My father was a machinist. He took me to work and introduced me to everybody as “Number Two Son.” When a machine was down, a light flashed on a board in his tiny office, and he went forth with his tool kit to find the problem. One of his tools was a piece of coat hanger.
He often worked in the back yard on summer weekends, wearing light blue denim U.S. Navy shirts and a white sailor’s hat with the brim pulled down. He carried a folding measuring rule in his pant pocket. I thought he could fix anything.
Confronted by a huge boulder that he wanted out of our cellar, he gazed thoughtfully at the stairs.
I said, “You’ll never move that rock by yourself.”
“I’ll have it out by supper time,” he said.
He was right. “How did you do it?” I asked.
He smiled. “I used my head.”
My mother wanted more counter space in the kitchen. There seemed no way to accomplish this goal and still leave room for the washer and dryer. My father built a counter top that anyone could quickly disassemble in case the appliances had to be serviced.
“There are three ways to do a job,” he said. “The right way, the wrong way, and the Navy way.”
His arms were hairy. He rolled his sleeves up past his bulging muscles. The armpits of his shirts were stained with sweat. My mother said he stank. I liked the way he smelled, except when he was glaring down at me, threatening, “You better straighten out and fly right or I’ll blister your ass —” which he would sometimes do. At those times I wanted to punch his false teeth down his throat.
He saw this in my eyes and smiled. “You can think anything you want, as long as you keep your trap shut.”
Instead of punching him, I learned how to beat him at chess. I won my first authentic victory against him at the age of fourteen. After a battle of seven hours, as the dawn grayed the windows, he acknowledged that he had lost. He was too good a sport to chicken out by insisting it was past my bedtime. We laughed together and cooked bacon and eggs.
“Don’t get too big for your britches,” he warned. “The old man can still teach you a thing or two.” By age twenty, I beat him so consistently that he stopped playing with me.
His consciousness was formed out of the Depression and the Second World War. After graduating from high school in 1932, at seventeen, he went on the bum and rode freights for a year. He met my mother in Boston, married her in 1936, and supported her by setting pins in a bowling alley.
“I always found jobs,” he said. “I wouldn’t take ‘No’ for an answer. Every morning I was out looking. You saw all these guys with their hats in their hands, saying, ‘Oh mister, please give me a job,’ and this petty tyrant standing there sticking out his fat belly: ‘Hmpf! What makes you think you deserve a job?’ I just walked up to him and said, ‘I’m gonna give you a job. Your job is to find work for me. I’m gonna find it anyway, with you or without you, but if you want to make a little money, then I’m gonna hire you to save me some time. If you don’t want the job, fine, I’ll give it to somebody else.’ I never let those bastards keep me under their thumbs.
“The way I learned the machine trade, I walked into a shop and said, ‘I’m the best damn machinist around, I can fix anything you got, and the only way you’re gonna find out how good I am is to hire me and put me to work.’ Of course I got fired after a couple of weeks because I didn’t know my ass from a hole in the ground, but then I had two weeks of experience. On the next job I might last two months. If you really want to work, never give up. You want a job, find the guy with the money, and nag the shit out of him, every day, until you wear him down. After a while he’ll give you a job just so he won’t have to listen to you anymore.”
By the time the Navy drafted him in July of 1945, my father was nearly thirty, married with two children, and worked in the defense industry. After the Japanese surrender, he went on a tour of active duty through the Caribbean and then suddenly showed up in the kitchen. I had forgotten what he looked like. I ran to his arms. He wrestled me, mussed my hair, and turned me upside down.
“Daddy, do you have to go back to war?”
“No, sonny, the war is over. The Japs were so scared when they heard I was coming, they gave up.”
My father did not give up. “Life is a constant battle,” he taught. My first history lessons about World War II came from his narratives at the kitchen table: “At Pearl Harbor the Japs caught us with our pants down, but we kicked their asses good at Leyte Gulf.” I was brought up on this kind of talk. My brother and I staged wars with toy soldiers and made parachutes for them out of old sheets. My favorite rainy-day activity was drawing pictures of exploding bombs.
Bitten by the American Dream right after he got out of the Navy, my father was determined to become a millionaire. He set up a printing business on the GI Bill and went bankrupt within two years. It was a devastating collapse that wiped out everything he had.
Our landlord told him that my brother and I were not allowed to climb the trees in front of our apartment. “Every kid has a right to climb a tree,” my father fumed, having grown up in rural New Hampshire. He moved us into a winterized bungalow on the edge of a great swamp. “There,” he said, “you can climb any damn tree you want.” Then he locked the shop, came home, shut himself in the bedroom, and didn’t come out for three days.
I was seven when his business failed. I remember a long, dark period of bitter fighting between my parents that went on far into the nights. Indeed, it went on for the rest of their marriage. I used to put a pillow over my head and cry.
One morning my mother chased him out into the yard and threw every dish in the house at him. I never knew the cause of that quarrel, but there were always causes: she had been against his going into business; he was domineering, jealous, and unfaithful; she wanted to work outside the home; he insisted on being the sole provider. The dishes came flying out the door and bounced off his body as he stood there saying, “For Christ’s sake, Emily, be reasonable, will you?” She packed her suitcases, called a cab, and left.
