I have seen my father in the nude more times than I can count. Let’s be honest about what that means – it means I have seen my father’s penis. Dad, fully frontal. Actually, in my father’s case, I have seen a rare and disorienting view for any child: a double-nude. The two sides of my father’s character (at least I think that was the upshot), posed shoulder-to-shoulder on his front porch, one turned to the side and lecturing on literature, art and life, the other posing for his girlfriend Emily, a painter, with a Sybarite’s cold intensity and his legs spread wide. Both are nude. Only one side of my father is showing the full package, but that’s enough.
For years when I was growing up, I passed underneath this double-nude every time I climbed up or down the stairs in my father’s house. It hung high on the wall in the stairwell, inescapable to anyone who went upstairs – but mostly to himself. It was the first thing that my brother, sister and I saw when we woke up early on our weekend visits and crept downstairs to watch cartoons and professional wrestling. While our father slept a few more hours in his bedroom, in button-up pyjamas, The Standard Edition of The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud arrayed, in full, on a bookshelf facing the foot of his bed, he was also hanging in the stairwell, multiplied on canvas and wagging himself at us.
My grandmother – we called her Nana instead of the proper Greek Yia Yia – hated that picture with a special passion. Nana had been a medical secretary for years, and her surface was as impeccably composed as a well-run doctor’s office. What happened in the examination rooms of her life was hidden away and inaudible; only every now and then would you hear a sob or a muffled shout. That painting threw the doors open, at least a crack.
‘I wish you would take that down,’ Nana would say whenever she climbed the stairs, clutching her latest handbag – always bought on discount at Filene’s. As she passed underneath the painting, she would cast an angry glance up at the dark knob between my father’s thighs.
‘It’s art, mother,’ my father answered. ‘Emily is a very talented painter. You know that.’ He was always patient with my grandmother at first – until he wasn’t.
‘It’s lewd,’ Nana would insist, more judgment in her voice that I was used to hearing. ‘I don’t understand why anyone would hang such a lewd picture in their house.’
‘I’m your son!’ my father would bellow from the top of the stairs. ‘That’s my body! Do you think I’m lewd? I came out of you!’
In my head I sided with my father. How could it be lewd? It was art. We had been taught to value a painting for its formal qualities and the beauty of its expression. I liked my father’s girlfriend Emily – she was like a darker, stranger Stevie Nicks. She had a nice cat named Grey and made ceramic buttons of rainbows, moons and stars that I would wear to school on my suspenders. (These were the late Seventies, mind you.) Emily was good to us, our surrogate mother when we visited; except for the time she read my palm and told me that I would likely die by drowning, she had never done anything unpredictable or scary. But the nude portrait in the staircase, even if I wasn’t completely aware of it, spoke of the intimate life that Emily and my father shared when we weren’t there, so in my heart I didn’t like it. That part of me sided with my grandmother.
Cover photograph by Henry Burrows