I HAVE A lot of friends, which anyone who knows me would agree to. I’m one of those people who you can’t walk down the street with, practically any street, here in Pittsburgh without someone calling out my name. I have artist friends, and comic-book fan friends, and friends from various neighborhoods (as Fred Rogers demonstrated long ago, neighborhoods are all-important in Pittsburgh), and friends from various workplaces. The latter is a particular source of pride for me. Over the years, I managed to forge incredibly solid friendships with people I worked with. I’ve designed their wedding programs and even been in some of their weddings, babysat their children, and had at least one child (so far) named after me. I’ve been adopted into numerous families, and laughed and loved and cried with them. My places of employment changed, but I’ve still managed to stay close to scores of these people who support me every day.
My sister Jami is one of them. I call her sister because she has been that to me, and much more. We worked together at two different places, and know each other through and through. I was adopted into her family, the Marlowes, while in my twenties, and had no idea of the depth that this relationship would develop. Through her, one by one, I met the other Marlowes, and each one embraced me without reservation. Billie, the matriarch, adopted countless kids via her own kids, and you always knew that she cared about you. She even had a phrase related to her children I’ve taken to heart: “I love all of my kids equally. But sometimes, one might require more attention than the others.”
Think about that. Isn’t that the smartest way to spread the love around? By not worrying about comparative volume, but instead focusing on the need, we address what really counts. And Billie let you know you were loved, even when she cracked the whip. She fed her kids and kept them stuffed, and she made everyone laugh. I made a drawing of her once at a party, just a quick sketch to pass the time, and tried to capture that vivacious spirit. She loved it so much that it hung in her home for years afterwards. When she passed away, the Marlowes used it as the cover image of Billie’s memorial program. I’ve rarely been so humbled and flattered. But it goes to show that a few moments can mean a lot over time.
Another Marlowe family member I met was Jami’s brother-in-law Jake. His last name wasn’t Marlowe, but for all intents and purposes, he was a Marlowe and he knew it. I think he was proud of that. The very first time I saw him, it made an impression. I’d been commissioned, via Jami, to draw a portrait photo of her young niece Denise (yes, we’ve made many jokes about that cadence) who was taking dance lessons at the time. This is back when Jami and I were working for the same company, but at different locations. She called my store one day to inform me that Jake was in town from West Virginia and would be stopping by to see me, as I recall to drop off reference photos of his daughter to draw from. He was described as a big, tall man, who would probably be wearing boots which made him even taller. He sounded like a good ol’ country boy with a genial nature. That’s exactly what he was.
Eventually, the front door beeped opened and made every coworker snap to attention, and Jake walked into the store. The second I laid eyes on him I thought, “Yeah. That’s a big guy.” Whenever I think about this initial encounter, I always remember the impression he made in that moment, basically filling up the store. There was never anything more complicated about Jake from that moment forward. This was a very open and genuine person. What you saw was what you got, and what I got in that first encounter was a sincere man who was very enthusiastic about celebrating his family. That never changed.
What I had no way of knowing was how what I saw and got was what everyone else who knew him was seeing and getting too.