With a lump in my throat, I said, “Dad, is she gone for good?”
“Of course not,” he said. “She’ll be back by supper time. Help me pick up these dishes, will you?”
He was right. At supper time the cab brought her back to the door with all her bags.
Couples who fight a lot tend to use their children for a battleground. My parents often plunged my brother and me into conflicts of divided loyalties. I feared that I would have to choose between them, that they would abandon me, or turn on me, or that loving one would mean I had to reject the other. The pillow I put over my ears to shut out their anger grew into a habit of not listening.
When I was fourteen, he dragged my mother out into the yard and almost choked her to death; she was screaming for help. The neighbors called the police, and two cruisers came to the house and sat in the driveway for an hour, flashing lights while the officers took statements. By that time, my “pillow” was so thick I slept through the whole battle.
Eventually I understood that he regarded philosophical discussions as a form of combat. You were supposed to stand up and slug it out with him. Then he would laugh and quote, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” attributing his line variously to Voltaire and Thomas Paine.
His dream of making a fortune shattered, his third child born dead, and his credit ruined, he went to work fixing linotypes for a newspaper. Then he began telling his sons the stories of his boyhood.
“When I was sixteen,” he said, “I tracked a buck in the snow for a whole day. I followed his tracks right out into the middle of an open field . . . and they disappeared! Jesus, I thought, did he take off and fly? Sonofabitchin’ deer — he walked backward, in his own tracks, until he came to a thicket, and then jumped sideways, fifteen feet on the other side of that thicket, where you couldn’t see his tracks, and took off. He didn’t miss a single hoof print. You could walk up and down his trail a dozen times and never figure it out — unless you know deer. Dad found the new tracks for me the next day. He laughed at me over that one for years.”
My father taught us to shoot, fish, fight, snowshoe, tap maple trees, cut wood with a bucksaw, and make our own Christmas presents. His mother had knitted afghans and sweaters, braided rugs from old clothes, and made shelf knickknacks out of twigs and thread spools. “We never had any money,” he said. “To get a jackknife for Christmas, that was a major gift.”
Having been defeated in business, and knowing he would be poor for a long time, he moved us to a place that resembled the woods and villages where he had been raised; then he drew from his past the stories, memories, myths, and customs that enabled him to keep his sense of humor and self-respect.
His stories gave me a sense that I, too, belonged to a family lineage, a tradition. I began building toy villages and forts to reenact the frontier life of colonial Massachusetts, without realizing how deeply personal was the meaning of this play. The great swamp that extended from our back yard was the ground where I explored the myth of the wilderness. He had forbidden me to hike there alone, and this transformed my explorations into a rite of passage.
“When you walk on the ice,” he said, “if it starts to crack, lie down and spread your weight.”
The following winter, lost in the woods, I started across a frozen river and heard it crack. I lay down at once to spread my weight; it saved my life.
Whatever his failures as a husband, he spent a great deal of time teaching and nurturing his sons. We took in children from the state, whom he helped to feed and toilet train, like his own. He was our provider, barber, first-aid medic, and nurse.
One measure of my trust in him was the fact that I allowed him to pick wax out of my ears with a hairpin. During this operation I held perfectly still while he probed the deepest part of my ear. “Good,” he said, in the smooth, gentle voice he used to doctor our cats and dogs, “that’s good, almost got it, hold still now. . . .” He would give me the lump of wax afterward for a souvenir.
My brother’s arm was once burned so badly the doctors wanted to amputate it. My father said, “Like hell!” He worked on that arm night after night, week after week, changing the dressings, making my brother exercise the muscles, bend the joints, lift small weights, then larger ones, until at last the arm healed. It was scarred, but usable, and whole.
Sometimes my father read poetry to my mother at night, after work. He liked meter and rhyme. At ten, I sat on the floor near his feet, enraptured by his strong, level voice reading ballads. He was a militant trade unionist, and the poems he most enjoyed were about struggle, courage, victory, and defeat. He used to gaze out the kitchen window and quote John Davidson’s “Thirty Bob a Week” about earning a living as a worker:
It’s a naked child against a hungry wolf, It’s playing bowls upon a splitting wreck, It’s walking on a string across a gulf With millstones fore-and-aft about your neck; But the thing is daily done by many and many a one, And we fall, face forward, fighting, on the deck.
Watching television inspired him to express the same sentiments in more prosaic form: “There’s a lot of money in entertainment. The only thing that doesn’t pay is a decent job well done; but you have the satisfaction of knowing you did an honest day’s work, as you drag your ass home with your pockets empty and fall into bed.”
My mother’s parents were Seventh-Day Adventists who taught me that the Bible was the literal word of God. My father would say, “If God wanted to reveal something to the human race, why would he choose a corrupt instrument like human speech?” Or: “If the Bible is the literal word of God, then how come God gave two different accounts of the Creation in Genesis? Didn’t He know which was true?” Or he would write his questions in verse, which he read aloud to the family:
Spaceman, with your rocket bright, As you cruise the stars so white, Can you find the streets of gold, Mentioned by the men of old? If you can find the gate of Heaven, Is there just a single one, or seven?
