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  • Meghan Zhang

Toughen Up

By: Meghan Zhang

Posted on: August 14, 2022

Cover Image: "I'm Proud of You"
Cover Image by: Anna Li
Media: Digital
Year: 2022

My childhood wasn’t the best. Growing up, my family was dirt poor. We lived in this shabby-looking wooden cabin, deep in the woods. The only heating we had was a tiny fireplace, and in the summer it was a single electric fan. Our floor was always collecting dust no matter how many times it got swept with a broom, and we constantly looked like we had spent the day rolling on the forest floor. We had the kind of lifestyle that stuck out like a sore thumb. Kids would always laugh at me in school, talking about my worn-down clothes, the dirt on my face, and how weird I was. There was one thing that they never dared make fun of though, and that was my Pops. Ever since I was a baby, it was just me and Pops. My momma left us real early. Whenever I’d ask about my momma, Pops never said a peep about her.

“I dunno where she went, kid. Don’t ask no more questions, ‘cause I ain’t gonna tell ya.” He would grunt. He would then mumble something under his breath, something along the lines of “money” and “not enough pennies for her to stay”.

I always felt bad for my Pops, but I didn’t dare say anything. He’s a mighty fierce bloke. Real bad temper. Wouldn’t want to cross him on a bad day. I mean, he just looks scary. He’s got a burly-looking figure, a huge beard, and giant muscles. A rather big belly too, and don’t even think about commenting on his bald head. So when I turned out to be a shy, quiet kid whose only skill was drawing, he wasn’t too happy about it.

“I didn’t work all these stinkin’ years for you to like them drawings! Ain’t no son of mine is gonna become one of them odd folk like Jake Poolsock!” He hollered.

“It’s Jackson Pollock, Pops,” I said quietly. “And I don’t want to become like him either.”

He looked at me with a glare. “I wouldn’t care if his name was Tweedledee an’ Tweedledum, boy. An’ don’t you ever correct me, you understand?” I quickly nodded.

Unfortunately for Pops, his lectures never did much good. I kept drawing, and I got pretty good at it too. Pops tried for the longest time to make me more like the son he always wished for. One time when I was fourteen, he made me work at this construction site that his friend owned.

“Listen boy, you ain’t gonna make it nowhere in life if you dunno how to use yer hands. Real useful skills, construction. Thas’ how I put food on yer table.” He said matter-of-factly.

I'm not really sure what Pops was thinking. My arms and legs were twigs, and I could barely lift a jug of water. He seemed to have overlooked that, though, and the construction job went just as well as you would expect. I ended up with a very painful broken arm and a rather crestfallen Pops. After that, he just gave up on trying to “toughen” me up. Instead, he simply ignored every drawing I showed him as if ignoring them would make my passion for art disappear. At the start, I felt really hurt. I mean, every kid just wants the approval of their parents. Y'know, stick a drawing or two on the fridge. I grew to become accustomed to it, and eventually, I stopped showing him my drawings altogether.

Despite the fact that I stopped showing Pops my drawings, that didn’t mean that my love for art diminished. If Pops wanted me to stop drawing, I was going to do the exact opposite. I wanted to prove him wrong, that his “weak” son didn’t need to be tough to make it in life. A few years went by, and Pops managed to get a few promotions at the construction place he worked for. We weren’t filthy rich, but kids didn’t laugh at me anymore. My art was also getting better and better. So much better in fact, that I was approached by a rather fancy-looking man one day. When I learned that he wanted to put some of my drawings in one of his art galleries, I was over the moon. I mean, c’mon. MY drawings, in an actual art gallery? When I went home that day, I told Pops what had happened. He was sitting on the couch, watching television like he always did. I threw a pamphlet at him.

“What’s this for?” He said.

“It’s a pamphlet for an art gallery, Pops,” I said happily, “some fella decided to put my drawings in there. You should come and see them tomorrow night.”

“No,” he grunted, “an’ I told you to quit doing that stuff. I ain’t going to no art gallery.”

This irritated me. “C’mon Pops,” I pleaded, “this is super important to me. You know what this means right? I could actually make a living off of this!”


A lump formed in my throat as I felt a cool anger wash over me. “Fine, I won’t ask again.”

Pops and I stared at each other for a long time, none of us saying a word. We were both trying to process what had just happened.

“Can you at least drive me there?” I asked coolly.

Pops stared at me, without a change of expression on his face. I could tell he was thinking real hard about saying no. “Alright, jus’ this once.” Pops gruffly said.

After a silence that seemed to have lasted ages, I looked away. We both resumed doing our own things. Pops watching TV, me going to my room. I fell onto my bed glumly. Pops couldn’t even be happy for me, for the biggest moment of my life. At least he agreed to drive me so I could meet the people at the gallery. Knowing Pops, it could’ve gone way worse. I sighed, still saddened by the whole thing. The next thing I knew, I fell asleep.

It was the next day, which meant the opening of my gallery. I was so excited, it felt like I had butterflies the whole day. I couldn’t sit still. It felt like all those days working non-stop on my drawings had paid off. The ride to the gallery with Pops was super awkward. We both sat in silence the whole ride. When I said goodbye to him as he dropped me off, he just grunted and drove away.

The gallery opening was amazing. So many people came to see my drawings, and I met a lot of cool people. The fancy-looking guy came later in the evening, impressed.

“People love your work, kid. This is huge!” He exclaimed.

I felt elated. “Thanks!”

“Although I must say, I don’t see your parents anywhere,” the man asked curiously, “are they late?”

I felt a pang of sadness. “It’s just me and my Pops, and no, he can’t come,” I said sullenly.

The man looked sympathetic. “I’m sorry kid,” he said, “shame he couldn’t come.”

I looked around, seeing all the faces, knowing Pops wasn’t one of them. “Yeah.”

I felt pretty glum for the rest of the night. Pops’s absence weighed heavily on my mind, and I just couldn’t feel happy about my gallery anymore. I just sat and watched as people came and went until closing time. The whole pamphlet conversation kept running through my head. His anger, his refusal to come; it all felt soul-crushing. I was lost in my thoughts when all of a sudden, I heard the door shut. My head snapped up. Everyone had left since the gallery was closing for the night. “Guess that’s it then.” I thought. I sighed and stood up. Suddenly, I heard a cough. I thought everyone had left? But as the person turned around, there was no mistaking it.

“Pops?” I said incredulously, “What are you doing here?”

He walked towards me awkwardly with his hands in his pockets. “Came to see sum art, didn’ I?” He mumbled as he nodded his head towards my drawings. He cleared his throat. “They, uh, they sorta nice. Little preety things.”

I felt joy bubbling in my stomach. “Thanks, Pops,” I said. “Means a lot.”

“Don’ mention it.” He grumbled. “Now let’s get outta here ‘fore dark.”

Pops started to walk towards the exit. I followed suit, a small smile forming on my face. All the sadness I was feeling started to fade away.

Maybe Pops wasn’t so bad after all.


Author’s Note:

All the misspellings and grammar errors in dialogues for the character "Pops" are intentional.


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