Melancholy, My Dad, and the Charcoal Tree

When you're like me, and you lost your dad at 13, it's easy to romanticize how you perceive a man who's been gone for the vast majority of your life. I like to remember the Marine, the idealist, the brilliant man my dad was, even though he was also an alcoholic, a child abuse victim, and ultimately lifestyled himself to death until he left my mom with 6 kids and no real career to support us. I didn't learn much from my dad, sadly, because I was too young at the time to tap the brilliance part, while we still had him.

He did, however, one afternoon in our smoky, cluttered 80s living room, teach me how to draw a tree.

My dad was a charcoal artist who never pursued honing his gift outside of high school. Probably not a lot of opportunities to draw still life or models while drill instructing on Parris Island, I'm assuming. But I can't count the number of times he sat in his kind-of-gross recliner and told me how he drew a series of beautiful nudes during art lessons as a teen that mysteriously disappeared. (I think his running suspicion was that his instructor made off with them. Oddly, I lost one of my favorite drawings in high school the same way, but it was a cat.) Art clearly remained in his bones, even if life had pushed it aside.

Anyway, my dad gave me this impromptu lesson with a number 2 pencil and a scrap of whatever paper was sitting atop the clutter. He flicked the pencil over the paper, using the side of the lead, and said, "Trees, grow from the ground up, so draw them that way." I think he was trying to break my of the childhood habit of making a bumpy lump and sticking a trunk under it.

But I watched, fascinated by the way his seeming haphazard flicks of that pencil slowly fused together to form branches, reaching twigs, and a sturdy trunk. And how mere scribbles overtop approximated leaves so generally, yet perfectly.

There's a sort of pall hanging over me this month--call it a collection of political frustration, lingering burnout after finishing a large client project, and gray weather malaise, but I've found my mind lingering in melancholy, and for the past few days, art has been . . . awful. Stilted, graceless, and frustrating.  A friend recommended I try something to free up my mind, and in that mix of gloom and a need to shake out the tight lines, my dad's tree technique tapped on my shoulder.

The image above is a digital version of my application of my father's instruction from so long ago. Just a little 20 minute gesture, but an opportunity to reflect on the fact that I do have this one little piece of legacy to hang onto. No matter what life thrust upon or took away from him, he took that moment in my childhood to grab a pencil, and that moment has stayed with me 30 years or more. For all of us, those who are reeling with hurt, or frustrated, or fearful for the future, I hope we all remember today--and everyday--that little investments into single lives matter. More than we may ever live to see or understand.


  1. Ah. That was poignant and a well-timed reminder. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. Touching story, Becky. What a beautiful memory to have to hold onto.

  3. I'm so thankful that you responded to the needs that you saw, Becky, and created this amazing thing we call "Realm Makers". The hundreds of lives you have touched will never be the same. There is such strength and courage gained from realizing "we are not alone" in our dual interest in God and speculative fiction. May the community spin off many other collaborative efforts, like spiral arms spun off the hot, busy core of an expanding galaxy! ;-)
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