My father still looks remarkably like I remember him when I was growing up: hair full, body trim, face tanned, eyes sharp. What’s different is his gentleness and patience. I had remembered neither as a boy, and I wondered which of us had changed.
My son Matthew and I had flown to Arizona for a visit, and his 67-year-old grandfather was tuning up his guitar to play for the boy. “You know ‘Oh, Give Me a Home Where the Buffalo Roam’?” my father asked.
All the while, four-year-old Matthew was bouncing on the couch, furtively strumming the guitar he wasn’t supposed to touch and talking incessantly.
My father and I were once at great odds. We went through all the classic resentful and rebellious teen stuff: shouting matches, my weird friends, clothes and beliefs. I still vividly recall the revelation that finally came to me one day that I was not my father, and that I could stop trying to prove I wasn’t.
When I was a boy, my father wasn’t around much. He worked seven days a week as a milkman. But even at work he was the task-master in absentia. Infractions were added up, and at night he dispensed punishment, though rarely beyond a threatening voice or a scolding finger.
I believed that manhood required that I stand up to him, even if it meant fists. One day some friends and I buried our high school’s parking-lot barriers under the woodpile for the annual home-coming bonfire.
We hated the things because they kept us from leaving school in our cars until after the buses had left. I thought the prank was pretty funny, and I mentioned it to my father. He didn’t think it was funny, and he ordered me to go with him to dig the barriers out.
Can you imagine anything more humiliating at age 16? I refused, and we stood toe to toe. Dad was in a rage, and I thought for an instant that the test had come.
But then he shook his head and calmly walked away. The next day my friends told me that they had seen him at the bonfire celebration. He’d climbed into the woodpile in front of hundreds of kids, pulled out the barriers and left. He never mentioned it to me. He still hasn’t.
Despite our father-son struggles, I never doubted my father’s love, which was our lifeline through some pretty rough times. There are plenty of warm memories – he and I on the couch watching TV together, walking a gravel road in Crete, Ill. , as dusk, riding home in a car, singing “Red River Valley.”
He had this way of smiling at me, this way of tossing a backhanded compliment, letting me know he was prod of me and my achievements. He was a rugged teaser, and it was during his teasing that I always sensed his great, unspoken love. When I was older, I would understand that this is how many men show affection without acknowledging vulnerability. And I imitated his way of saying “I love you” by telling him his nose was too big or his ties too ugly.
But I can’t recall a time my father hugged or hissed me or said he loved me. I remember snuggling next to him on Sunday mornings. I remember the strong, warm feeling of dozing off in his arms. But men, even little men, did not kiss or hug; they shook hands.
There were times much later when I would be going back to college, times when I wanted so badly to hug him. But the muscles wouldn’t move with the emotion. I hugged my mother. I shook hands with my father.
“It’s not what a man says, but what he does that counts,” he would say. Words and emotions were suspect. He went to work every day, he protected me, he taught me right from wrong, he made me tough in mind and spirit. It was our bond. It was our barrier.
I’ve tried not to repeat what I saw as my father’s mistake. Matthew and I cuddle and kiss good-bye. This is the new masculinity, and it’s as common today as the old masculinity of my father’s day. But, honestly, I don’t believe that in the end the new masculinity will prevent the growing-up conflicts between fathers and sons. All I hope is that Matthew and I build some repository of unconscious joy so that it will remain a lifeline between us through the rough times ahead.
It was only after having a boy of my own that I began to think a lot about the relationship between fathers and sons and to see – and to understand – my own father with remarkable clarity.
If there is a universal complaint from men about their fathers, it is that their dads lacked patience. I remember one rainy day when I was about six and my father was putting a new roof on his mother’s house, a dangerous job when it’s dry, much less wet. I wanted to help. He was impatient and said no. I made a scene and got the only spanking I can recall. He had chuckled at that memory many times over the years, but I never saw the humor.
Only now that I’ve struggled to find patience in myself when Matthew insists he help me paint the house or saw down dead trees in the back yard am I able to see that day through my father’s eyes. Who’d have guessed I’d be angry with my father for 30 years, until I relived similar experiences with my own son, who, I suppose, is angry now with me.
More surprisingly, contrary to my teen-age conviction that I wasn’t at all like my father, I have come to the greater realization. I am very much like him. We share the same sense of humor, same stubbornness, same voice even. Although I didn’t always see these similarities as desirable, I have grown into them, come to like them.
My father, for instance, has this way of answering the phone. “Hellll – o,” he says, putting a heavy accent on the first syllable and snapping the “o” short. Call me today and you’ll hear “Hellll – o,” just like the old an. Every time I hear myself say it, I feel good.
This new empathy for my father has led me to a startling insight: if I am still resolving my feelings about my father, then when I was a boy my father was still resolving his feelings about his father.
He raised me as a result of and as a reaction to his own dad, which links my son not only to me and my father, but to my father’s father and, I suspect, any number of Harrington fathers before. I imagine that if the phone had rung as the first Harrington stepped of the boat, he’d have answered by saying, “Hellll –o”.
For reasons to profound and too petty to tell, there was a time years ago when my father and I didn’t speak or see each other. I finally gave up my stubbornness and visited unexpectedly. For two days we talked, of everything and nothing. Neither mentioned that we hadn’t seen each other in five years.
I left as depressed as I’ve ever been, knowing that reconciliation was impossible. Two days later I got the only letter my father ever sent me. I’m the writer, he’s the milkman. But the letter’s tone and cadence, its emotion and simplicity might have been my own.
“I know that if I had it to do over again,” he wrote, “I would somehow find more time to spend with you. It seems we never realize this until it’s too late.”
It turned out that as he had watched me walk out the door after our visit – at the instant I was thinking we were hopelessly lost to each other – he was telling himself to stop me, to sit down and talk, that if we didn’t he might never see me again. “But I just let you go,” he wrote.
I realized that his muscles just hadn’t been able to move with the emotion, which is all I ever really needed to know.
Not long ago, Matthew asked me, “sons can grow up to be their daddies, right?” This was no small struggling for insight, and I was careful in my response. “No,” I said, “sons can grow up to be like their daddies in some ways, but they can’t be their daddies. They must be themselves.” Matthew would hear nothing of these subtleties.
“Sons can grow up to be their daddies!” he said defiantly. “They can.” I didn’t argue. It made me feel good.
All morning I am anxious. Matthew and I are about to leave Arizona for home, and I am determined to do something I have never done.
There is a time in every son’s life when he resents the echoes reminding him that, for all his vaunted individuality, he is his father’s son. But thee should also come a time – as it had for me – when these echoes call out only the understanding that the generations have melded and blurred without threat.
So just before my son and I walk through the gate and onto our plane, I lean over, hug my father and say, “I want you to know that I love you. That I always have.”