Sunday, June 17, 2012

Love's Austere and Lonely Offices (Father's Day)

Here's what I know about fathers: I have an extremely good one.

I have always aware of this, but have become more so over the years as I've met person after person who did not. Abusive dads. Absent dads. Dads who never hugged their kids, ever, or expressed any pride in them. Dads who likely learned their fathering techniques from their own dads, who likewise had no idea what to do. It's a Russian doll of bad dads, where every time you open one angry and frustrated man, there's another angry man who helped shape him. Interrupting that lineage, once it's gotten started, can take years -- generations, even -- of work.

Our father could not have been more different. Over the years, he has been the very image of not only a good dad, but a splendid human being. He worked hard and he worked long hours, but I never remember feeling him as remotely absent: when he came home for the evening, he was home, and present. I remember him teaching me words and getting me to memorize poems when I was a kid, exercises that played a huge and early part in shaping my love for reading. He has been protective but never overprotective. He's ready to offer advice but never one to force it upon us. He was always slow to anger -- very lucky for me, as during adolescence I was often very quick to inspire it.

I remember when I first got interested in writing, it seemed to me that most of the greats were spurred to their craft, at least in part, by terrible parenting. On that front, I felt, I was handicapped from the start.

And over the years I've come to think it's likely an illusion anyway. Every writer who's found fodder in their family dysfunction likely first had to surmount it, and I suspect many people who could have been writers may not have been able to. I know people, in fact, who have a great deal of raw writing talent and yet for years have had to invest the lion's share of their psychic energy in just surviving the toxic legacy of their parents. And the armies of writers out there with proud and supportive parents probably outnumber the ones with Joan Crawfords.

(Somewhat tangentially, I think with amused embarassment about the time that my mom ended up on a plane next to another woman, and through chit-chat they discovered their daughters were both writers. After going on proudly for some time about my writing -- the contests I won as a teenager, my few publications, my day job -- and likely overblowing them terribly, my mother asked about her fellow passenger's progeny. It turned out her daughter had written, among other things, a little book called A Thousand Acres. Yes, it was Jane Smiley's mom. This is one reason that bragging -- even about other people's accomplishments -- always strikes me as a truly silly thing to do.)

Robert Hayden's great fatherhood poem always makes me think of my dad, and feel grateful that I never had to fear "the chronic angers of that house" and that my father practiced "love's austere and lonely offices" so well.

Here's a poem for my dad, about the way he used to give us "airplane rides" on the beach at Gulf Shores, Alabama.


Early Flight

Our father, swimmer and fish-warrior:
hallowed be his hands, the ones that gripped

our wrists and ankles for the lift. Are you ready?
he would grin, and we claimed to be,

feeling the stretch of our muscles as he began
to turn like a discus hurler, feeling

the ground drop away, one eager daughter
after the other, dogfighters in looping rotation,

our eyes peeling the surface of the sand,
the far dunes and the beach-shacks spinning,

the vast green waters a blur: that world
we thought we were ready for. And though

he was no god, how he flew us then—
his dizzy gulls, his kites—allowing

in speed and his steady grip just enough fear
that we rose and fell laughing and shrieking

over the curve of the sand,
our limbs the only tether between us.