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Fathers & Sons

Photo Finish

Running into your father on the internet can be a startling event when it’s unexpected. Particularly when your father is dead.

Brion Nuda Rosch, Side Profile Portrait, 2010. Courtesy of the artist and Eli Ridgway Gallery, San Francisco and DCKT Contemporary, New York.

I’ve been going through identity stuff lately. It comes and goes, but more often comes. I’ll be walking down the street (I find 6th Avenue particularly existential), asking myself the usual questions—who am I, where am I, what am I doing—and though I can readily answer the where and what, I’m getting more and more stumped on the who. 

“Who am I?” I ask myself.

“A thing that breathes,” I answer. “A thing that breathes on its way to the deli.”

I tell myself it’s nothing unusual—at least, not for me. I’ve always found identity to be a slippery thing. My best friend when I was nine told me he thought of me as his invisible friend. There are days when having a favorite color is about the only personality trait I can muster.

Green.

Sometimes blue.

I don’t really know what triggered it—or, for that matter, whether it’s something that even gets triggered. Emotions are triggered, but what brings on a lack of any affect at all? What makes my inner Elvis leave the building? As I say, I’m not really sure. But I have the horrible feeling it may have been Facebook.

Having an identity crisis about Facebook, of course, is either self-evident or simply sad. I’m not talking about the crisis of creating an identity for myself there in the first place, cobbling together a list of movies and books that somehow convey both my joie de vivre and gravitas. (I have no English qualities.) I don’t mean the crisis that comes of brushing up against other people’s identities, other people’s lists. Other people’s tones: philosophical, dramatic (egad!), lyric (“Saw my first yellow leaf today, and thought…”). Or the crisis of realizing that identity is actually a screening mechanism. But I learned my lesson early on. I no longer friend guys without shirts; I “like” very little.

I’m not talking about that.

I’m talking about the crisis attendant upon picking out a profile photo. I’ve seen other people go through this: friends; friends of friends; cute people I don’t know from Adam. Suddenly they’ll start posting a new profile pic every other day, sometimes several in the space of a day. I saw one guy, within hours, shift from a fairly standard professional shot (“Tom has been Assistant Development Director since…”) to something casual with a polo shirt and novelty martini, to his old Cub Scout picture, to (only for an hour or so) a shot either of himself in drag or his mother in her natural state. When last seen, he was standing in front of a Follies poster with the left shoulder of a cut-off companion at his side.

A few weeks ago, I went through something similar myself, the first glimmer of the dawning crisis. In the throes of a psychological antsiness, I looked at my profile pic and decided my gravitas was leaning toward ennui, possibly even Weltschmerz. Playing around with Facebook’s webcam feature, I tried for something more open, more friendly. Unfortunately, though, I’m one of those people who look sneaky when they smile, so mirth of any sort was out of the question. I finally settled on one I thought made me look smart but not snooty, sexual but not voracious.

In the throes of a psychological antsiness, I looked at my profile pic and decided my gravitas was leaning toward ennui, possibly even Weltschmerz.

Once I’d made the selection, I stared at the new me, wondering, I suppose, whether I would friend me if I weren’t me. I found myself mesmerized by the new photo, not out of vanity but out of curiosity, an oddly morbid curiosity. I looked like someone, someone other than me, someone not me. I couldn’t figure out who it was. Not a celebrity, not anyone famous. I was pretty sure it was somebody dead. Then it hit me:

I look exactly like my father.

I do. I look exactly like him. It’s all there: the Germanic jawline, the Saxon cheekbones. My grandparents were from Saxony, from Wittenberg. The Saxons were a fierce Germanic tribe, adamantly pagan. Charlemagne forced conversion on them three times, but as soon as he’d head back to proto-Paris, they’d start worshiping trees and killing missionaries again. As a Saxon grandson, I understood their struggle.

Jesus Christ: I even wear the same glasses.

I spent a good portion of my formative years being told how much I looked like my father (it was my grandmother’s mantra), and have spent my entire life denying it. Part of it is my horror of genetics: I find all family resemblances unsettling; identical twins make me queasy. The more I look like someone else, the less there is of me. So when I look exactly like someone else, I cancel out. I’m gone.

Part of it is also just regular father-son stuff. There were, as several therapists have pointed out, communication issues. My father wasn’t a big talker. I presume he spoke with my mother. I remember them talking, though I never really paid any attention to them. He wasn’t exactly Mr. Chatterbox with us kids. I can’t, however, lay our communication problem entirely on him. An astrologer once told me that when I was born, Mercury was in retrograde. I had issues of my own. But it wasn’t a developmental thing. I understood how to talk. I just couldn’t think of anything to say.

I’ve had this moment before—at my father’s funeral. By the time of my father’s death I had pretty successfully established myself as not-him, maybe even the Anti-Him. As a teenager, I became a Maoist to counter my father’s Nixon Republicanism. A series of outré haircuts and variously successful stabs at androgyny erased any noticeable genetic markers. Then I moved to New York, where not only was I not-him but he was not-there. (Unfortunately the outré haircuts continued.)

Before the funeral service got underway—I’d been put in charge of picking out non-committal Bible verses—I headed toward the back of the room to check out the flowers (a lot of lilies), dodging various cousins, all of whom had procreated and gotten enormous. My father was a businessman, president of an electronic supply company, so a lot of the flowers were from wire suppliers or transistor people. Near a standing wreath of large mums (which, to my mind, should be reserved for homecoming corsages) was a table with a sign-in book and a number of photos of my father throughout his life: a toddler blushing with photographer’s rouge; a young businessman standing by his first car; my parents on their wedding day.

