If you would be loved, be lovable. — Ovid
In my life — a life I allow to be as much yours as mine — it is something of an oddity to me that whenever I contemplate you, or, for that matter, the very substance of fatherhood, what I glean is a figure middle-aged: stern and stalwart — with a gorilla’s chest, Santa Claus gut, conic pecs (which seem to prop the chest up) and a yellowed, sleeveless undershirt that homogenizes the corpulence a little, if not also the ruddy and the varicose. Imagined in time, the middle age of the human male is, to my perception (still, as it was in boyhood), like a mature, burly oak which — though it is craggy between the autumn and winter and its color is diluted; and a constant creaking can be heard, even in the slightest breeze — stands as ever vigilant and intimidating, as it must have in spring. This, your middle age, is how fatherhood appears to me; and, though I am now also that aging tree, still, its cragginess seems as only yours. —Easily, as if disassembling you like Mr. Potato Head, I see your black segregating eyes, pursed Mitchum mouth, steam-shovel hands and, most manifest, your volcanic chest, itself a tenacious barrier between us: dense façade behind which trudges your shackled heart. And I languish before you, brutish, superior Patriarch — who once knuckled the temple of his four-year-old for having misstepped with a stone flung lightly under a passing car (in revolt of his blooming identity), and with those steam-shovel hands hoisted the little flaw into the great backseat-dungeon of the family’s Ford, declaring that the long drive to country (so airy and serene when Mom made it — so desolate and interminable then) might be one-way;— Patriarch who, every weekend morning for seventeen years, ambled to the kitchen in the late-morning light to hunch over the sink, Boris Karloff-like and back-facing, over your bowl of bacon, over-easys, onions and garlic pickles (a pose later duplicated at dinner, again in silence, only then in a chair and frontal at the family table);— Patriarch who, concerning the adult child’s desire to succeed as a writer, had asked the “dreamer” at his college graduation, “So, what does one do for a living after reading novels for four years?”;— Patriarch who, of your severity and aloofness, bequeaths middle age as God a thunderbolt to a fallen angel.
If you wonder why I am not speaking my grievances to you, I have; if you wonder why I would put them down on paper, I merely do again. Like a bulimic, mouthfuls of relationship have I spewed at you that you might honor ours. —You nearly did once, in 1993: the meeting to which you’d summoned a mediator — the dutiful son, Russ — after having called me a “coward” for hiding behind the pen. In fact, every letter I have written to you, beginning as a freshman away at college, you have dispraised as too sensitive, too “flowery”: Just as the student who grimaces before the late-night cram, you scorn them for their details. “Get to the point!” you bark (or huff to yourself). —How does one get to the point about a daughter’s first painting, about a son’s prodigious sense of humor, about a sunset in Maine, about the death of a mentor,...? Why would one diminish life’s luster by glossing over it? About our grievances — and my wish that they be rectified — I got to the point that afternoon in 1993. However, it was a point you rejected.
Not long after that prisoner-transport to the country in my fourth year — when, for a seeming eternity, knees had quaked before miles and miles of drought-stunted soybeans and your deliberate scorn and silence, till finally, standing outside the Ford, behind it, I had felt my little shape recede from you and the bumper-lifeline — I dreamed of a glass pond in the low of a gingerbread forest, where winter revelers in parkas and boa scarves spun pigtails on twilight ice. At least I presume it was a dream; to this day, I am not sure. The scene, of a pensive loner, who, despite his separateness, seemed to command the woodland rink, comes to me still. Often I mention this dream to Russ that sometime he might vouch for its veracity, yet am always left in dumb wonderment: certain only that the real was or was not — that the woods, if they might have been more than a specter, may have been those of Nana’s and Popeye’s Tenafly neighborhood, where flowed the wishing-well creek; or of Rochester, where on autumn Saturdays Russ and I had marched single file behind you and your wheelbarrow for the peat for your gardens. Only recently have I thought that the stranger might have been you.... And so have I dreamed of you often, that first my head might be able to make you different. Yet this hope, like the lonesome dream, ever manifests in frustration, such that futility — could it be personified — would be a man-boy convulsing to the forever ache of an exhausted heart.
