Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Fathers And Sons

I've received so many blessings from this daily writing exercise: I'm using and developing whatever talent I have for putting words together in a meaningful way, and thanks to the generosity of others and the limitless imagination of the human mind, I'm having new (to me) worlds of music opened to me. Best of all, I'm making new friends. A very rich correspondence I've begun with one of my regular visitors has led me to today's subject.

I like apple pie and July fireworks as much as the next red-blooded American, but there are some national orgies of celebration I sit out, or at least experience with something less than a level of enthusiasm that might be deemed patriotic. What we call "Christmas" is one. And Father's Day is another. The media wallow in father worship. It's a chance for "real men" to show their soft sides--as long as that softness is about father worship. Stiff, manly hugs and all that. Well, some of us have more complicated relationships with our fathers.

As I've been doing these daily essays, it's been driven home to me that writing is as much my second nature as some other great joys of mine, such as music, or food. The origin of the interest in the latter two is easy to guess: my mother. But the writing? It's dawned on me only recently that it comes from my father. At the age of 62 I can still be surprised at some new discovery about my own life. Miles to go yet, I guess. (I hope!)

It comes as a surprise because I spent several years coming to terms with the idea that my father and I did not live up to the ideals we had set for each other. There was a lot of mutual anger and disappointment earlier on, but I've always found comfort knowing that by the time my dad left the scene, we had both matured and were able to appreciate and enjoy whatever good we could find in each other. There really was no unfinished business between us at the time of his death; in fact, his mental capacities had departed to such an extent that we all felt we had lost him long before his failing heart failed its last. My mother, into her 80s, ended up his primary care giver in the last, worst years; his physical demise actually came as a relief. My mother and father had been married for 67 years by the time my father died. During his last months in the nursing home, my mother never even went to visit him. Instead, she lay back like a lady of leisure and read, relishing the solitude. This woman, who had never been alone for more than a couple of days, needed the rest. She was more aware than any of us that the man she had known as her husband was already farther away than a nursing home.

Writing has always been a part of my life because my father was a writer by trade. The word "trade" is chosen with consideration. He was a reporter, a newspaper man, a bylined columnist. Stringing words together to tell a just-the-facts story was what he did to keep a roof over our heads. On Fridays, the day it was published, he would bring a copy of his paper home, but he never called the family around proudly to show off his work. My father was an artist in many ways. He could draw. He was magical with wood, able to make me toys--string puppets, batons, painted bathtub boats. He played the banjo and could whistle, and he appreciated most music. (But he refused to let me buy "Jailhouse Rock" because it "glorified prisoners." I still chuckle at that.) But he did not consider what he did with words art. As far as that was concerned, he was a tradesman, like a plumber.

Still, fine points of art or craft aside, writing was in my life, a natural thing for me to do, and my parents encouraged me in it. My first toys had to do with words. I had a printing press with rubber letters that fit into a grooved block of wood. You pressed the letters onto an inkpad and then onto paper and there you had it: a newspaper! A mere toy typewriter I was given as a present was a disappointment. A highlight of any week was a visit to my father's office, where I headed straight for his typewriter and marveled at how the keys made the letters hit the paper. I wrote poems and little songs. My crowning achievement, at about 10, was a collection of childrens' stories featuring Eddie Elephant. They were patterned after the Uncle Wiggly bedtime stories my mother had read to my sister and then, later, to me. Eddie had friends in the jungle and they all had interesting things happen to them, which I told about. I stole most of the story ideas from the comic books I read, and my illustrations were cutouts from Golden Books. I bound it all up into a little booklet with green craft paper covers and shoestring. (It would be a priceless treasure if I still had it but alas, it was lost in a flood when a hurricane came through Falls Church, while I was in the Peace Corps.)

To steal a Dylan word picture, I pushed forth into my own games. I went to college, suffered, came home, went back, found music in a big way, came out, joined the Peace Corps, marked maps, foundered, floundered and fell in love deeply and foolishly. And I wrote. I never gave it a moment's thought, but I wrote. I've never been able to keep a journal, though--journaling for me is a useless exercise. Any communicative thing I do must have an audience, real or imagined. I write songs imagining I am on a stage singing them. I write these words now knowing someone is going to read them. My writing over the years has been in letters, now emails; a collection my correspondence would make for a very detailed biography. I simply love writing and know that my life would be nothing without it. But that knowledge has come to me very late. Until now, I've taken writing for granted, as just something I do, nothing special. Just like my father.

Our family always wished that my father would use his retirement years to set his memories down on paper, but he never did. He and my mother (as do all our parents) told very funny stories from their youth and their life together. They had known each other since they were teenagers, and we wanted that history set down. But I don't think writing was ever really enjoyable for him. It had just been a means to a life, and in retirement, he didn't have to do it anymore. As other men have learned from the mistakes their fathers made in important areas of life, such as being careless about their health, I have learned to cherish words precisely because my father did not. I have no children. My legacy will come from my mind and not my loins. I have no regrets about that, and I recognize and happily accept the job ahead of me. I need words to carry that work on.

Better late than never, now I know to say, "thanks, Dad, for the words."


Cuidado said...

I am amazed at how much you look like your father. It is common for crafts and trades people to not practice their trade or craft for their own families or enjoyment - The shoemaker's kids have no shoes. I have only paintings ans stained glass pieces that weren't good enough to put out there. I think most of us have complicated relationships with our dads, by the way.

Ralph said...

Cuidado, there's no question of a family resemlance, but I guess since I always felt more of an affinity with my mother, I seem to identify more closely with that side and think I look more like all of them. It's entirely sujective admit, and your impression as a third party is probably more accurate. They were both handsome people so I can't lose either way!

Interesting to have your take on the creative process. Not just I, but everbody wanted my father to write for the creative joy of it, but that wasn't in him. I see and understand that now.

Ravel said...

And "thanks for the memories"!
This was an inspired entry, in many ways. :-)
Our parents are what we come from. We are a channel to them. And then we go from there, either we do the same or reject it. We never can deny what they gave us.
Thanks for sharing, Ralph.

Ralph said...

We're on the same wave length here, mon ami. Glad you "got" it.

Nan said...

Powerful and well-written essay, Ralph!

Ralph said...

Thanks, Nan.

Anonymous said...

I'm passing this one around, great post Ralph. It would make any Father proud.

Ralph said...

Z&M, thanks. It's was nice to be able to do this for my dad. If it sheds light on somebody else's situation, then I'm doubly blessed.

Eclecticity said...

Enjoyed. Keep it up! D.