Sunday, February 01, 2004

I'm lookin' through you

I drove 300 miles, round-trip, yesterday to visit my father, who lives in a bleak little farm town just north of the Oregon border. My parents divorced when I was in kindergarten; Dad and I are friendly but see each other rarely, our visits out of sync with the typical holiday calendar. This was our belated Christmas.

My father and stepmom are a guileless and awesomely taste-free couple whose life would drive me to drink if I were forced to live it, but they seem to get along. Dad endures the Kountry Kitsch favored by my stepmom, made manifest in a tide of teapots, teddy bears, milk bottles, and geese in sunbonnets; he contributes to the overall decorative impact with his own collections of model tractors and antique gumball machines. So the service-for-four set of dishes I'd picked out, officially emblazoned with the John Deere logo, achieved the desired effect. In turn, I received two books and the Pyrex two-cup measure I'd asked for, hooray!...and another gift.

Some backstory: I didn't know my paternal grandfather, who died when I was very young. The sole memory I have of him, from a lone meeting, is of his physical presence, his body: a tall (to me), broad-shouldered, seemingly headless torso looming above me. I couldn't have picked him from a lineup.

So I was surprised to see his unfamiliar photograph framed on an end table in Dad's house. Dad told me it had fallen out of an old dictionary he'd been preparing to throw away: my grandfather, in full Army uniform--long-faced and formal, looking like no one I'd ever known.

I love old pictures. They fascinate me: cracked and faded, the inscrutable faces of my ancestors (or anyone's), wordlessly concealing their thoughts, the history of my scattered and estranged family. Dad knows this about me...but then...he misses. Just a tiny bit.

He's found someone with an elaborate, laser-etching tool that can scan a photograph and reproduce it, in minute detail, on any flat surface--a headstone, say, or...a sheet of glass.

So, my final gift: a 5'x8' laser-etched portrait of Master Sergeant Albert S. Douglas, U. S. Army, on clear glass, set into a beveled, leaded glass frame. His name and rank inscribed below; convenient hooks for hanging on top.

What do you say?

The details are striking, really: every crease, every shadow, the woolen texture of his uniform, captured in pin-dot, pointillist perfection, like a newspaper photograph. At different angles, the image of my sandblasted Grandpa takes on weight and dimension, verging on a hologram. "If you hang it in a window, the bevels will make rainbows," Dad said proudly.

I couldn't stop looking at it. My somber, grave grandfather, about to ship out to Germany to rout filthy Nazi immortalized in a craft-fair suncatcher. What would you think of this, Albert? I swaddled the portrait back in its flowery tissue and a pink shopping bag, took it home. Dad is eager to come help me hang it in my new house. Oh.

One thing that I enjoyed, though. Dad takes after his mom, and I take after him. At first glance, Grandpa Douglas was utterly unfamiliar, no hint of recognition or resemblance. But...

"Look at his eyebrows!" I burst out. Dark, straight, square. The same eyebrows I'd looked at in the mirror that and every morning; the same brows so in need of a little waxing or pruning that I despaired of them. Absolute and unmistakable, a weird little genetic blip asserting itself down through the generations, on Dad's face, on mine. Not another trace of him, but damn, those eyebrows.

Hello, Al. I see we have something in common.

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