On Wanting to See, the Invisible Jury, a Small Red Box: Notes on Making My Father’s Portrait
Frank Rodick, 2016
There’s music in everything, even defeat.
– Charles Bukowski
For a long time I didn’t think I’d ever make pictures of my father. He just didn’t mark my life like my mother. At least I didn't think so. Also, I was angry. So maybe I was punishing him—even posthumously—by not making the effort. People do these things. But I was angry with my mother too and that hadn’t stopped me from making pictures of her.
I’m not sure what happened to change things. Resignation maybe.
When it comes to things like remembering the name of a childhood friend, turning a stubborn key, or falling asleep, it's giving up that helps the most.
As with the pictures of my mother, I began the first five of these six images using old photographs I found in my parents’ belongings after they died. The original photos, small black and white prints, show Joseph Rodick at different ages. They start all the way back to a child of three standing next to a teddy bear. The teddy bear sits on a chair and he has this big button eye. About that picture, I remember my father saying it must have been taken in a studio because he knew the teddy bear wasn’t his.
The text you see eked out in five of the images are taken from my father’s words during the last days of his life. Those days were predictably awful: hospitals, tubes and bedpans, mindfucking drugs —the indignities of an elderly life’s end, unhappily too commonplace. Intubated, he couldn’t speak. So, when he could, he wrote things down. Some stuff was illegible, some banal (I have a green notebook falling apart but still useful. I would like it here. Put a rubber band around it.), a few things cryptic. My father was proud of his normally beautiful handwriting, but by then his veiny hands shook so much all he could write were scrawls. I kept those pages and photographed them, so the words you see in the images (and referenced in the titles, save for that last one) are rendered directly from his own hand. His last words.
A difficult person to know, my father. (Yes, I know: so is everyone. But not equally so.) For one thing he didn’t trust anyone, ever. I know he didn’t trust me because he told me so. That was just one more sad thing because, especially towards the end, he didn’t really have anyone else.
Where did that distrust come from? Maybe from his life through to adulthood, full of hardship: poverty, war, sickness. Loss. An older sister who wrote her little brother Joe letters he’d keep always, but who died at 34 from tuberculosis. Then TB himself, a year in a sanitorium at age seventeen. No one visited me, not once, he told someone—not me—sixty years after.
Of course, the elder sibling of mistrust is fear. And my father feared. That austere early life couldn’t have helped. His father supporting a family of five on the wages of a sailor and then as a chauffeur. The Great Depression. Then the War, my father at home in England (ineligible to fight because of diseased lungs, If I'd gone I'd have been killed right away, he told me once), alone with his mother who had a nervous breakdown from the bombing. And then later, a life begun with nothing alongside his bride Frances, my mother. He loved her—photographed her constantly—but she was a troubled woman, fighting and consorting with her own torments, more violent than his. When she’d explode and splinter, he’d take shelter, locking the door behind him and leaving anyone else to find cover on their own.
Sometimes, when I look at his eyes in these portraits I imagine them peeping through a cellar keyhole, checking to see if the hurricane has passed.
He wanted to be an artist, my father. He drew all the time, everywhere, and not badly for someone unschooled. The ritual: flip over the paper placemat in the usual restaurant and draw people with a ballpoint pen. But all that fear—especially the abyss of poverty never far away—made a career in the arts more than daunting. Instead he became a book seller. Life as a small merchant was difficult but not ridiculous, not impossible like an artist's.
He also lacked that much underrated quality of artists: a centered ruthlessness. You need it if you want to make such a self-seeking pursuit, one with long odds against success however defined, into your life’s mission.
When he saw me muddling my way into an art career—and it was he who introduced me to photography—my father was, on the surface anyway, pointedly indifferent at best. In what felt like a taunt, all he’d say about my work was, How many pictures did you sell? Other people said he was jealous—the schooled son who didn’t know poverty or war or sickness chasing the father’s dream. In any case, I responded to what I felt as meanness and rejection with sullen expressions of meanness and rejection of my own.
