Portrait of My Father

Jim Shepard

Granta 104: ‘Fathers’ includes recollections of their fathers by nine writers. In a Granta.com exclusive, we have invited new writers to reflect upon a picture of their father. The first in our series is by Jim Shepard, a 2007 National Book Award-nominee whose most recent collection, Like You’d Understand, Anyway, won The Story Prize last year.

This is Shep at my middle child’s, Emmett’s, fifth birthday. He’s wearing his usual dress-up clothes – at least since his retirement, which was quite a few years ago, now: a generic rayon athletic shirt that may have set him back three or four dollars at K-Mart and a hat that was probably even more of a bargain. Powder blue high-waters and what Earl Butz would have termed comfortable shoes.

I started calling him Shep when I was around twelve. ‘You call your father Shep?’ I remember one of my aunts asking, the first time she overheard. ‘Yeah. It’s his name,’ I remember answering. I think it was my way of acknowledging the teasing distance he liked to put between us. His own father was standoffish at best, and like so many guys of his generation, he never got the hang of expressing affection, especially in verbal terms. His solution was to do everything that was humanly possible for those he loved, without any sense that he was owed anything in return. But if in conversation I pursued anything that smacked of intimacy – something like, ‘How’d you feel when Grandpa died?’ or even questions as innocuous as ‘What’d you do today?’ – he had a standard answer: ‘What’re you, a cop?’ Since I wasn’t, it almost always worked.

He’s not only decked out as only Shep can dress for a party, though; the astute observer will also take note of his smile: the one way he does freely and gloriously express how he feels, whenever his sons or grandsons are fortunate enough to be within range.

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