Character Witness

A daddy’s girl grows up

By Isabel Zermani

When I was little, I wanted to be just like my Dad. As the younger of my father’s two daughters, naturally my sister got first pick — “Mommy’s my mommy, Daddy’s your mommy,” she proclaimed, according to family legend. My mother, the storyteller, says I let go of her hand and toddled over to Dad and have been there ever since.

My dad and I did all the fun stuff: built model airplanes, the model train in the attic and erector sets. We tromped around in the woods we called “Forest Home,” where my Dad built his first house after college and before children — in those mysterious years my sister and I are only now old enough to fill in. He also occasionally took me to work with him.

Sometimes we’d go to his law office and I’d stop by the supply closet to stock up on “leaky” pens and legal pads before heading to the courthouse, which fell somewhere between a church and theater in my young mind. A portrait of Thomas Jefferson — who was perhaps more godly than God in my family — still hangs above the judge in the county courtroom of my hometown, Charlottesville, Virginia. On my legal pad, I sketched the judge, the defendant, the lawyers, and the court marshals as reverently and seriously as I could. I’d seen To Kill A Mockingbird on television too many times with my mother not to know how to behave for Atticus Finch.

My father never wanted a boy. If you ask my mother, she’ll tell you they didn’t even have a name picked out for a boy, that she was in labor asking — between quick Lamaze breaths — “What about John? What about George?” and got no answer. When I was born, my Dad simply said, “There’s my Isabel.” I was determined to prove I was just as good as any boy would’ve been.

Adolescence divided us. I now suppose that happens to all parents and children, but back then it felt personal The sudden, mounting pressures of being a girl and my changing interests seemed to coincide with a time of extreme career focus (and grumpiness) for my father and, subsequently, heart trouble. He had a heart valve replacement during my senior year in high school and went to trial on a high-profile case only days later with the staples still in his chest. We gave him wide berth.

The genes from my mother: artistic, optimistic, impractical, started to kick in. She wrote a novel titled The Lady with the Alligator Purse after the childhood rhyme about a lady with an alligator purse who bests both the doctor and the nurse by curing a child’s ailment with ice cream. A tried and true method. A former majorette turned 1970s cub reporter who sang in a piano bar at a time when those were more popular than they are now, my mother was just the type of glamorous figure I, as a teenager, wanted to emulate. Besides, genetics takes its course without permission.

Writ in the DNA of my mother is another childhood literary figure, Amelia Bedelia, the well-meaning housekeeper whose chronic misinterpretations don’t necessarily get the job done, but all work out happily in the end, usually due to her great attitude and baked goods. My mother’s old car used to break down so frequently when my sister and I were young that we thought Shermie and Dawn were her friends, not the tow-truck company — they turned out to be both, as, also writ in her DNA is the inability to go someplace without making a friend.

Though my father and I look alike, both graced with translucent German skin — the burn layer — our paths deviated. I did not become a lawyer. I do not do my own taxes. Perhaps John or George would’ve been a Jefferson scholar, passed the bar, and never fiddled with the thermostat. Two years ago, on a whim, I tried my hand at courtroom sketch art in earnest. I knew my father had a federal trial, a RICO case, coming up, big enough to warrant a sketch artist, but likely not big enough to draw the big names.

I studied up on the discipline. You want to be accurate and clear. Invent nothing, deny nothing. It’s important not to suggest too much emotion. My father arranged for me to practice in the lower courts, drawing DUIs and drug arrests, in preparation.

The big case came in May and for the first time my Dad and I were up at the same time, in our suits, walking to court and spending every day together. I drew the judges, the defendants, the lawyers and the court marshals. I drew the jury selection during voir dire using ghostly shapes, emphasizing one element — glasses, a button-down, curly hair — to preserve the jurors’ anonymity. I drew my father’s opening statement, the same way I remember drawing him on my legal pad when my feet couldn’t touch the ground.

It was rewarding to publish my drawings, more so to play a role in the theater of my father, but, most of all, to hear from his friends and colleagues who spent those days with us: “You two are exactly alike.” His secretary even took to calling me “mini-Fred.”

The orbit has come around and my father has rediscovered some passions we share. He’s restored my childhood dollhouse, meticulously building the furniture. (I’m assembling the Chippendale secretary.) He museum-hops and studies Impressionist painters, a focus of my art history degree. He recently sent me a folder of his cartoons as the editor of University of Virginia’s Cavalier Daily. I still want to be like my dad, but now I know I don’t have to try.

Isabel Zermani, our senior editor, prefers the storied life.

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