Sunday. Dad gazed out the window. “J. Come look. Isn’t she beautiful?” At the time, they’d been married over 30 years.
2.) In the ’50s and ’60s, the homeless were called hobos. If they found a house that always gave food and clothing, they’d mark the sidewalk with a small chalked arrow or X. Owing to Dad’s generosity (he once gave the shoes he was wearing to a barefoot man), our sidewalk was a Picasso of white markers.
3.) When I was 20 I worked on a salmon boat at Kodiak Island, Alaska. The day I arrived, two Kodiak bears terrorized the Parks Cannery cafeteria. Three days later, a purse seiner dragged anchor and almost sunk in the 40-degree waters off Cape Karluk. I’d never been in a place where death and astonishing beauty fused so fiercely.
Sensing my mood, Dad wrote rich, upbeat letters. One example: he was reading the Great Books of the Western World, in order. When I was in Alaska, he was in Homer’s Iliad: “J. The Greeks and Trojans ate the ‘inner meats.’ That’s how they could fight a ten-year war, liver, kidneys, the inner meats: all that good vitamin B complex!!”
Dad died slowly. With tubes and designer drugs, modern medicine kept him alive, but in pain, for six months after his stroke — a reprieve for the family, if not for him. During that period, Michael put Dad’s sayings into a book he called Dondoisms. There were hundreds. Among them: “You stepped in what?”; “What do you want, jam on it?”; (the title of a movie star’s biography became his guiding philosophy), “Life is too short to learn German.” Most have meaning only for the family, and when we read them to Dad each sparked elated recognition.
We didn’t notice, until after he died, that Dad had written four Spanish lines on the final page of Dondoisms. These, which we’d never heard before, became his last words:
- En este mundo traidor
- Nada es verdad ni mentira
- Todo es sequn el color
- Del crystal conque se mira.
“In this traitorous world, nothing is true nor false. Everything is according to the glass through which one sees.”