Treasuring My Dad Through a Photo I Hate

Erin Cleghorn and her father in 1997 just before leaving for London England.

I hate that I love this picture.

My mom took it. It’s 6am. I’m waiting at the boarding gate of the airport in Jacksonville, Florida. I’m leaving for study abroad and my last semester of college in January, 1997.

I’d never been out of the country, so I’ve got one of those stupid money pouches around my neck, and I’m not a morning person, so I look like hell. Next to me is my dad. It is the only photo that exists of just the two of us, with me as a grown person.

My father died this summer.

On our last day together, as we said goodbye, I thought of taking a picture with him. I didn’t. I knew he didn’t want to be remembered that way: thin and weak with cancer.

I never idolized my dad. He was flawed, like all of us. But he was good to me and tried to fix all my problems, usually with wrenches or WD40. We talked on the phone every Saturday afternoon on his way home from work, usually about college football or the weather.

“It’s raining here,” he would say. “Is it raining there, too?”

After his memorial service, I found one of dad’s voicemails. By myself, alone with his voice, I wept and let the magnitude of the loss overtake me.

“I love you, girl,” he said. He ended every message that way. When I look at that photo of us together at the airport, I wonder if I’ll ever feel that safe again.

It still surprises me how few photos there are of Dad and me.

We often forget to get out from behind the camera and capture our own moments. So while I might hate this photo, I will treasure it always. Just like the voicemail, I feel so lucky to have it – to be able to hold this memory of my dad with both hands.

By day, I fundraise at a small women's college in North Carolina for scholarships and academic programs. But when the sun goes down, I spin vinyl from 1960 in my living room for my soul. I'm a product of Generation X from Jacksonville, FL. When I listen to Aretha Franklin, I wonder if I was born in the wrong city, let alone the wrong generation. Some might say I collect nostalgic kitsch. I argue that I preserve fine art.

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