The man’s voice was rich and confident — he sounded like someone accustomed to speaking with authority — but there was worry in it, some sadness running like a quiet creek alongside his words.
He was calling to talk about his son, who had been arrested on drug charges, found guilty, and sentenced to eighteen months. It was a harsh sentence, and he feared for his son’s safety. Harassed by other prisoners, as well as by guards, his son was vulnerable, and the father knew it. “He’s just a white, middle-class kid,” he said, aware that the same credentials that get you into college or a country club may merely make life more difficult behind bars, among blacks and Hispanics hostile to whites, to privilege, to a system that discriminated against them from the start.
The father had done what he could to get his son a lighter sentence; now, he was trying to get him transferred. Thus far unsuccessful, he continued petitioning friends, politicians. Every weekend, he made the two-thousand-mile round trip to visit; at least, he said, he could help his son do his time.
I understood his feelings. A parent myself, of daughters nearly twelve and ten, I know that innermost longing in me for my children’s well-being; the fierce instinct to protect them from harm, unequivocal as the elk’s flared nostrils and lowered horns at the warning rustle in the grass. The need to protect and guide one’s children changes over time. This is their world, too, with its lessons to teach; to stand in the way would be foolish. Yet the yearning persists. “You’re never done being a parent,” he said.
His call touched me, and not just because I’m a parent. It reminded me of my own parents, and my unending bond with them. No matter if your parents are close or distant, no matter if the bond seems withered, like an old vine wrapped around a dead branch, it’s still a bond. I’m forty-two; friends, lovers, wives have come and gone. I’m changed and unchanging: still a son.
When I was younger, I naively imagined that by leaving home I could leave behind my conflicts with my parents, only to discover they would mysteriously resurface in other relationships. Eventually, I began to understand how much of my emotional life was shaped by feelings long suppressed, stored for years in the dark folds of memory and in a body armored against itself.
We were all wounded in some way by our parents, not because they were evil, or wished us harm, but because they too were wounded, like their parents before them. Who among us, born needing to be loved, did not soon learn our parents couldn’t love us for who we were? They needed us to smile, to coo, to get A’s, to be quiet, to succeed, perhaps not to succeed. They needed us to conspire with them to deny their scars. Thus, the pain echoes sorrowfully, from generation to generation — while we, yearning desperately for our measure of happiness, discover no amount of food will fill our emptiness, no lover will banish the memory of a mother’s absence or a father’s scorn.
But knowing this intellectually is one thing; reclaiming the buried feelings, rediscovering who I am, is something else. Nearly twenty years ago, I understood for the first time that I’d been performing all my life for my father. Bent over my typewriter, in my lonely room thousands of miles from home, I was still on stage, and the only applause that mattered was his. The realization was so stunning I stopped writing for six months, while I considered whether I wrote out of a deep necessity to express myself or, rather, because I needed to be a “writer.” I’ve been writing all my adult life and still that distinction isn’t clear. I struggle with what it means to be a “writer” and what it means to be my father’s son, trying to understand the extent of my allegiance to his ideals and his confusions, his hatreds and his loves. He’s been dead thirteen years, but he’s with me when I sit down at the typewriter and lie down with my wife; in the comforts I’ve made mine; in the vows I’ve made and in the vows I’ve broken. “You have to dig deep to bury your Daddy,” the gypsies say.
My father was a salesman — what Arthur Miller called “a man out there in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine” — and was sometimes successful, sometimes not. Our family fortunes rose and fell on the high seas of his imagination: he had more implausible ideas for getting rich, and less aptitude for making them work, than most men. Often, when I was a child, he’d sadly tell me how much he had wanted to leave me “a legacy,” but that he had failed; there was no money, no property. I’d tell him that wasn’t important, that he wasn’t a failure, that the only riches I wanted were his friendship, his presence, his time. My assurances were utterly sincere but unconvincing. How was I to know, as a boy, how shoddy a piece of merchandise his life was to him? How could I mourn with him the business failures or the failures at love or the failure to succeed, in the years before I was born, at one of the few things that had really mattered to him?
Before he learned to be a salesman, he had wanted to sell words: his own. He had wanted to be a writer. I can’t say why he didn’t succeed — whether he couldn’t make enough money at it, or wasn’t good enough. I can’t say how hard he tried. He called himself a “frustrated writer,” but did that mean his writing was never recognized — or that he had neither the time nor the patience nor the courage to write?
He found the time to read what I wrote — to read, to criticize, to edit, sometimes to rewrite completely what I’d done. You could say my writing got more attention than I did. If, at times, I welcomed his help, I knew it was help I couldn’t refuse, advice I wasn’t free to challenge. Because of him, my writing improved — my book reports and essays nearly always earned A’s — but it turned into something that was no longer mine.
Nothing has a stronger influence on us psychologically, Jung said, than the “unlived life” of our parents. My father never told me he wanted me to be a writer; he didn’t have to. Even in a family as given as ours to endless discussion, and endless complaining, the really important feelings were rarely put into words.
After all these years, I still can’t say how much my need to write has to do with my innermost sense of purpose, my destiny — and how much has to do with him. Following the clues is like making my way down a hallway in darkness, my hand following the wall to the deeper darkness within. These sentences, which seem to move across the page so surely, trail ghosts behind them. Are the words really mine? When I tell myself the words aren’t good enough — which is my harsh judgement about nearly everything I write — is that my voice, or his?
My father was inordinately proud of my accomplishments as editor of my high school and college papers and, later, as a journalist in New York; he carried in his wallet my yellowing clips; he boasted to his friends of my awards. But he never gave up imagining he had something to teach me; in nearly everything I wrote, he found fault. He didn’t understand the difference between wanting me to be good and demanding it, his love for me burdened by the grief he denied in himself.
Not all my memories of him are painful. There was tenderness between us, and humor, and a kind of camaraderie I’ve never known with anyone else. He was my father: I drank up who he was like a parched root drinks the rain — his love, his misery, his ambitions, his failures. For better and worse, he shaped me, and gambled on me to redeem him. For better and worse, my words give a shape to what was unredeemed and unexpressed in him.