My earliest memory of dreading you is that country drive; yet the most consequential is of a moment several years later (probably I was in first or second grade). You still had the Ford: the tan Falcon; in that era of career homemakers, it was the only car the family had needed. It was a tepid summer morning, the white heat fusing everything beyond the windshield bright white. You were driving us to the commuter bus, the lap leg to your office at Crum & Forster. True to form, you proceeded in silence (I believe you have no interest in idle conversation: It is a woman’s idiosyncrasy: inferior). Except for a barrage of “Idiots!” and “Assholes!” slung at other motorists, the only sound I recall coming from you was a reminder to Mom not to forget to fetch such and such on the way home — your arms, chest and head holding steadily forward, as if harnessed — only your steering-wheel hand budging, its palm rising up at every passing vehicle to reveal the odometer, that the inferior driver could measure his transgression. As unnerved as I was by your hard-ass eminence, it was your consummate aloofness that morning (culmination of so many antecedents) that thrust an impression of you not as father but lord. And in my hunched-cower in the backseat, snakes and spiders gnashed my stomach with a terrible guilt — that maybe I did not love you.
It was not the first time this concern, this belief, had racked me. It haunted of your threat to abandon me in the country, and many other times since. It is your nature to snarl rather than smile, to alienate rather than unite. Then, and in every succeeding year of my youth, your nature revealed these qualities by your habit of doling punishments more than hugs; by your general absence (it has never been easy for you to offer, nor do I believe you are much interested in offering, an ear to hurts and joys); by a disciplinary style that evolved as a process of grounding, begrudging and ignoring; by selfishness distinguished by snorts and physical intimidation (as on weekend mornings when, still in bed past eleven, you would fluster Mom into barking: “Out! Get out! Can’t you kids see your father is trying to sleep?”); and, above all — for I believe the sum of your nature is this — by a narcissistic sense of superiority wherein lies a certainty that the rest of the human race is not nearly as excellent as you (consider your diatribes on station: “Damned Catholics!; character: “Damned Liberals!”; responsibility: “You want something done right, do it yourself!”; looks: “She’s so flat-chested, mine are bigger!”...). It was on that morning drive to the bus stop that the weight of you finally crushed my chest. And I wondered if happiness had died.
Sometime later, I was eight or nine, I forfeited two nights’ sleep and suffered a string of stultifying bathroom visits rather than confess to you that during a spelling test my eyes had drifted. Only on the third day, at the bus stop, after you had disappeared in the human wave and I was alone with Mom, had I felt comfortable enough to purge my shame. And that was easy compared to my next confession — that maybe I did not love you.
In the instant Mom received my frigid words of doubt, their chill pressed her hard against her own seat. And I believe in that instant she was physically incapable of turning to look at me: her head like marble, her eyes eclipsed moons in the rearview mirror. What could she say? —And how, without weeping? For a moment, all I heard was the swish of the morning rush. Beside me, not a yawning arm away, Russ seemed unfazed by my fireball: A doze or daydream spared him; or, if he had heard, he’d snuffed the fire as well he did a bully’s taunting. —You know that Mom accepted the greater role in our rearing, not just in witnessing our first steps and fixing broken shoelaces and kissing hurt knees and making our beds and school lunches, but also in availing herself to listen and inquire and dialogue as much as we needed her to. And so she had gathered herself that terrible day and offered true words for mine: calmly, and without rebuke or grudge. Her response had carried the equity of a peer, her expression an encompassing empathy. She asked not, “What is wrong with you?” but rather, “Do you know why you feel this way?” And I answered as only a child could who did not yet understand the farce of conditional love.
As I stared at the stone in the rearview mirror, I held my breath imagining what pain mine must have caused in her, that I had just pegged her husband as an unlovable father. And as I berated myself I also prayed — that you would change.
