I did not see my father much while I was growing up as a kid in Southern California. He was always working on new book ideas, making tours, and living up life in New York that he loved so much. It wasn’t that he did not love me, it was just, well.. he had other things to do. He was writing and illustrating children's books, like “Corduroy,” Earl the Squirrel,” “Dandelion..”
We did not speak much together and when we did, it always quickly went astray -- misunderstandings and mutually hurt feelings -- a mess. We were just very different; he was extraverted, outgoing, and loved people; I was introverted, ingoing and loved nature. One afternoon right after I graduated from high school, we crossed paths. He had just returned from a stay in northern California. He told me that there was something going on up in San Francisco and I should check it out. This was the summer of 1966, for those for whom this might ring a bell. I was 16 years old. The conversation with my father lasted 15 minutes; a couple of hours later I was on my way up north and I never came home again. Years later, I can appreciate what that did for me; he was right on this time, it changed my life. %Thanks!
I met up with Don (I called him “Don” and not \q Dad\qeb because Don was what everyone else called him) for a week in New York in 1968 and a couple of times in Santa Barbara, when I returned form living with the Mazatec indians in the mountains of Oaxaca. I soon left with my girlfriend hitchhiking around the world and ended up in Switzerland (where I still live now). Don visited me in Europe twice and then in February 1978 I received word that he had just died of a heart attack in New York. I was studying physics at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and was in the midst of my final exams. I felt he had left me alone, with no chance for reconciliation. I was terribly bitter and did not even go back to California for his funeral. To this day I painfully regret this.
Many years later, I realised that it was now up to me to make amends. We, the living have the keys, we just have to use them! With my marriage breaking up, my family separating, and my life hitting a big low, I woke up to that fact of how similar I was to my father. The differences melted and my heart warmed. (I also had to warm up my heart to myself. This is not always easy to do, and it took some time -- and a piano, but that is another story.)
Then things got a lot better between me and Don. Thirty years after he had died. I began to look through his old letters to me and my mother, his old manuscripts, illustrations, and unfinished books. Man, that guy was creative! He had more ideas in a day than I did in a year! And he was a very talented graphic artist. I rediscovered his notebooks from the streets of New York in the 1930’s. How he loved people. And what he could do with one black line of pen and ink, just incredible! In 2008 I was able to get one of his early graphic novels “Skitzy” reprinted and even an old children’s book idea, “Earl the Squirrel,” was published. I tried to have it done just the way I thought he would have wanted it. We had to make a few tweaks to fit the end into 32 pages, but I had the feeling he was real happy at what I did for him. And it had great effects on my own life. For a man to really become a man, he needs to get in touch with his father. It is in the bones and the blood, you know.
Later, I came across some of Don’s illustrations to another unfinished children’s book. These were done in his most colorful style ever: about a family of squirrels amidst autumn scenery in Washington DC. But the story and illustrations were not finished. I took the illustrations Don had done to New York and spoke to Joy Peskin, Executive Editor, Viking Children’s Books (Penguin Group). She liked them and we decided to give it a go. Using Don’s beginnings and his penciled ideas of a storyline, I completed the story with Joy’s professional help. (Every author would be lucky to find such an editor!) This story was even harder to fit into the page limits, but it turned out to be both fun and hard work. Then we got Jody Wheeler (talented illustrator of other Don Freeman posthumous books) to agree to create any missing illustrations. She did a great job in using Don’s originals illustrations and her own additions to bring to life a new Don Freeman book “One More Acorn”. For me it was a fulfillment of a deep yearning to fill in the missing contact with Don and it turned into a real father and son effort. After all these years! I imagine he is smiling.
I hope he agrees with me that things between us turned out better than we both had ever dreamed possible. At least I think: better late than never. Some things take a while.