29.  Fathers and Sons

Yes, a father and son relationship is always difficult, I suppose. So much is at stake. A son represents the next generation, the hope of the family name, the dreams lived and the dreams deferred. If you develop a close relationship with your son, you believe you have shaped that life in some significant way. If you have not been close, you still have shaped that life through your absence, whether you admit it or not. I felt very close to Jonathan; his destiny was tied to mine, and I often believed if he disappeared, then I should too.

And what about a father? He is a crucial connection for the son to the past, to the roots of the son’s identity as that identity grows into the future. The father is there to protect the son when necessary, to strengthen him through the difficult and thorny stretches of life. And in the modern American culture, where fathers too often yield to the vapid middle class voices around them, the sons can reawaken passion and imagination. As Blake once put it:

Father O Father what do we here

In this Land of unbelief and fear

The Land of Dreams is better far

Above the light of the morning star.

My own father would die about two and a half years after Jonathan’s death. He was in his early nineties; yet his death was still painful to me. I published the eulogy I gave at his funeral in the local newspaper a year after he died when we unveiled his gravestone. It was a fitting tribute from a son to a beloved father, something that my father dearly deserved. A number of people commented on it.

“I know it took a lot of courage to make your personal feelings public like that,” one woman told me after class at the university one day. “I admire you so much for that.”

“I had to come up and tell you how much I liked what you did,” a man hustling across the tennis court said on another occasion. “I hope it serves as a model to remind other sons they should honor their fathers in similar ways.”

Other readers, however, were mortified that a man would write such sentiment. Their response reminds me of the conflicted and troubled meaning of manhood in America, how we have constructed it, how we, as men, still fear expression of emotion in public places, how men don’t cry.

The relationship between a father and son is never easy, but I know my father did all he could to help me, and I like to believe I did the same for Jonathan. After Jonathan died, my father was distraught. He came over to my house one afternoon about a week after the funeral. I was standing in the small kitchen of our raised ranch on Strathmore Road in Dartmouth, bent over the counter, clearly in despair.

He took me by the shoulders and shook me: “Snap out of it,” he said. “You’ve got to snap out of it.”

I was astonished. He was usually more sensitive than that, and I am sure he didn’t mean that I should be hard-boiled, a man’s man, only that I should try to move forward. After all, I was an important part of his future. I was his son.

A few days later he came by the house again, shortly after Linda and I had set up the Social Justice Prize in Jonathan’s memory at the university. I had suggested that he and my mother contribute to the fund to help keep Jonathan’s vision alive. I was sitting in the backyard on the deck near the fir trees when he came in, still looking depressed and numb, I am sure.

“I don’t know how much we should give to Jonathan’s Social Justice Prize,” he began to tell me. “Mom and I have been discussing it.”

He seemed genuinely baffled, caught between the American values of money and appearance and the deeper values, learned so long ago in the shtetl and through the legacy of family tradition.

He had often told me over a Friendly’s cheeseburger, a melt as they called it, the story about his friend, the wealthy and well-respected president of the local bank, who had called him to appraise some property in New Bedford when he was still working full time as a real estate agent.

“I looked at that property, Bob,” my father would always say, “and then went home that night. I couldn’t sleep. The price he wanted me to write up for him was much too high. I called him the next day and told him I couldn’t do the job. Didn’t have time.”

I would always nod then, and he would go on.

“He never asked me to do work for the bank again. I could have made a lot of money.”

“I’m proud you did that, Dad,” I would say as he looked in my eyes, seeking a sign. “It was the right thing to do.”

He was not so certain though. Did he fear the risk?—he always wondered. Was it moral strength or lack of guts that determined that choice?

“I did it for you two boys, you and your brother, and your mother,” he would say.

And so I explained to him that day in my backyard what he clearly already knew, that I really didn’t care how much he gave, that I had just lost one of the important treasures in my life, that was all I cared about right then.

As I looked over at my father, standing in the corner of my wooden porch splashed with sun that late August afternoon, he began to cry. Surprisingly, this man, who was often filled with pride, asked me to forgive him. He apologized, confessing he was confused, just as he had been confused at similar moments in his life, when he had, for example, called his younger brother Hymie to task during World War II for wearing his military uniform into a club where conventional suits and ties were the rule. Hymie, an air force sergeant, had died shortly afterwards, shot down leading his last scheduled bombing mission over Nazi Germany.

We walked together that day to his old skyblue Buick parked in my driveway at the side of the house, and I opened the door for him to get in. At some deep level my father was remembering then the time of my own birth, a difficult time when he had left my mother in their Boston apartment on Commonwealth Avenue to mourn the death of his own mother and his youngest brother David. Both had died within a few days of each other in New Bedford, just before I was born on December 16, 1944 in a hospital across the Charles River in Cambridge. There were still tears in his eyes as I embraced him in the driveway that August day. And then he drove off, headed home to see my mother.

He had compassion, my father, and it came, I believe, from that disturbing image of arrogance he held in his mind from childhood, that image of brutality that he detested, the memory of Russian soldiers on horseback violently riding in the name of the Czar, demanding total obedience from the Jews in that small shtetl with streets of dirt tucked away in a green valley outside of Kiev. It was a traditional little town surrounded by what appeared, to my father’s innocent imagination, to be lofty mountain peaks. My father always wanted to know what was beyond the horizon, on the other side of those rolling hills grown to mountains looming in his mind.

I am also sure now this was why I always felt a spiritual bond sitting near him in our cosy den when I was a young boy, listening intently to Kate Smith at the end of her television broadcast in the 1950s, signing-off for the night, singing her signature song, “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain.”

My father never read a book though. It was my mother, a proud convert to Judaism, thirteen years younger than my father, who brought me to books and to the love of literature. It was my mother, who grew up on a farm in the countryside in Dartmouth, who took me by the hand, walked me to the public library. It was my mother, with her light brown hair and sparkling blue eyes, who filled our house with books.

 

 

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Last updated
02/14/05
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