I buried my father this week. He had as good a death as a person could wish—fully himself nearly to the end, surrounded by those who loved him. Spending those last weeks with him, I couldn’t help but reflect on how his creativity enriched his life to the end—and mine as well.
My father was the son of an Irish coal miner, trained as an engineer courtesy of the GI Bill. He started as a chemical engineer who solved problems using early plastics. He designed the plastic domes that housed the radar for some of the first AWAC planes. Somehow, over the course of a 40-year career, he evolved from plastics to designing robotic assembly lines and everything in between. But his creativity didn’t stay in the lab.
One day he brought home a piece of acrylic and said, “I’ll bet we could make an ice scraper for the car out of this.” I carried that chunk of acrylic in my car for years! Another time he said, “I’ll bet fiberglass would make a good boat,” and proceeded to involve his children in building a fiberglass canoe in the basement. Never mind that fiberglass in the house wasn’t the greatest idea. And never mind that the boat was so unstable we eventually gave it to the Boy Scouts for boat tipping drills and lifeguard training. We learned that ideas can be explored, and we learn from the exploration regardless of how successful it was.
We molded plastics in the kitchen and explored with chemistry sets. We experimented with cooking beans under the ground. I thought he could fix anything. Perhaps he could. He definitely spent his final days thinking about ways to redesign the hospital equipment.
My mother’s creativity was of a different variety. With limited resources and five children, she still wanted a beautiful home. She could create a centerpiece from roadside weeds, make Halloween costumes from whatever was available (including a memorable octopus with crepe paper legs), and invent recipes from whatever was in the refrigerator. She created a safe place for any young people who wandered in the door and cheered us in all our endeavors. With her, our ideas mattered.
Between the two of them, I grew up believing problems were to be solved, the world was to be made more beautiful, and they had confidence I could do both things. Were they perfect parents? Far from it. But still, theirs, above all, are the shoulders on which I stand.
So here’s to the people who make creativity possible. While some creative people have highly troubled childhoods, all human beings need someone who holds them up, recognizes their worth, and helps them believe in themselves. I was blessed to have such people in my home, but that isn’t the only place they are found. A friend found her support in a high school theater teacher. Another found hers in a neighbor. It is a great privilege to be those people for the young ones around us. I hope to give it a try.
Bon voyage, Dad. May your reunions be joyful.