Back then, back when he was just a gangly kid and before he became an artist, I felt I had a job to do – teach my son to be better at sports than I ever was. I’d been a second string jock during high school so on the day Joey was born I vowed to teach him how to play football, baseball, basketball and hockey better than I’d ever been able to. My underlying thought was that maybe one day he’d become a superior athlete, someone I could be not only proud of, but could also brag about to anyone who would listen. You can imagine my horror (or maybe not, but let me tell you, it was real) when Joey, try as he might, proved to be even less athletically gifted than his old man.
He was nine years old when, after pre-season hockey tryouts, the awful truth finally reared its ugly head. Joey dejectedly skated over to where I’d been watching from behind the boards and said, “Dad, I’m sorry, I really am. I’m trying, but those other guys are just way better than me.”
One look at the fluid motions of the other kids on the rink, skating comfortably backward better than Joey could ever skate forward, and I had to finally admit it – my son was not now, nor would he ever be, a hockey player. Which was his best sport. Football, baseball and basketball? Forget about it. The reality of the situation was painfully apparent. Joey would never be the star athlete I once imagined he’d be.
I swallowed my disappointment and put my arm around his thin shoulders, hugging him a little. “That’s okay, son. Really. Let’s head home,” I told him, trying to man up, along with beginning to adjust my game plan for him. Now that sports were out of the picture what could I get him interested in? Chess, maybe? Cribbage? Orienteering? I drew a blank. None of them sounded too exciting.
I went into the locker room with him while he changed out of his gear. When we sat on the bench, he unzipped his equipment bag and I saw a notebook.
I pointed, “What’s that?”
“Oh, nothing,” he shrugged. “It’s just my sketchbook from art class.”
“Art class? You’re kidding.” I hadn’t a clue. Having trouble drawing a stick figures, myself, I’d never once imagined he’d enjoy anything like painting or whatever.
He grinned, “Yeah, Dad, for my drawings. Here, let me show you.” He opened it. “Lately, I’ve been sketching snowflakes and winter scenes. I’m thinking about maybe using them for cards for the holidays. Tell me what you think.”
He lay the sketchbook on my knees and went about getting changed. I paged through his drawings, each one more impressive than the previous. He’d used what looked to be a pen and ink to create intricate snowflakes all with six pointed tips. Each one was unique and amazingly detailed. The snowflake sketches were followed by a series of charcoal drawings of winter scenes, mostly landscapes in the country, some with farmhouses, some with people, some with animals. One even had a horse drawn sleigh. He’d used colored pencils to make the scenes come alive with subtle tones of greens and browns and reds and blues. To my way of thinking they were utterly charming and made me think of those Currier and Ives calendars.
I turned to him, “Joey, these are amazing. How long have you been drawing like this?”
He laughed, “Ever since I can remember, Dad. Since I was a little kid.” Then he was quiet for a moment before adding, “Mom kind of got me started.”
Oh. Gail. My wife and Joey’s mother. She’d passed away four years earlier when he was only five. In many ways we were still coping.
I looked at him seriously. “These really are wonderful, son,” I told him.
“Thanks, Dad,” he said as we stood up to leave.
He grabbed his heavy hockey bag, hoisted it over his shoulder, tilting to the right a little under its weight, and started for the door. I held his sketchbook in my hands, aware that I was holding something special, something that really was what my son was all about, not just some sad, preconceived sports fantasy of his father’s. I suddenly had an idea. “Hold on a minute.” He stopped and I took the bag from him. (It really was pretty heavy.) “How about if on the way home we stop at Blick’s Art Supply and check out what they’ve got, maybe get you some supplies. What do you think about that?”
Joey picked up his hockey stick and looked at me questioningly. He knew how much I loved sports. “You sure, Dad?”
“Yeah,” I said, biting a metaphorical bullet, “Looks like we’ve got an artist in the family.”
Joey grinned as we walked to the car. His step seemed lighter, somehow, like a weight had been lifted, and I don’t just mean the equipment bag. It was good to see him so happy.
Next to the art store was a sporting goods exchange. We parked and while Joey went inside and looked around for art supplies, I went next door to see if I could sell his hockey equipment, which I did. Then I hurried next door to met him. But before I went inside I stopped a minute, looked through the window and watched as he perused the aisles, happily caressing the paints and brushes and sketchpads and canvases. He seemed in another world, one that he felt comfortable in. Natural.
I headed for the front door. Once inside, I’d get him to show me what all the art supplies were used for. Maybe I’d buy him an easel or something to get him set up properly for his art work. He was a good kid. I guess I had a lot to learn. It was time I started paying better attention.