Mom, pillar of optimism (humankind’s most blissful form of ignorance), salved the laceration of my lamentation as if navigating lightly in a windstorm: “You’re being silly, dear,” she said; adding: “I’m sure you love your father.” I asked the mirror: “But how do you know?” It answered simply, “Because he is your father” — and, to clarify, “Because God knows you love your father.” I still wonder whether she emphasized knows or God, such that the defensive declaration would have sounded more certain as, “because God knows you love your father.” In either case, the sunlight wrapped her faint assurance in a dense amber glow as my guilt intensified with the morning heat.
And the guilt pursued me, of course, like a wasp perfume; and throughout the process of maturation summoned sins, too: passivity, uncertainty, and fear of death into adolescence; self-pity and rage into adulthood; and to this day a perpetual storm of emotional-intellectual sorrow and self-appraisal. Oh were it possible for little boys to wield the hardware of debate: Against such premise that I do not love you, I could have prodded Mom on what she based her assertion: how it was she knew what God knew. —Yet how fortunate for me that nary a little child lives who questions his parents, let alone God....
Thus were you and I early estranged. Had our division multiplied more to formula — to the stereotypical constraints that estrange the warring fathers and sons of literature and theater — our troubled relationship might have healed enough for some mutual comfort by a co-acceptance of “archetypal truths.” Yet the evident truth of your fathering is that it is stranger than fiction: its conflicts more difficult to resolve. With the fluid grace of a flamenco dancer, you slide between states: a study in opposites. Always with seeming interest you invited me to your home, only to heap disinterest throughout my visits. In holiday greetings, for example, you noted that I appeared “heavier” than the last time we met; then, when later we would jog together, criticized my running form as “wrong.” —Actually, no one is spared your Janus view. At dinner once, you sprinkled pleasantries on Lisa (then my fiancée) like fine sugar, only to ignore her during dessert and the rest of the evening because she had not offered, at the instant of your expectation, to help Mom clear away the dishes. For years you chided Russ and Barb for not having kids — ironic considering that the only two grandchildren you have you hardly know: Sara, the one who, in her twelfth year, dared “whine” in Minnesota (“God’s Country”) during a woodland hike, and later watched “too much” TV; and Chris, who slept “too long” and did not enjoy, as much as you, the science kit you gave him.
You are neither primarily phlegmatic nor stoic; indeed, none of your traits usurps the others, but rather scurries in an amalgam of taut energy. If you were only passive or cruel: if you never touched me or exchanged a word; only sneered at me through your bloodhound eyes, or bullied to an extreme, frothed through your bark, spat at me, beat me, locked me out of your house; I might actually bear you for confirming that at least some clarified relationship existed between us. Yet all my life you have been but a half step approachable for every two steps removed.... You revere creativity (in your youth you wrote sublime love poems to Mom, in your middle years crafted model ships and maneuvered mosses and ferns six hundred miles from Minnesota forests to your Chicago garden with the care of a surgeon cauterizing capillaries, and now in your old age track your investments like a biochemist the fission of cells); yet the only time, I believe, that you nurtured my own creative nature was during the summer of my adolescence that I’d studied the Monarch butterfly, when you’d encouraged me to preserve my observations and impressions in a notebook. Otherwise, my doing art — especially when it became obvious to you that the youthful activity had evolved to a calling — has continuously stirred storms of anxiety and disapproval, such that you believe the doing corrupts my sense of responsibility; and shall even, ultimately, bankrupt me — causing me to come begging. What’s more, by the simple fact that I call myself an artist, in your estimation I have submitted to the weak side of maleness: “idealist”.... Oh father, who weeps before summer sunsets and Harvest Moons; listens, as if for Sirens, for the lilting cackle of distant loons; tenders formal burials for deceased pet rodents; bows at the head of the Thanksgiving table; routinely resurrects the demons of Korea;...
