My father practiced building self-esteem and validation with his children before those terms became fashionable.
I was born in 1945, and my father, James Bernard Brennan, died in 1964 at the tender age of 52. I can remember him being a nurturing, good-natured man who loved his two sons and never missed an opportunity to let them know, which was a pretty secure place for me to be during the nearly 20 years that I shared this Earth with him.
One particular memory stands out.
We lived in the Parkchester section of the Bronx. From about 1945 through 1963, Dad was a staff artist for the New York Post, a vastly different paper then than it is now.
At its Bronx office, he retouched photographs, worked on photo layouts and contributed illustrations and cartoons. I visited him on occasion at 149th Street on the edge of Harlem. The newsroom, like most, was a wide-open, warehouse-type hall with desks everywhere, no private offices. Everyone shared a common space. Waist-high partitions defined work areas. The room was communal, and it seemed that everyone was close and friendly.
Although my father's desk was toward the back of the room, in my memory, Dad was the hub of much of this activity. Is this revisionist? Was he really the center of that universe, or was I perceiving it that way through the eyes of a loving son? I prefer to think it was the former.
This particular day, Dad was working on a front-page photo. My memory of its significance is gone. I do remember that the photo looked down a busy Manhattan street in a vanishing-point perspective. Along the street were tall buildings.
The problem with the photo was that one of the buildings was not contrasted darkly enough as it met the sky at the right side. To accent the building, it had to be "retouched," making the line at the edge of the building more dramatic and clear. Of course, retouching is now done with mouse clicks, but in those days it was hands-on. My father's tools were ink, air brush and straightedge rulers. This fix was fairly simple: Put a straightedge along the line to accent and darken the line with a black pen or marker.
It was so simple that my father invited me to be the guest retoucher for the front page that day. I was about 12 or 13 and a bit nervous. This was his job. How could I take over?
He assured me that it was simple and that I could do it. With some trepidation on my part and encouragement from Dad, I took the ruler, lined it up with the edge of the building, took the pen and colored the building side of the line. Hey, it wasn't that hard!
But when I lifted the ruler, instead of bringing it straight up and off the paper, I lifted it unevenly, dragging the tip ever so slightly across the paper, smearing the line that was still wet with ink. What remained was not a straight, crisp line but a slightly smeared line. Oh, my God! I had ruined the work. Now what? Would I be in trouble?
Would my father run afoul of his boss for letting his son do his work? Could Dad fix my mistake?
"Oh no!" I said. "I ruined it!"
Dad was calm and cool.
"If it's good enough for you, it's good enough for me and the Post," he said. "Don't worry. It's fine."
He didn't take the photo and redo it. He just put it in the finished pile, and that was it.
The next day, I passed newsstands in the neighborhood. There was the New York Post right next to the other dailies. And there on the front page was my smudge, for which I became perversely proud. It was mine! There was even a temptation to stand by a newsstand and proudly proclaim my mark to passersby. I was one proud, validated son -- and only my dad knew our secret.
Reader Jim Brennan lives in Rocky Point.