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“As an artist, I looked for creative opportunities to celebrate and commune with his memory even more.”

By Jennifer Orkin Lewis

Six years ago, I suddenly lost my dad when he was 80. One day he was here, and then he was gone. As far as all of us in the family knew, he was fine. Or maybe we were ignoring the signs—the stomach aches, the exhaustion. His dad had lived to be 102, so we all—and he more than anyone—assumed he would live just as long. When I got the call that he had died, I literally fell to my knees. He was my go-to for advice, I treasured his biting sense of humor, and, well, I just loved the way he cooked meatballs. His death left a gaping void. I put some of his ashes in my garden; knowing he would be there whenever I tended my plants and flowers was enormously comforting to me. But as an artist, I looked for creative opportunities to celebrate and commune with his memory even more.

As a painter and illustrator, one of my greatest pleasures is using old black and white photographs to inspire new, colorful paintings. I allow myself to reimagine the people in the picture and the moment the image was taken—choosing the colors of the clothes, altering facial expressions, and sometimes even putting the subjects in a new, imaginary setting. I have a closet full of photos in my studio and I rummage through them pretty often. I tend to pull out the ones that have a fun story to tell or spark a memory, put on some music that fits my mood, grab my paints and brushes, and get to work. After my dad died, I revisited his pictures often.

As an artist, I looked for creative opportunities to celebrate and commune with his memory even more.

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The most recent photo-inspired piece I’ve done is of my dad at a party when he was a young man, perhaps in his early 30s. I really don’t remember him ever wearing plaid pants, but I just love that he did! In this version of the painting, I added a robin redbreast. It was his favorite bird, and whenever I see one now, I imagine that it’s Dad checking in on me. I’m so sad that he isn’t here now to see where I am in my life and to share stories and ideas and laughs.

But I’m so glad I have this special way of keeping him close.

When Father’s Day comes around each year, I do think of him, but it has never been a very important event to me. I prefer to remember him a little bit each day, all the time, from sensory memories I have inside of me—like a sniff of marigolds in the summer or the sound of a bell, which he used to call us inside when we were kids. And, of course, the art. 

I miss him every day, but I’m at peace with it and grateful I had him as my father.

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A version of this story was first shared in Allison Gilbert’s book, "Passed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive.   

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