You, you believe, of your having naught in common with me, are superior. True, we are opposites; you: pragmatist, Republican, corporate man, for whom success is measured by income; me: bohemian, Democrat, artist, who exists outside the money machine: for whom experience and ideas avail the province of success. Ironically, during the topsy-turvy adolescent years, it was I, the amenable son, who seemed more your equal, because you knew I would serve as a conduit for understanding Russ: the son, of all three, who is most like you. What principal quality throughout my adulthood you have rebuked — uninhibited emotional honesty: ease with introspection, confession, debate — you heralded during your troubles with Russ as if this quality were spring water that could slake your thirst for perfect filial equilibrium: the perfect patriarch. In railing through me against the recalcitrant son you little by little aligned his image with yours, such that when he emerged from his adolescent funk and began again to show respect and devotion, it was as if his maturation had been your achievement. Thus in Russ you substantiated your sense of rightness. What’s more, you perceived him then as a model of your rules of success and failure. And as Russ’s opposite twin, I became the scale on which judgment was weighed and meted. On balance, I have fared poorly. I chose the “wrong” kind of work (art); married “wrong” (a Roman Catholic) and also “too young” (in my early twenties, as you had); made my home in the “wrong” place (the city) and dared bring children to it; became the only Vanderbeek in memory, if ever, to divorce; have proved to be “selfish” (when Mom invited me, the single father, to bring over a few loads of laundry once, I took “too long” to finish), “thoughtless” (I did not acknowledge your fiftieth wedding anniversary), “liberal” (yes, I believe today’s Republican platform is a treatise of money mongers, concrete lovers, and social derelicts),...
John is spared the greater barrage of your disapprobations by a fortune of perception: his perpetual boyishness. Because he skates across your heart on double runners, his errors and contrapositions are usually easily forgiven. You accept him despite his differences (negligible at worst), because he invests in the stock market, as you; owns a place in the suburbs, as you; and wallows not in contrary politics. And he married well, too — although in this regard he was like a Montague venerated by a Capulet, since the woman he loves did you no grace: she, a divorcee with two children. When John does trip, as on family protocol (he, the infamous procrastinator), youth’s acquitting innocence hoists him back to your grace. In rare times that you condescend him, such as for an act of heightened self-confidence, it is his boyishness — that cherubic face and soft voice — that exonerates him. Even when he stands beside you — your heads aligned, each one’s spectacles reflecting the other’s image straight on — you approve. When he is remiss to show devotion, as when he does not correspond “often enough” during your summers in Minnesota, he is excused on account of his position as the baby in the family. All in all John is a portrait in oils in a gilded frame, because you succeeded in creating him in your image.
Mom, on the other hand, is neither your shadow nor your right hand;— considering her wallflower personality and her sons’ own ill treatment of her, she seems as a prop or appendage. Standing at five-feet-four, she is only the length of one of her small hands shorter than you, yet in comparable stature is her middle finger to your pinky. As in your other familial relationships, the irony of your relationship with Mom is that, although you are careful not to adulterate it with the blunt mark of a fist, your words bruise. Mom is “dumb,” “slow,” “forgetful”; she is too often clumsy and careless (it was “her fault” that morning on the Minnesota lake that the canoe had started to sway like a tub on pulleys and John’s new camera had leapt overboard;...and if she had been attentive to responsibility to turn off the washing machine faucets, its hoses would not have burst and flooded the utility room). She has “no concept of the real world”; she “knows nothing” about investments; she snores;— and, though you did acknowledge, on the eve of my flying the nest, that it was primarily on account of her parenting that your sons do not beg, cheat or steal, still, her methods were generally “too lenient”;... To her, the effects of your abusiveness are doubly deleterious, for she feigns immunity to your judgments while holding up contentment as a guise. —Who can be sure if she loves you? She tolerates you: with an enigmatic blend of surrender and resistance. She is demure (her father, also passive, died when she was eleven; her working mother, man enough for them both, gave emotionally what little she could); and, though diffidence is not a sterling quality, it serves her well before you. Her principal strength, the strength of pride, wakes too infrequently, like a winter bear clawing exhaustively. Yet Mom would never leave you — not for fear of aloneness, but for God.
