Sunday, June 15, 2008

Fathers and Sons

I wrote this several months ago and decided, for Father's Day, to post it again, for those who may not have seen it the first time.

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 feasts of celebration I sit out, or at least experience with something less than a patriotic enthuasiasm. That orgy of forced jollity we call Christmas is one. And Father's Day is another. We wallow in father worship, thanks to the media. 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 experienced our relaitonships with our fathers in more complicated ways.

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!)

This realization 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 frustration and disappointment earlier on, and 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 mind had failed to such a dgree 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 he 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. We all knew, but she better than the rest of us, that the man we had called husband, father, grandfather, uncle and friend was already farther away than a nursing home. I am so grateful that he and I made our quiet amends when he could be aware of them.

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 his hands, 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." Now, I can chuckle at that.) He did not consider what he did with words, however, art. Writing was a trade, like plumbing.

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--I wanted the real thing. 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 whose daily life dilemmas he helped solve. I stole most of the story ideas from my comic books, and my illustrations were cutouts from Golden Books. I bound it all up into a 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.)

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. Anything I do using words 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 unimaginably diminished without it. But that realizaation has dawned on me very late. Until now, I've thought of my writing as just something I do, nothing special, just like my father thought of his.

Our family always wished that my father would use his retirement years to write his memories down, but he never did. He and my mother--as do all our parents--told funny stories from their youth and their earliest times together. They had known each other since they were teenagers, and we wanted that history put down in concrete form. But I don't think writing was ever really enjoyable for my father. 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. Words are the tools that enable me to carry that work on.

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


Mim said...

Wow I missed this the first time and it is a good one. Thanks for the words...and your memories of your family.

Mark said...

Hi Ralph - I'm with Mim, missed it the first time and I am so glad to have the chance to see it. What an eloquent essay about your Dad. He is no doubt touched by it in that great internet reading room of the great beyond. Funny what you said about "Jailhouse Rock." My father didn't get worked up over music and who said what in any song, but when World War II spoofs came along, such as "McHale's Navy," he refused to watch, owing to their historical inaccuracy. In fact, he pretty much eschewed tv all the time, because he had better things to do.

Your words made me smile. Thanks for sharing!

Mim said...

By the way,
went on your site several times yesterday to get the Asian Grill Marinade..
I had four guys here last night for a barbeque my husband, son and two of his friends.Let's just say the platter was licked clean and I had marinated four large chucks!
That recipe is like you said amazing. Thanks so much for helping us top off a great father's day.

Ralph said...

Mim, how cool! It's such a kick to know something I think is good is liked by somebody else. Thanks for the feedback!

Peggy said...

This was really nice. What a lovely tribute to your father!

Ralph said...

Thanks, Peggy.