This essay was previously published by the Tulsa Review.
My youngest daughter gives me drawings every day.
At five, she has mastered writing and spelling her name as well as a handful of random CVC words. She draws princesses, our family, tropical sunrises, kittens and carrot people. Just not all in one picture. Her favorite composition’s involve us holding hands, surrounded by her name, ‘BAT’, ‘BUG’, ‘DUG’, ‘MOMM’ or a new word added to her lexicon. Sometimes she hands me the picture, a toothy smile anticipating my reaction, where I tell her how beautiful it is and place it by my bedside or on the refrigerator among the gallery of her sister’s artwork. But, on occasion, I find a crudely misshapen, handmade envelope stuffed with a lone piece of paper resting on my pillow after I’ve kissed them goodnight and shut the door.
This situation does not isolate itself with my youngest. My two older daughters are their own Frida Kahlos, Mary Cassatts, or Georgia O’Keefes. Post-its or college ruled paper transformed by their imaginations into a still life, landscape or portrait. The medium is a matter of proximity or availability. They show up under my pillow. On my night stand. Directly hand delivered. Accidentally discovered while sifting through the wasteland that is a child’s room. These moments on paper exist as fragments of themselves. A window into what they value and find beauty in.
To be honest, sometimes I get the impression the oldest and the youngest sometimes give us pictures out of indifference. A piece of artwork they invested sometime into but, in all honesty, but don’t want to throw them away. Much like first drafts or rough sketches where the spark or essence or shape formed but fails to capture precision of the idea and revision seems too unbearable to engage in. I’m sure they get that from me.
On occasion, they hand over a piece of artwork I can clearly tell they put little effort, thought or time into. It’s junk really. Much like commercialized Top 40 hits or Michael Bay films. Mass produced for a momentary pleasure which, in this case, is a ‘thank you’ and a ‘good job’. After they turn and walk back to their room, I instinctually lift the plastic lid to the kitchen trash. Yet, I still pause.
Should I throw this into the garbage? I have 68 other variations, but why do I pause? She didn’t even want to keep it so her childhood shouldn’t be affected. This won’t come u in counseling in 15 years, will it? In the end, after three daughters, I do throw it away but, deep within me, I experience a tinge of sadness when I release the drawing from my hand and watch it fall into the bin.
I often ask myself what I should do with all these drawings? With all these sketches? Four a day over the course of a week adds up and outgrows the plastic bin where we save the greatest hits of each girl’s creative endeavors. And, in 30 years, do I return them to each child as my mom did to me? I still stumble on a box or folder of my drawings as a child and wonder why I have these but I fail to toss them. The reason avoids me.
My mom kept nearly every hideous or partially hideous drawing I gave to her until she died a few years ago. Tracings of my hand, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles breaking through a brick wall, X-Men, and so many Tyrannosaurs and Diplodocus and Dilophosaurs that her bedroom would have resembled the Natural History Museum or a Jurassic Park of disproportionate dinosaurs who most likely deserved extinction. She stowed away hundreds and hundreds from every age in manila folders and plastic bins. She even served as editor and transcriber of my copyright infringing comic Teenage Mutant Ninja Rats.
Starting at nine, she even commissioned me to draw her a Santa Claus picture every year for her birthday. She would tell me, “It’s all I want for my birthday” which, as far as I know, was not a lie. The teenage years may have resulted in some missed Santas but, over the course of a decade, I drew her one each year. Mostly out of obligation. Sometimes I ventured outside of the traditional. A redneck Santa in camouflage, a jaded Santa clearly disgruntled at the chimney obligation, a cubist Santa during my first year as an art major. I may have done a meth-head Santa whose teeth had turned black and the arms canvassed with ugly tattoos probably done by elf on methadone in the alley behind the toy shop. Regardless, she loved each one in its own unique way and ornately framed each to hang at Christmas every year. Often bragging about each portrait when guest’s came over and often defended my artistic failures. After she died, I found the evidence of this art stashed in her garage, bubble wrapped and slipped into plastic bags.
I remember giving two pictures to my dad.
I must have been seven or eight and tried to think of subjects he would appreciate. So I drew a picture for Father’s Day of a large Sockeye mounted and taxidermized on a wall with a plaque underneath it that read, “King Salmon” followed by a fishing rod, reel and other fishing related images. I remember handing him the picture while he worked in the office, framed by mom, and how he smiled and exclaimed how nice it looked. In fact, he hung it on the wall of his office and I would notice it each time I came in. Seeing that drawing still there filled me, even for the briefest of moments, with a sense of pride that he would keep it up there next to his Master’s and Doctoral Degrees and the team shot of his high school girl’s basketball team. Part of me wants to say that incorrectly labeled salmon hung in his office at the college and then at the tax office in Rancho Cordova. Each time I saw it, nostalgia would sweep me and then a brief sense of love that this Sockeye-parading-as-a-King Salmon swam from office to prestigious office before I found it, still framed, in a standard file box, sitting among other discarded books, papers and junk labeled for the landfill after he married his new wife and compiled credit cards and bank loans in my name.
The other drawing’s life took a different turn. Around 10, I drew dad another picture of one of the fastest and grittiest pitchers to every throw a baseball by copying the image off a Nolan Ryan baseball card. The movement of the photo had Ryan’s front foot landing and his pitching hand cupping the ball for the forward arm motion. A snapshot before the ball turned to fire in his right hand. I gave it to dad, unframed and without the ceremony of a holiday. He said thanks and told me it looked good but, unlike the first picture, Nolan Ryan floated around, unframed. In fact, I’m not sure if it made it to all the other offices or if its ultimate destination was the file box with the salmon.
I wonder why Nolan Ryan didn’t have the same allure. Was it a memory of a failed dream to play in the majors? Did it remind him he sacrificed a life to play for the Phillies AA league to be with my mom and, eventually, my sister and I? He could always catch a salmon off the Mendocino coast but not a flyball at the warning track of Veteran’s Stadium.
When a child allows their soul onto the paper, there is a sacredness of this act. A napkin canvas can reveal more than words at times. As a father, I can’t imagine a life where my daughters only gave me two pictures. But, if they did only give me two pictures, there would be no pauses before trash cans or standard file boxes. They would be an extension of my body and the marrow of my bones, a window into the soul, framed and visible at all times as a reminder.
N.T. McQueen is a writer and professor in Sacramento, California. His books include the forthcoming novel The Blood of Bones (Adelaide Books, November 2021) and Between Lions and Lambs (City Hill, 2010). He earned his MA in Fiction from CSU-Sacramento and his writing has been featured in issues of the North American Review, Fiction Southeast, Entropy, The Grief Diaries, Camas: Nature of the West, Stereo Stories, and others. He has done humanitarian work in Cambodia, Haiti and Mexico and teaches writing at several colleges and universities in California. For more info and events, visit www.ntmcqueen.com or follow him on Twitter @NTMAuthor.