During the first three years of the 1980s, when God gave me a girl and a boy, I believed hopefully that our shared fatherness would finally bridge our separateness. Instead, my becoming a father accentuated your view of the child. I was not ready to be a parent, you thought — a belief easily detected in your detachment when I phoned to announce Sara’s birth. “Dad, do you believe in miracles?” I asked, inferring the wonder of the family’s first girl in many generations. “Oh,” was your reply. For months afterward reservations flowed in recitals, continuing that late night at your home when, after everyone else had gone to bed, in the silence of the lethargic dark you had wondered aloud how my “writer’s salary” could pay for a house, college, and every other expense for the next twenty-one years (I did not profit my defense by reminding you that my wife also made a salary). The failure of my ad business, after my divorce, turned your leeriness into litany: “I told you so!” played like a creed.... A visit to your Minnesota place, with its encompassing primordial forest, seemed a new path to hope — a locus at which our then long-festered hurt might ripple away across the pristine lake. So it was in 1993 that when Sara, Chris and I planned our first visit there, I anticipated an experience that would be revelatory and purifying. Well into my adulthood, Mom had often noted my “remarkable optimism,” implying, I believe, that I must be endowed of above-average resilience: the kind that helps one prevail not only over disbelief, but also dismay. Yet no sort of optimism — not even Christ’s patience — could have assuaged my suffering that brief week before your incessant appraisals and disapprobation. “How weird,” you said one day, that we had not yet leapt for the chance to go canoeing; “how weird” that I would haul Sara and Chris out of the “paradise” of your woods and into town twice; “how weird” later, when we all went to town, that my children showed more interest in skipping flat stones over Lake Superior than listening to the jazz quintet you had packed us up to hear. —How can one possibly endure constant setups? You’d decided, before our city feet had ever touched your pastoral ground, that Sara, Chris and I would not like the North Woods: You had actually hurled this presumption during our visit, your rationale: How could we love the natural world — we who resided in the devil city? And so, not even in the one place in the world where probably you and I have everything in common, and where certainly you are more at ease than in any other place, would you motivate your heart to welcome a son.
Yet still I persisted in a belief that I could coax choice from you: that I could make you accept me.
The next year I asked if you would have us longer (two weeks rather than one), which you consented without a shrug. I doubt that you grasped the messages inherent in my mathematics — my and your grandchildren’s love of rural Minnesota and our fervent yearning for family — for not much family semblance presented during that visit, either. In its place black bears foraged, guppies spun ribbons around the dock, blue jays and waxwings exchanged pleasantries in the purple sky, and lapfuls of chipmunks broke bread in our palms. Had Sara, Chris and I also seemed like varmints? Actually, between first greetings and last goodnights, it seemed that we had rather metamorphosed into pests. One night, as you and I prepared for bed, the hug between us flitted like a winded candle flame; for you said not, “So glad you’re here,” but, “What the hell’s wrong with your children?”
“What’s that mean?” I asked.
Typically, you turned away and began to drift, mumbling, “Could they ever show respect? Could they ever hug their grandfather goodnight?”
I understood the underpinnings of your first question without needing to hear the second. Dozens of times before then, your grandchildren had confided in me feelings of discomfort with you. That’s what was “wrong” with them, that’s why they did not hug you goodnight — why they rarely hug you, even now as young adults, without my despicable prodding. To them you are a bear: but not the soft, plushy kind; rather, the mean, scary kind, with clenched teeth. I had offered that night that their embraces would come naturally if your actions and words were gentler, more nurturing; in other words, if you showed interest. But your response was a growl: something derogatory about my “parenting skills.” And off you grumped into the dark....
