Tag Archives: being a stepfather

Painting perspective

Guest bedroom.When I visit my mother and stepfather, I sleep soundly. I feel safe in what I call “my” little bedroom in their Green Valley home. I am protected from the anxieties of daily life—buffered in that quiet space against the insurmountable challenge of growing “to do” lists, relationships that sometimes feel like work, even the endless, insecurity-driven attentions of Lucy, my sweet black cat who is so aloof during the day but craves constant contact throughout the night.

In this quiet room, surrounded by the latest of my stepfather’s paintings, I fall eagerly into bed at night. The colorful beauty of Paul’s landscapes and beloved day lilies inspires me to dream.

IMG_3033Paul’s work has improved measurably during more than two decades since he first began painting.

He took some classes initially, as part of a group where everyone did the same painting, with steps and techniques described and demonstrated by a teacher. He may have learned rudimentary skills in that process but it wasn’t until he began his own study and exploration outside of those boundaries that he truly came into his own as a painter.

IMG_3028He is collecting some of his recent works to display at church, something he does periodically. I am stunned by his bravery. Sharing expressions of your thoughts and passions invites criticism and misunderstanding, even as it brings admiration and affirmation. Either can be uncomfortable to receive. But in putting yourself out there you are opening the greatest gift of all—your uniqueness—to share with those around you. Many people live and die without ever sharing that essence.

IMG_3008Only he can interpret what he sees in the photographs he re-imagines in oils on canvas. Only he can build the infrastructure for his rendering—meticulous work to transport the image to his canvas to scale, then choose, mix and apply the colors that bring it alive.

He has an enthusiastic (if honest) critic in my mother. It surprises and delights me that she feels comfortable telling him when a painting isn’t quite right. I admire her willingness to be truthful—even when the message is “it can be better.” He receives her suggestions graciously, thoughtfully. And he typically heeds her advice, removing a green shoot that seems out of place in a grouping of day lilies emerging from the mist, or adding a small wildflower on the sand behind a wooden, weather-worn beach fence to provide a splash of hopeful color against the gray and black and brown.

Paul Chaffee, art, painting, Karen Barr

With my stepfather, Paul Chaffee, who has been a loving and true father to me for the last 28 years.

Paul has shown me that there is no age limit on creative expression, no “privilege” to art, no external barrier to learning, trying and sticking your nose out there to share the joy of what you’ve learned.

He and my mother continuously demonstrate that a truly great marriage includes mutual admiration and tactful honesty, holding each other up in love and respect while encouraging each other to keep growing and striving.

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A few more of my favorites from Paul’s collection:

IMG_1246 paul-chaffee-adobe-snow "Thirsty," by Paul V. Chaffee.
IMG_3002

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A tale of two fathers: #8 and #9

In Santa Fe during a family vacation in 1969: my dad, me (in the pool) and my younger brother.

I have been blessed with two fathers. The father of my childhood taught me to dream. The stepfather who followed showed me what it means to be a grownup.

When I was a child, I thought of my dad as an adventurer. He was 10 years older than my mom and had spent part of that time traveling the world in the Navy at the end of World War II. Whether struck by wanderlust or fleeing demons, he couldn’t seem to stay put for more than a short time. He changed careers a half dozen times in the 20 years I lived at home. My family lived in nine different cities in five different states before I graduated from college.

My dad had a natural, if frenetic, charisma and was prone to teasing and jokes that I mistook for social skills and self-confidence. Because I knew no different, I thought of our frequent moves as romantic crusades in quest of happiness and creative fulfillment. My dad left sales to study journalism. He talked of writing a book. But always there were things in the way. I grew up thinking it was my mother, my brothers and me.

Much of my father’s earlier life was cloaked in mystery. He never talked about the house that burned down when he was small or the late-night trips when his mother bundled two sons into the back seat of the car and went out searching for a drunk husband. Later in his life, he watched a lifelong friend succumb to ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He never talked about that, either.

But my dad did eventually realize his dream. After my parents divorced, he moved into a boarding home near a beach in Florida and managed to complete a manuscript. He always told me it would explain everything he couldn’t tell me. When he died, I couldn’t read it. I didn’t want to be disappointed yet again.

By then, my mother had remarried. With so many unresolved issues about my relationship with my birth father, I wasn’t in any hurry to bond with this one. I faced their marriage by forcing myself to realize that it was my mother’s life and happiness that mattered, after all. Not mine.

"Grandpa Paul" reads a book to my sons Andy (left) and David in April 1989.

But in tiny ways, over several years, this wise man won me over. I saw how sincerely he loved my mother, how much better he made her life. I saw how joyfully he welcomed my sons into his life and became the only grandfather they ever knew. I saw how patiently he waited for me to come around, never forcing the relationship, never indicating by anything he said or did that he was impatient or hurt. He let me build my castle walls and defend them with polite but determined vigor.

And quietly, before I even fully realized it, he became part of the foundation beneath me. His opinions mattered to me. His example inspired me. His perspectives on life, love, spirituality and self-fulfillment seeped into my consciousness and I found myself wanting to emulate him. He’d had moments of terrible sadness in his life, too, but he’d risen above them with maturity, honesty, communication and grace.

And so, on this Father’s Day I am thankful for two fathers. The one who planted seeds and the one who taught me how to cultivate them.