My dad inspired several of my stories. He loved this essay so much that he asked me to read it at his funeral, which I did, last Saturday. Art was one-of-a-kind and if you were lucky enough to know him, or own one of his masterpieces, then you were lucky indeed.
You think your childhood was normal, even now, when you should know better. The truth is that each family enjoys its own special brand of kookiness, including yours. Of course, I’m not talking about the people who end up on reality TV buried under all the stuff they couldn’t bear to part with. I’m talking about people who keep the “fun” in dysfunctional, the ones whose little idiosyncrasies provide great stories at Thanksgiving.
In our family, we had a fondness for hobbies. Actually, we didn’t but my dad did. And it was much more than a fondness, it was more like an all-consuming mind-boggling eye-popping breathtaking overwhelming single-minded focus. But even with all that, he didn’t forget about his children, no sir. We were all pulled into the vortex with him…
The first thing I remember is crouching down on our living room floor, immersed in a sea of coins, looking for rare pennies. In the beginning, my sisters and I had a great time rolling around in those thousands of pennies, throwing them at each other and cascading them from high in the air. But when our dad asked us to sift through them and separate them into groups according to their imprint dates, the fun was over. Now, before you start wondering if child services or the Labor Department had to get involved, let me just say-it wasn’t like that. Far from running his own sweat shop, my dad wanted us to love coin-collecting. He gave each of us a penny collection book with empty slots for every year, including the rare pennies, and then tried to make a game out of it. And it might have worked too, if only we could have paced ourselves, but our dad only has one speed and that’s full-speed ahead.
From pennies, he went on to nickels, dimes, quarters and JFK half-dollars. He started storing bags of coins in our closets for when we “had time to look through them” (they may still be there). He dragged us to coin shows and coin stores all over town. He bought necklaces made from rare coins and gave them to my mother for special occasions. She would smile and thank him and then put them away. She may have even worn them to humor him because, even though we were all tired of coin-collecting, nobody wanted to squelch my dad’s enthusiasm. His quest for rare coins made him so happy. That is, until he discovered stamp-collecting.
Rather than bore you with the details, let’s just say it was very much like coin-collecting only a lot easier to lug around. This time, he gave each of us a beginner’s book for collecting stamps and we soon graduated to having our own individual country. For some reason, I chose the Vatican, although I can’t imagine why. Their stamps weren’t pretty, just a bunch of popes. And it’s not even my religion…go figure.
While I don’t remember the rest of the hobbies in chronological order, I do know that they went from small to large, from being contained in our basement to taking over our house and yard. There was jewelry-making, which was kind of fun for us because we didn’t have to participate, and because we could always create a last-minute, unique birthday gift for a friend from the tons of beads, stones and materials my dad kept on hand. Then there was the “miniature” phase during which my dad furnished an entire miniature Victorian mansion from top to bottom (it was much nicer than our house), as well as assembled a miniature greenhouse with real plants in tiny pots. Ironically, it was the miniature greenhouse that led to my dad’s most expansive, most labor-intensive and most annoying hobby of all: cactus.
I can almost hear them groaning as they read this, our friends and family who were dragged into the dangerous and dirty world of cactus. I don’t mean to make it sound exciting, as if it involved espionage or working for the mob; it was literally dangerous and dirty.
After purchasing one small cactus garden at K-Mart, my dad went on to fill the entire back yard with every kind of cactus and succulent known to man, building two greenhouses to house them all. To this day, I cannot explain it. They were the ugliest plants I ever saw, even when they bloomed. And they were everywhere: every windowsill, every table and every empty spot in the yard. We could have lived with all of that (and, in fact, we did), if it hadn’t been for the dreaded… plant shows
Several times a year, plant enthusiasts gather at weekend plant shows, ostensibly to sell their wares but, in reality, to schmooze & steal each other’s ideas. Not only was it unbearably hot (the shows were outside, in Florida), but each show necessitated renting a truck and recruiting many helpers to gingerly pack up dozens of blood-thirsty cacti, knowing full well they would be packing them up again at the end of the show. This torture went on for years and only ended because my mother insisted they sell the house and move to a condo. I only hope the new owners never walked barefoot in the backyard…
Which brings me to the present and the wacky world of metal chickens. Although he was sad about razing his greenhouses, my dad quickly recovered and started taking art lessons twice a week. After painting dozens of oil and acrylic landscapes, still life pictures, portraits and abstracts, he switched from painting canvas to painting metal art. Often using whimsical colors, he has painted hundreds of pieces including animals, insects, statutes of people, and some pieces that are so weird they defy description. My dad is quite prolific and generously donates many pieces to my favorite non-profit for their raffles. As a result, everyone I know owns a piece of Art (also my dad’s name).
Now I know that my childhood wasn’t typical, but, really, whose is? Although I often felt like the Karate Kid did when Mr. Miyagi gave him seemingly pointless chores, maybe I too learned something valuable. And while I don’t have any crazy hobbies, I am enthusiastic about each task I undertake and give it all I’ve got. And for that, I guess I should say: “Thanks Dad!”
***This an excerpt from my book, "Quirky Essays for Quirky People"