Nature’s sturdy, steady serenity pulses through the sensibility and soul of every Vanderbeek, making of our core the eternal spring lapping bedrock, the two-measure hiss and recoil of the winter gust, the caterwauling opera of tree frogs,... Why then are we not by our nature united? As you, I revere the majestic moose, shudder before the bull bear and its harem, pique to the lone distal hoot of the snow owl, stop in rapt wonder of ladybugs in coitus; as you, I am disturbed by our species’ propensity for rampant progress: its anesthetic indifference to grass, flowers, trees, water, sky, animals, and its own kind;— how it is that man does not moderate, but intensifies, the razing of woodlands, grasslands and wetlands and the poisoning of the life-giving air;— how, given the choice between beauty and ugliness, he will nine times out of ten enable the latter (he would throw up a strip mall before facilitating a serviceable, aesthetic community of shops, gardens, trees, pathways...);— how he levels houses at the slightest call of Business;— how he proceeds to destroy the earth in lumbering ignorance. If only of our mutual reverence for the natural world — if only by our common nature — could we come together: then might we feel enmity fade like October’s leaf, and, together cognizant of our rudiment essence, cast a center against our differences. For our core — the Inner Child — possesses the wonder of understanding and acceptance. The Inner Child lives in you as it does in me and Mom and Russ, John, Sara and Chris and the whole of our family, as in every living man, woman and child upon the earth. Yet in you, I believe the Inner Child is beset by scars, as a blind eye by darkness.
Your scarred Inner Child differentiates our common nature by idiosyncrasies it mocks as mine only, my flaws: though they are yours also. In denying our common idiosyncrasies you use them to justify your disapprobation: “Kenneth, you’re too sensitive”; “Kenneth, you take the problems of the world too personally”; “Kenneth, you talk too much”; “Kenneth, put the past [our differences] behind you”; and so on.
Kenneth, name of my birth, name of our disunion.
Until recently, I had not thought to separate out the causes of your maladaptation into those of will and those of genes; indeed, could not have. Before middle age, I had neither the sufficient cognitive nor emotional faculty to contemplate that your deficiencies, rather than being primarily distillates of choice, as I had presumed, rather probably make the very fabric of your nature: a tapestry of resignations and sorrows given primary form, tonality and density by the brusque strokes of heredity; such that I now believe the truth of your confounding treatment of me is that it is a consequence of an inferior seed: insentience spawned of your mother’s refusal (or inability) to love unconditionally and your father’s chronic stoicism — your anger and indifference byproducts of your parents’ own interminable frustrations and misgivings: your animus, before youth’s end, having probably already been set by barren passion against a calling or causes that could have given your self “meaning”;— “logic,” which you regard as the only sensible driver of human thought and action, the sap of your seed; minification the sum: a slow, resolute catharsis at your heart. Yet what is ever perplexing to me is how many of these deficits are intrinsic and how many extrinsic. I can never know.
For many years had I believed it was primarily choice that manufactured your negativity: dissidence, captiousness, disapprobation,... I had actually believed you reveled in contrariness; as, conversely, I had believed you would have chosen to accentuate positivism (compassion, acceptance, appreciation,...) if this were the quality more essential to fathering (I had presumed all fathers are like you). And yet, of a thousand musings as this: thirty years’ aching to will your love (or some little appreciation); next, barest conciliation; finally, mere acceptance: thirty years’ struggle waged against a double-dread of guilt and abject futility to gain admittance to you (if only to learn why you do not like me): thirty years sucked up by a quicksand of stupefaction, bitterness and ultimately numbing resignation before your unabashed judgments and indelible rejection...of a thousand musings have I come to believe that in you, will is subordinate to the traits of the blood — that every course to change moves you no more than your wife can to treat her as a peer, or than your better twin son can to respect his and his wife’s decision not to have children, or than probably anyone who has ever known you can to embrace the gentle powers of ease and joviality and affection....
Your mother, of her resemblance to the old Queen Victoria, had a manner as robust as her masculinity. Ostensibly, she was ebullient in the company of loved ones, friends, acquaintances and strangers, yet truly the space she allowed was constricted and tinged by gray tones of unsettledness. And she was as closed in as her closed-in world. Behind her easy smile and funny monkey faces lay an unfulfilled woman who, as most other women of her generation, longed for a repeal of sacrifices she had to make for a more socially privileged man. Any stranger could have detected that she loved you and Uncle Dick, yet the stranger could also have recognized that her affection was primarily formal: distinguished by a refractory sense of correctness. I do not know if you comprehend these truths about your mother; I believe you do, but deny them. I will never know; in part because, during one of our spats, searching for an analogy to bolster my complaint, I muttered that your mother, whom you idolized, was “far from perfect”: expounding an idea to the effect that behind her even exterior broiled a stew of woeful qualities: emotional poverty, brooding bitterness and, consequence of these evolved traits and others, a paradoxical self-image of righteousness and woe. You practically spat on me for my “impudence” (you used another word). —I was relieved I had not also profiled your father whom, in seventeen years of observing him, I recall had rarely maintained eye contact with you, and had never touched you except by an occasional handshake.