And there was one that must have been taken on vacation: black and white, up at the lake. He’s standing outside some northern-Wisconsin establishment—log-effect siding, tarpaper roof; maybe a bait shop—holding up an enormous fish dangling a few inches from his fist. A muskie? A northern pike? Something long, snouty and nasty looking. Something that made me only want to swim in pools.

Brion Nuda Rosch, Side Profile Portrait, 2010. Courtesy of the artist and Eli Ridgway Gallery, San Francisco and DCKT Contemporary, New York.

And he’s smiling.

His age in the picture was about the same as mine as I stood looking at the photo in the funeral home. In an instant, a morbid flash, all my not-him-ness vanished as I looked at myself holding a hideous fish somewhere near the Upper Peninsula. The resemblance was so striking, I nearly turned the photograph facedown on the table.

I rejoined my brother and sister in the family line, shaking hands with aged aunts who uniformly declared “My God! You still look exactly like him!” while the man I looked exactly like lay 20 feet away in a good suit, bad pancake base, and taupe mortician’s lipstick.

A number of the wire people commented on the resemblance as well.

I have an awkward relationship with photography. Every picture of me, I think I look too old and too gay. This isn’t something new, something that’s kicked in now that I actually am too old and too gay. I thought I looked too old and too gay in my high school graduation picture. My aversion to the camera perhaps explains why there is in the family annals very little record of my childhood. There are legends, but little evidence. I know for a fact that there was a home movie in which, as the camera panned across our rec room, cousins clumped around a pool table, I made a brief cameo appearance—age seven or eight—in a complete nurse’s uniform. It wasn’t Halloween. However, this film has been lost, I’m told. My brother claims he doesn’t even know what I’m talking about, he doesn’t remember it at all.

And I remember one photo, two actually: one of my sister; one of me; both connected to the same day, my sister’s first communion. First communion was a marvel to me. I’d heard a number of amazing things about Jesus, but to me, at the age of six, the most amazing of all was that you could eat him. It was also a costume event. My sister wore a lacy white dress that was a parody of crinoline, and a tulle veil held in place by a band of white satin lined with tiny costume pearls. A few weeks earlier she’d had her photo taken in this outfit at the Sears photo studio out at the mall. You had to go through the appliance department to reach the photo studio, and at one point my sister wandered off in her outfit among the refrigerators, flitting like a fairy princess from Amana to Kenmore.

When they got her into the studio they had her hold an unlit candle and look up and away from the camera, like she was looking into heaven. You got a special candle when you made your first communion. It was blessed by the priest and represented something, probably light. Maybe just wax. It would of course have been a more effective shot, more dramatic, certainly more dangerous, if the candle had been burning, but my mother wasn’t sure how long the photo session would last. Besides, she was worried about burning off all the holiness.

My sister told me later that when she was looking up into the umbrellaed light, she wasn’t thinking about heaven, she was thinking about a refrigerator she’d seen where you could get a glass of ice water right from the door. Copies of this photo were distributed lavishly at the first communion party: 5x7s for the grandparents and A-list relatives, wallet-size for the proles. I think my sister even autographed a few. Everyone thought she looked so cute and holy, but only I knew she wasn’t thinking about Jesus, she was thinking about ice water.

I folded my hands primly on my lap. I smiled a half-smile. I didn’t fidget. I stared into the camera, and in my eyes, even at six, you can see on some gut level I understood why supermodels did coke.

I had an outfit of my own. My mother dressed me for the occasion in a soft, white short-sleeved shirt under a red-and-white striped jacket—not wide stripes like a candy stripe, more an enthusiastic seersucker—which, on a child of that age, with a brush cut and white flannel shorts, was pretty fabulous. She wanted a picture of me in it, so she gave my father the Kodak and told him to take me out in front of the house.

He sat me on the first step, stepped back a few feet, and squinted into the lens.

He didn’t take the picture.

He squinted more.

“Do something with your hands,” he said. “You look funny just sitting there.”

I did everything with my hands: I leaned back on them; put them on one side of my legs, then the other, then in between them, then behind my head; I held a blade of grass; a pebble; the hem of my jacket. I waved. He hated everything. I could feel him starting to get angry. I’d seen him like this with the lawn mower. I tried to think of Jesus, or even ice water, but all I could think was the sun was too bright, the grass too green, the sky too blue, and my father too loud as he told me to stop fidgeting.

I folded my hands primly on my lap. I smiled a half-smile. (I looked kind of sneaky.) I didn’t fidget. I stared into the camera, and in my eyes, even at six, you can see on some gut level I understood why supermodels did coke. He took the picture and told me to go into the party. The same man who’s on my Facebook page. There he is, looking right at me. And I look back, trying not to fidget. I ask myself who I am, and I’m a thing that breathes that looks exactly like something that breathed before him.

I suppose I could change my hair, get different glasses. Put on or lose some weight. But I’ll just look like him with a different haircut, him with a new pair of glasses. I’ll look like him skinny or fat. I can’t change genetics. I can’t change who I am; was; am.

Am.

Maybe I should do a picture with my shirt off.

Maybe I should hold a muskie.

Jeffrey Essmann’s work has been featured in the New York Times and on Chicago’s NPR affiliate, WBEZ. He is currently working on a book. More by Jeffrey Essmann

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