James Davidson Johnson

Without the headlines, without the retrospectives, without the finally-released-after-thirty-years interview tapes, without the eight-minute segment on NPR, comes the forty-seventh anniversary of my father’s death.

When I tell people that I remember him, they are often surprised. He left us when I was five and my brother Bob was two. I know that after all these years, what memories I have are mostly senses and not clear recollections of sequences of events. But I can tell a few stories: I remember much of the day that Dad took me fishing for the very first time. I caught a good old Lake Erie perch, I’m pretty sure. Dad was so proud he snatched the fish out of the bucket he had brought it home in, rolled it in ink, and made an impression on the evening’s copy of the Painesville Telegraph. That fishprint hangs next to my piano these days.

I met silence at that young age. Silence was what came back when I listened for him after he was gone – the kind of silence that swallows up the noise of cars passing by on Mentor Avenue, turns what the grown-ups are saying from words into mere sounds. Stillness like the sound a snowflake makes when it tumbles gently through the air until it comes to rest. The wind would sing at me, but its music held only intuitive meaning. What filled my eyes when I thought about him was the mad, energetic, superbly confident universe of paint splatters and bold strokes that he left behind. I used to look at his signature and trace it with my eyes, imagining him signing his work.