Long have I imagined how you must have disparaged your own father for his disaffection. He lived to be nearly ninety years old, the last twenty in compounding apathy and spite, such that when he died, unlike your mother’s ashes, which you let whisk through your fingers into her beloved bay, and then leapt into them, his you tossed anonymously and with indifference. For what had made your father’s passing incidental lay utterly in his nature, which he had sown as a lifelong enmity between you. And so it is that intrinsically you dismiss me as your father had you: he who had expected you to become a doctor, and reviled business; you who had expected me to become a businessman, and rejected art. Each of us was diminished when his father no longer saw in himself the son.
—Oh family of diminished sons of disenfranchised fathers! Have you ever wondered the truth of why your other two sons will not have children? — that it is to forego despair of seeing your likeness in their own flesh? — they who see themselves irrevocably in you?... And so a cherished regard of self and family sows sunflowers in my melancholy and yearning for a sustaining light, as you cultivate neglect in perpetual darkness — your stunted seed having long ago sprouted in divisiveness. Our sparse moments together all but silent now as the actual silence when we are apart. The splendor of human love and dialogue — empathy, understanding, acceptance and aid — forever fleeting in this silence, our tragedy.
I have lost count of the blissful night- and daydreams in which you have transformed into Dick Van Patten, the doting father in the 1980s TV show, 8 Is Enough: your face aglow around an always-ebullient smile, your arms ever-ready to hug your children. Obviously, these dreams signify a search for the ideal father. But what is “ideal?” For despite his profusion of sincerity, Dick Van Patten was ideal only within the viewer’s perception: an aspiration. At best he was an adequate disciplinarian; in chats with his teenagers on issues unique to youth he blabbered like Falstaff; and, as there is no rest for the wicked, he rested little for having had so many children. —Yet his were the flaws of forbearance. He tried. And his children, all eight of them, benefited from his effort in smiles, conversations, professions of acceptance and appreciation, and all other manifestations of fatherly love which he gave continuously, inclusively, consummately.
How, then, of our cyclopean differences, is it possible that you and I share a common seed? (Many of my friends who know you have also asked this question.) That we do seems to defy natural law. Physically, of course, I got bits of your clay: the “Dutch snout,” the pink flesh which bakes brown in summer, the sullen English eyes perched on fleshy cushions, the square hands with fingers like stubs, the Vanderbeek Belly that floats like a rock island between the ribs. Yet to mingle with us is to impress upon two men who seem impossibly related — whose only apparent commonness is gender. I who revere all forms of music (well, except disco) and visual artworks, realistic to abstract; foods of the gods and nations; ideas and debate; the country and the city; people;...you who mock most music that is not jazz, consider visual art a bore and written art a trifle, appreciate food but primarily in context of the days of the week (steak on Saturday, pork on Sunday, bacon and eggs every morning, etc.), dismiss debate as a menace of contrary beliefs and principles, revile the “crime-ridden” cities, and shun most people who are not you. Within the provinces of thought and feeling, we coexist like the positive and negative charges. How each thinks, feels, acts; what we consider important, interesting, fulfilling; the deepest parts of us, the soulful parts;— every quality is diametrically opposite....
