I was exhibiting my art at the Pecan Street Art Festival in Austin, Texas, when a boy about seven years old and his parents walked up to my booth. I always do a signing for my children’s books which I set on a table at the entrance. The boy was enthralled with the books—his eyes grew larger each time he turned a page. “Mom! Dad! Come see these!”
What could be more beautiful than the excited voice of a child calling his parents to join him in a moment of discovery? What could possibly deter the parents from giving him their attention? Perhaps a round of bickering between the mother and father…
“We should go,” he said. “It’s too hot anyway.”
“But we just got here.” she replied.
“I don’t like the heat.”
“It’s not too hot.”
“There’re too many people anyway.”
She looked him straight in the eyes. “This is ridiculous. Why’d we even come?”
He shot a stare directly back at her and said, “That’s what I’m sayin’.”
As they stood a few feet behind their son, the father ordered, “Put down the book. We need to keep moving.”
Continuing to flip through the pages, the child was captivated by the book. “Look at this whale!”
The dad elevated his voice. “Let’s go!”
Shaking her head, the mother said, “Just great. So glad we came today.”
The father grabbed his son’s arm, and led him away. That was the last time I would ever see them.
Just a parental dispute? Not quite. There was more to it that caught my eye.
It was the father. I could not stop looking at him. And in doing so, I could not stop thinking about the boy. What were his chances of growing up without being bombarded by negative influences? In fact, I had wondered about that before the three had arrived at my booth. In the distance I had spotted the father wearing a tank top. On the front of it, and in large bold letters, it read:
I get it. Blatant. In-your-face shock value. A rebellious streak has been riding on your shoulders for quite some time, years in fact. Say what you want and express it as you wish. But, dude, you’re about 35 years of age, and you have a young, impressionable boy. I don’t care if you’re walking the streets at a crowded art fair or grilling burgers in the backyard…trash the shirt before it trashes your kid…if it’s not too late. Lord knows what your language is like at home—walls thickly painted with profanity.
Seven years old.
The father was under my skin, quickly becoming rancid and septic. And there they stood at my booth: the child lost in the imagery of my books, while the parents argued behind him with classy dad sporting the bold statement of the day.
I could not let this moment pass by without capturing it. While I would certainly relay to my friends what I had seen, it would take more than words to convey the full impact. So I took out my phone and discretely took a photo of the three. The father’s shirt was clear as day.
* * *
The art festival was on the weekend. By noon the following Monday, I had shown the picture to nearly twenty people. “Want to see a photo of a kid who doesn’t have a chance? Oh, and that’s his dad behind him…”
Everyone’s reaction was no different than mine: appalled and sad. For three days I continued to share the image and voice my opinion about the father. I lost sleep over the photo. I could not erase the four bold words printed on his shirt. I could not unsee it.
Then along came a conversation with a friend named Dianne…
“Ros, you know that photo you showed me earlier? It bothers you, doesn’t it?”
I don’t often admit to things that bother me, as I usually do a pretty good job of ignoring them. “Well,” I said. “I wouldn’t say I’m bothered so much as I’m just intrigued by the scene I captured.”
“I understand that, “she said. “But you’re showing it to everyone because it bothers you. Right?”
I hadn’t shown it to Dianne with the hopes that she’d turn therapist on me. But it sure felt that way. “Okay, yes, it bothers me.” What was next? Hypnosis? Delve into my childhood? Interpret my dreams?
“I’m going to give you some advice,” she said. “Some Jim Pape wisdom.”
Jim Pape was her late husband. He had passed away five years prior. A defense lawyer, Jim was well known for not only delivering great story jokes, but had a gift for putting things in perspective that often contained a valuable nugget of enduring wisdom.
“Obviously,” she continued. “The child in that photo doesn’t have much of a role model as a father. No doubt, the father’s shirt is disgraceful. But think about this:
There is nothing you can do about the father. You’ll never be able to change him.”
“And that’s the great wisdom you’re passing on to me?”
Dianne let out a slight chuckle. “No, Ros. The wisdom is this: Chances are you’ll never see him again. But as long as you keep showing that photo, and as long as you keep talking about it, well, that father will continue to live rent-free in your head.”
“But, it’s such a great photo. It captures everything.”
“I get it, Ros. I get the dynamics of the photo. But my suggestion is to delete it. Let it go.”
I couldn’t argue with her. Living rent-free in my head was exactly what was going on. It was as if I’d granted the dad total access to every virtual square inch of my brain. He had become a fixation that I could not turn away from: in the grocery store, at a gas station, on a group run, or throughout my work day. It got to the point that if I wasn’t showing the photo, then I was at least describing it.
Living rent-free, and the worst tenant possible. Dianne was right: there was nothing I could do to change a person who I’d never see again. I must admit though, he sure made for great conversation. Not one person sided with the dad. Nobody shared his choice for freedom of expression. It was unanimous: he was a jerk.
Still, how long did I want to continue parading the photo around town? How long would I lug this fixation around with me? By the end of the week, I made a decision to evict the tenant.
Heeding the wisdom of Jim Pape, I selected the photo from my phone one last time. I gazed into the innocent child’s face mesmerized by my books. Such a pure and beautiful moment for him. I can only hope my books would be everlasting memories.
And right there, before I pressed DELETE, I wished the child farewell.
Copyright Ros Hill 2017