The brilliant eye and dazzling wit that makes my art critic father, Peter Schjeldahl, beloved by his readers often comes across in person as, frankly, sort of mean. In public, he is an enthusiast. In private, he is mercurial and unreliable, and prefers smoking cigarettes in his office to playing with his grandchildren.
When I was growing up, his work was everything to him, and he made no apology for that. My parents stayed together, but he was still pretty checked out. He drank heavily until I was a teenager. He never seemed to find me interesting, nor has he shown much interest in my undeniably terrific son and stepson.
When my 11-year-old effused over “To Kill a Mockingbird,” my father told him, “It’s no ‘Huckleberry Finn.’” (My husband and I employ the line to describe disappointments of all kinds. How was dinner tonight? Not bad. But no “Huckleberry Finn.”)
My father wasn’t abusive, but he never did any of the things that might qualify him as a “good father.”
For years, I fought becoming a writer. When I’d shown early promise in that direction, I’d cringed at comments like “You’re a chip off the old block” and “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
“I’m nothing like him,” I wanted to say.
I thought I could prove that by going in a different direction. And so I was compulsively reliable.
When I was in college at University of Texas, Austin, in the late 1990s, studying Sanskrit (very different!) and working at photo labs (also different!), I had to admit to myself that where I really wanted to work was at The Austin Chronicle, the alternative weekly there. I had crushes on half the staff writers, or maybe I just wanted to be them. Only one way to find out.
The problem was how I’d keep my father from knowing. I worried that if he read anything I’d written he’d say something withering. Plus, I hated the idea of someone seeing our shared last name — Schjeldahl is distinctive; the relationship would be obvious — and thinking that I got where I was because of him.
Filling out paperwork when I was hired by the newspaper (first as an intern, later as a reporter), the “doing business as” line glowed with promise. Publicly, I wouldn’t have to be the art critic’s daughter. And for my byline I turned my middle name, Calhoun, into my last.
For many years, I worked as a writer without most people ever knowing who my father is. I was once asked to come in for an interview at a magazine where he worked by someone who, when I told him of the connection, was surprised. That was proof I’d pulled it off — built a career independent of him. It felt really good.
A few years ago, I came upon research in my parents’ basement for a biography of the poet Frank O’Hara that my father had tried to write in the 1970s but never finished.
Assuming that the failure was due to his character deficiencies, I decided to finish his project. I had two motivations. One benevolent: to find common ground and help him tie up loose ends as he neared 80. One competitive: to beat him at his own game. (“You might be more like your father than you think you are,” a friend told me at the time.)
Ultimately I did not win and we did not get closer. We fought more than ever. And I failed with the book as he had failed. As I was faltering, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer and his apartment burned up in a freak electrical fire. Then Covid hit.
During quarantine, my husband and I hosted weekly movie nights at our place, making big meals and screening old movies. My father said he loved these nights. And yet, he was as distant and difficult as he’d always been.
What do we owe our parents? Do we owe them more than what they gave us? If we’ve given them a thousand chances to be better for us, do we give them one more?
As I was making enchiladas, yet another dinner that I anticipated my father not quite appreciating, I called my friend Tara and asked how I could keep taking care of someone who made me so angry.
“By doing the right thing,” she said.
“Which is?” I replied.
In dealing with an imperfect parent, I’ve found comfort in doing what is right — putting a plate of food down in front of my dad even if he doesn’t particularly notice.
I didn’t finish my father’s biography of O’Hara; I turned it into a book about my father and me, about the ultimately unknowability of people we are supposed to unconditionally love.
There’s a line from “Middlemarch” that I think about all the time: “That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don’t quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil — widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower.”
I did not, to be clear, believe my father would live to read the book I wrote about our relationship. He was given six months to live almost three years ago. I wrote it thinking I would never have to share it with him. But he did live and he did read it.
I worried that he would hate it, but he didn’t. He always cared only about writing, and in this moment I was glad. He did not love the book because his daughter wrote it; he loved it because he believed it was a good work of art.
I decided that my father saying that about my book could be enough. I could place all the things he did that hurt me on one side of a scale, and on the other I could put the gift of his high praise. I could choose to let the scales balance.
I feel lucky not to have a father so wonderful that I feel I could never live up to his example or so terrible that he haunts me. Maybe it’s easier to become yourself in reaction to someone who’s neither evil nor saintly.
Might the middling fathers be, in a practical sense, the best ones?