Here’s a funny story. Or maybe it's not funny at all, though I think it is. My mother told it to me when I was around thirty, swearing it to be truth not mischief. She said, On the day you were born you know what your father did when the nurse told him he had a son? To which I said, Not a clue. My mother: He fainted, right then and there. I said (incredulously): You mean he fainted because he was overcome with emotion? No, she said (suppressing an eye-rolling laugh, her son being perhaps a little dimmer than she'd realized), Because he wanted a girl. To which, I replied, Wait a second, you mean he fainted from disappointment? (I thought: Who in fuck faints from disappointment?) That’s right, said my mother. We both laughed and liked each other for a few minutes.
Apparently, months earlier, perhaps thinking it would tip the whole gender business in his favour, my father had chosen a name for what would be his only child. She'd be called Rita.
Rita Rodick, Rita Rodick. Try rolling that over your tongue a few times. Good grief.
Fast forward some decades to September 2015 when, with these old photos of Joseph Rodick scattered across my office floor, I started this project. As usual, I don’t know what to do, or if there really is a project. I don’t know what I want to say, or if I have anything to say at all. So I do as always: I wander in and out of the pictures, in and out of myself. Space and time. I get lost in the images and in all the ways they seem able to become something else. I dislike feeling lost—which I feel often—and I say fuck this and fuck that repeatedly, which I also do often. I read and reread those seven or so chicken scratched pages of my father’s last words till my eyes bleed. Sometimes I find a whole sentence that I'd swear I never saw before.
I spend a fair amount of time feeling sorry for myself, for a whole bunch of reasons. And, at times, when my father’s picture becomes more than just an image, I feel sorry for him too. More sorry than I ever did when he was alive.
I go up and down alleyways, most of them blind. Blind, but not mute—they all have something to say, even if it’s just a whispered nudge in one direction or other. I work and, just as important, I wait. I wait for the pictures to tell me what to do next.
That last image—Joseph (2004/09/26/00/15), which is at the top of the page—is the only one without his last words. I took the original picture myself, of my father a half hour after he died. I wasn’t there for that moment of his death but when I got to the hospital, a nurse met me in the hall. She took me to his curtained-off bed. What I remember most about her is that she was so solemn and it felt so sincere. I was practically shocked by that.
It’s funny. I’d brought a camera with me, so obviously I'd at least thought about the possibility of taking photographs. But it was this really crappy little camera. It was as if, by bringing an inferior instrument, I was disclaiming, to that jury in my head, any inclinations or instincts that might look predatorial. An alibi. (No, your honour, I’m not the cold, callous snake of a son that I appear to be. If I were, I would have brought my Bronica large format. And my tripod.)
Anyway, for ten minutes maybe, I took photographs of his body. I remember the waxiness of his skin, much yellower than I expected, another cliché that turned out to be true. But what I remember most was that dead mouth, gaping wide. It looked like he’d discharged those last wet shreds of life in a final breath. Or that they’d been sucked right out of him by some incubus who'd slipped back into the night.
Joseph Rodick’s life ended on September 26th, 2004 at 12:15 a.m. Those are the numbers on his death certificate, laid out neatly by the Province of Québec.
When I look at these six images, what do I see? I see the human face of time and its juxtapositions, that what looks and feels like a long life is a cipher. Emerging from a life left in more ways than one, I see what looks like a man’s destiny and feels like a tragedy. I see a boy, a man, looking—aren't we all?—for something. I wanted to see, he wrote, at the end. But what?
I see the loneliest man I ever knew. Who died alone.
And—this seems inevitable—I see myself. A man deep into Keats’ season of mists. The soft-dying day… that time, that place, where the strange twins of memory and incomprehension drive their stakes into heart and mind, claiming another bit of territory in your soul.
A few months after my father died I was going through his things and found a small red cardboard box I'd never seen before. SIMPSONS it said in cursive gold lettering: the name of a Montreal department store, long shuttered. Opening it, I found a sheet of thick yellowed paper, carefully folded to form a square pocket about two inches wide. I unfolded it. Curled inside was a snippet of blonde hair, delicate and fresh, as if cut yesterday. It belonged to my father’s sister—dead for over 70 years. Written in my father’s beautiful hand were five words: Hair – lock of Rita Rodick.