For fifty years I wanted to have a mutually abiding relationship with you, as does every normal child whose father is not wicked or gone, who treats the child reasonably well, provides shelter and sustenance, instills moral values. Yet no child, alone, can repair a fissure between himself and the father, especially not one which the father has made and allows to continuously widen. Remarkably, it was not until my middle age that I realized this truth (my powerlessness to “help” you accept me as I am). The young man was not as wise as the four-year-old who realized the futility of having the kind of relationship with you that every normal child naturally wants with the father: in which the father regularly smiles and expresses love with words like “I love you,” and takes the kid to the park now and then for a round of catch, and shows interest in what the son finds interesting,... I would have liked you to shoot hoops with me and kick the soccer ball at the park, I would have liked you to chase butterflies with me and hunt for polliwogs, I would have liked you to go biking with me around the neighborhood and to the library and Fran’s Subs, and...I would have liked if, once as you gazed at your twin sons playing catch in the street, you would have acted on this opportunity for fraternity rather than avoidance (how lucky you were to have twins: built-in companions). I would have liked to talk with you about all things: scrapes on knees, bullies, bull frogs in the meadow pond, bad dreams, why the shy-looking man shot President Kennedy, butterflies, coin-collecting, Beethoven, the Beetles, college choices, books, writing, Korea, girls,... But I feared you. —On the rare occasions I could subvert fear enough to attempt a conversation with you, the few words I’d muster would usually fizzle like sparks in wet kindling; and then you’d stare for a moment and usually walk away. So I leaned on Mom for a parent’s interest. For such lack of relationship with you, I exploited an abundance of relationship with her. I usurped her attention, heedless of her own needs. Sometimes when we would be discussing a current event or book or another of my botched girl-pursuits, you would enter the room and I would wonder not what you might be thinking in the midst of such a substantial conversation between Mom and me, but if you even cared. Once, after one of our confidences had ended and Mom went to the kitchen to start dinner, I overheard her implore you to “Take him to lunch sometime.” I did not peek to see your reaction, only listened; yet in my mind’s eye saw you shrug as Mom’s passive voice came again: “Please, Ward, he’d appreciate it—.” A week or two later you obliged her, fetching me at the principal’s office and proceeding to a restaurant with a shoebox interior and yellowed white tablecloths, the name of which of course I’ve forgotten. As we were seated, in a booth, the lunch-hour crowd having by then dispersed, I felt as nervous as I had days earlier on my first date; for during the drive we had hardly talked, and now we gulped water for words. Admittedly, I was impressed that you had taken time off from work to lunch with me, and I had no trouble smiling throughout our forty-five minutes together; but it was a dutiful smile. A midday getaway was too rare and special to be spent like this: I felt as if I had exchanged recess for a proctor; worse, I sensed too easily the truth of your mission: purpose over passion. I cannot recall what we talked about (probably classwork or my future), only how you acted: obligatory; the time passing too slowly; your pink face propped remotely behind invisible interest; your Reuben sandwich a meager antidote for discomfort.
You are old now, and I am no longer young. Time is bridging our gap by setting upon me markers for a gorilla’s chest and Santa Claus gut,...and I am lately tugged by the beautiful-peculiar patience of aging: the patience of resignation. A few years ago, I began to understand that we are better apart: not better off, but better people. Russ has said to me that you are more at ease, and ever since the spring, when apparently you told Mom that you are “relieved” I am gone, have little uttered my name. But you are old, and the prospect that we may never meet again is daunting. Last holiday season, noting that we had not seen each other the previous three, you implored Russ, once again as middleman, to invite me to your house; your rationale: “I’m not getting any younger; Ken hasn’t talked to me [for a long time]”; and this telltale close: “See if he’ll come with you.” I wonder, as once again you clipped the wings of prudence, whether it was me you imagined then or mortality. I did not visit.
So think of us divorced, and amicable from a distance. For our scalded relationship has boiled to nothing. I no longer count its liabilities among the rings of my life.
Dad, each of us suffered a repressive, emotionally barren father. It is this suffering that makes us common. I have lost count of the number of times you proclaimed, “I will never be like my father,” just as your two grandchildren, now grown, have lost count of the number of times you praised your mother’s father, Michael Cook, for how “involved” he was with you. Were time flight possible, I would seek an audience with Grandpa Cook — that at least I might finally be able to cry for us.