The San Francisco Museum of Modern art was at times bewildering. I know that modern art sometimes isn’t supposed to be “gotten,” but as someone who considers herself fairly cultured, so much of the upper floors in particular were sometimes difficult to process.
Most paintings I can “get,” but several of the sculptures and videos just flew straight over my head.
Except this pile of red dirt intersected by mirrors.
It made me cry.
I’m sure the artist didn’t have me and my Papa in mind when he made his creation, but that doesn’t really matter.
Since my dad died in November I’ve spent a lot of time thinking over our relationship, which was so complicated and at times difficult. I always identified more with my mom than my dad, partially because people are forever telling us how much alike we are.
But in many ways I am more like Papa than I realized while he was here. I have his temper (though I keep it under control better), his habit of keeping lengthy to-do lists (I didn’t discover this until we were cleaning out his office), and maybe the thing we talked about the most the last several years: his love of photography.
Since about 2000 it was really uncommon to see my dad without a camera in his face, and I’m the same way. In 2012 James gave me my first DSLR, a Nikon D5100 that I took everywhere with me for more than 4 years. A few months later Papa bought his Nikon D7000, a step up from mine.
After he died mom gave me his old camera, and it’s the one I shoot with now.
I remember being so frustrated at our wedding that after all the money we paid for a professional photographer, Papa still couldn’t put down his own camera. But when he sent me all the photos he’d taken I was so happy he had… Some of my favorite candids from that day are ones he took. This shot of how James looked right before our first kiss, for example.
Papa also probably spent more time in the Red Clay of Alabama than any non-farmer in history.
He was an incredible gardener, filling our bellies with bountiful vegetables every summer, and mom’s vases with roses and hydrangeas through most of the year.
Every spring he’d till compost into the red dirt, coaxing it into fertility.
Besides his family, Papa’s great love was the Grant Baseball Park. He spent thousands of hours there after we moved to the small town making it a jewel in rural Alabama. He coached literally thousands of young men and women in baseball and softball, teaching not only the fundamentals of the sport, but also important lessons about sportsmanship and leadership.
Between the garden and the park his socks and shoes inevitably turned from crisp white to red every spring, until they matched both the earth and his deeply suntanned skin.
So when I saw this pile of red clay in the middle of California, and bent down and saw my own reflection I couldn’t help but get emotional. Because, not for the first time, I saw Papa right there with me.
Camera in our faces, red dirt on our shoes.