Father’s Day is approaching, and thus I thought it fitting to reprise an essay I wrote about my dad, Herman Maril the artist. For Herman Maril fans, you can learn more about his career and work at HermanMaril.com.
My father, Herman Maril, used to take me to work with him once a year. He took my brother, who was four years older, one day a year as well. On this one day, I’d wake with him at five in the morning, when the sky was still dark, and put on the clothes I’’d laid out the night before. We’d sit by the window waiting for the taxi driver to arrive. My father would be drinking a cup of coffee and eating a package of orange cheese flavored crackers, spread inside with peanut butter.
“Here take one,” he’d say offering a cracker sandwich.
“Too early in the morning to eat,” I’d say .
More of these crackers could be found inside his desk at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he taught painting twice a week. A full professor and head of the studio department for many years, my father arranged his class schedule so that he only needed to make the trip from Baltimore to College Park twice a week, while he fielded phone calls regarding administrative matters seven days a week. His “at home” days gave him time in his studio to sketch and paint.
Dad didn’t drive, although he retained his driver’s license for identification. That’s why we were waiting for a taxi. Years earlier when I was about two years old, he’d forgotten to put on the emergency brake after getting out of the maroon Studebaker sedan, my parent’s first car,, while I was still in the backseat. The Studebaker started rolling backwards down a hill and while he was able to jump out and stop the car, he took it as a sign to stop driving. My dad was not interested in the mechanics of driving, he wanted to look out at the scenery; people, colors, shapes, and landscape. So my mother took on the role of family driver, leaving my father’s mind free for other things.
Frank, the taxi driver, drove my father to the downtown Baltimore bus station where Dad would take a bus to College Park . Dad was one of his regular customers, and in the morning there’d be banter between the two I could barely follow. Frank’s Baltimore accent was thick and I was too fascinated studying the pattern of criss-cross marks on the back of his neck to listen closely and decipher the words. The wrinkles signified to me that Frank was old. How did those marks get so deep, I’d ponder. A scrawny man, he wore a baseball cap and his nose was shaped like a beak. My father seemed to enjoy talking to Frank, but then he enjoyed talking to just about everyone.
Unlike my mother, who was somewhat aloof with people she didn’t know, my father would engage in conversation with just about everyone we encountered. I admired this trait because I was always afraid to talk to anyone I’d just met, fearful I’d say the wrong thing. I longed to feel comfortable enough to speak to strangers.
The bus ride to College Park was a blur. Sometimes I dozed off while my father looked out the window, perhaps studying the scenery, formulating a future canvas he might paint.
The walk up the hill to the building that housed the art department, in one of the many red brick buildings, was a long one. I struggled to keep up with my father’s confident steps. I was excited. Which students would I meet? What would those college students, almost adults, be talking about and what would their pictures look like?
I remember once spending the day in another professor’s class, a printmaker, where I created an entire etching on copper plate from start to finish. Excited to learn a new skill, I proudly showed my father the prints I’d created when I returned to his classroom but also recall saying, “What a relief to smell canvas and paint. The smell of ink and acid is awful.” The smells of my father’s studio were familiar and comforting.
Another year, I remember I was the model, for a drawing class. One of the students had neglected to bring paper, and when everyone was directed to sketch me sitting perched on a desk, the student had to use a roll of brown paper towel from above the sink.
“No money for art supplies?” My father chided. The student kept working
I peeked at the various sketches. The only ones I remember were the ones in blue pen on the. brown paper toweling. Despite the lack of materials, those sketches looked the best.
“Is he one of your best students?’ I asked. My father tried not to show any preference for particular students, believing everyone had potential. He ignored my question.
Dad enjoyed the interaction of looking at their work and discussing with them what they thought they saw. He’d ask them questions and they’re have to rethink how they’d put their perceptions down on paper, analyzing ways to make their work better. I sensed their respect and enjoyment of the class as soon as they entered the room and it made me feel proud.
Adjacent to his teaching studio was a small office with a battered oak desk. He’d retreat there to smoke his cigarettes. When the sergeant general started cautioning the public on the dangers of smoking, Dad changed from Kents to Larks for their lower nicotine levels, but he couldn’t totally give up cigarettes. “Daddy smoking is bad for you,: I’d tell him. “Don’t worry I don’t inhale.” He’d say.
Smoking was one of the small pleasures important to my father’s enjoyment of life. The other small pleasure was a good cup of coffee. The coffee needed to be real perked coffee, not instant, full-bodied and hot. Find a place that served a good cup of coffee and he was highly appreciative.
Food was also something my father enjoyed, but the food did not need to be fancy. To economize, he brought sandwiches with him for his lunch which he washed down with coffee. In later years, he’d tell us about lunches he enjoyed with his colleagues at a Chinese restaurant near the school. He’d extol the virtues of lots of vegetables and rice with very little meat, before stir fried cooking and Asian diets were popular in the US. He’d describe the sauces in great detail and I would salivate thinking about the exotic food he was describing. Perhaps, that’s why to this day, I enjoy cooking variations of stir-fried Asian dishes.
For many years, in my office desk drawer I used to stash a few packages of peanut butter crackers, preferring the ones that were golden brown. They’d take the edge off my hunger when I wanted to continue working and I needed a small snack. I’d wash the crackers down with a strong cup of coffee. The habits of our parents are hard to break.