And so forth. His own view, culled from his reading of Spinoza, was that God is everything — which he would repeat with such dogmatic ferocity that I wanted to run out into the yard with my hands over my ears. Eventually I understood that he regarded philosophical discussions as a form of combat. You were supposed to stand up and slug it out with him. Then he would laugh and quote, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” attributing his line variously to Voltaire and Thomas Paine.
My father’s expanded notion of God showed me that it was possible to undertake one’s own spiritual journey entirely outside the accepted conventions of religion. His version of Spinoza gave me a new way to think about sacredness. When I came to read Emerson, Thoreau, and Buddhist authors, many of their ideas were already familiar to me.
He was hungry for knowledge, and carried books with him to work so he could read between jobs. Entirely self-taught, he was deeply suspicious of anybody who had a university degree. Intellectuals made him defensive. Yet he supported my efforts to get an education, caught between his pride in my academic success and his desire to cut me down to size.
“Tell me,” he said, after I had become a doctoral candidate in English, “do any of these so-called modern poets write anything that a common working slob like me can understand? I don’t know who they’re writing for, but it isn’t me. Why do they use symbols, why can’t they just say what they mean? I’ve got a whole book upstairs explaining the work of T.S. Eliot! For Christ’s sake, if he couldn’t make himself understood in the first place, why the hell write a book about him?”
In the academic world, where the pressure to publish results in the production of endless and unnecessary scholarly books about books, my father’s words often flash over me like the utterance of a prophet.
Eventually, my mother won me almost entirely to her side. I resented him for his abuse of her. Politics divided us during the Vietnam era — he supported the war, I wanted socialist revolution at home — but gradually I stopped caring enough about his opinions to disagree with them. He told the same stories over and over. I felt that he had betrayed my trust by lying to me during a family crisis, and his stories seemed like a smoke screen to hide his dishonesty. I found his company boring, and hardly talked to him at all.
When he was old, I tried to introduce him to the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness; I thought it would ease any anxiety he might be having about the imminence of death.
“Ultimately,” I began, “you never were.”
“Maybe not,” he said, peering over the rim of his glasses, “but I made a hell of a splash where I should have been.”
That was the end of my Buddhist lecture.
I took him to the family grave plots to visit the stones of our dead relatives. This was a ritual my mother used to enjoy. We stood among the monuments for a while. “Well,” he said, turning to go, “I don’t suppose any of them are gonna get up and thank us for coming.”
That was the end of our sentimental visits to the dead.
His major hobby was genealogy. Someone had once insulted his background by implying that he came from an inferior stock of poor white losers. His pride would not let him rest until he had won that argument. He traced our paternal lineage back fairly quickly to our earliest colonial ancestor, Benjamin Butterfield, who entered Puritan Massachusetts in 1636. Then, his hobby escalating into a full-scale obsession, my father spent twenty-five years tracing the lines of Benjamin’s offspring into a bewildering maze of branches. A network of contacts across the country funneled data to him from vital records. He built up stacks of files on thirteen generations of Butterfields, containing thousands of names.
He tried incessantly to recruit me as his research assistant and ghostwriter. I said I was too busy. When he got started on the subject, I would yawn and go talk to my mother, who thought all Butterfield men, excepting her boys, were ignorant hicks with smelly feet, chips on their shoulders, and no respect for their betters. She was hard at work telling me stories of her Nova Scotia ancestry. “Our people,” she said, “had true class.”
“Your people,” my father would shout at her, “were nothing but a bunch of goddamned Tories, who went up to Halifax because the patriots ran them out of Boston. Read your history, you’ll find out who’s right.” In this bizarre way, my parents were still fighting the American Revolution.
They were fighting while she was in the hospital, a month before she died. I was past forty by that time. I suggested to him that, after forty years of battle, it was time they made peace. “You mean,” he answered, “when I’m surrounded by Indians, I should just hand over my scalp. No thanks.”
“You see?” she said. “He’ll never change. Always wanting to dominate. I should have left him. But he was your father. I couldn’t take him away from you.”
I grieved over her death more than a year. I blamed him, and blamed myself for not rescuing her. I could not touch him. I had not been able to communicate with him for a long time, but now his deterioration from Alzheimer’s disease made even the attempt altogether hopeless.
When he was old, I tried to introduce him to the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness; I thought it would ease any anxiety he might be having about the imminence of death. “Ultimately,” I began, “you never were.” “Maybe not,” he said, peering over the rim of his glasses, “but I made a hell of a splash where I should have been.”
My involvement in the Buddhist path had taught me to recognize the forms of samsara, the repeating cycles of passion and aggression that perpetuate human suffering. I had seen these repeated by my parents, and repeated them myself, until I was utterly nauseated by samsara, and longed to wake from it. The Buddhist path also demanded that I cultivate respect and gratitude toward my parents. This is an uncompromising, relentless demand, a precondition for waking up. Without my parents, I would not even have obtained a human birth, and therefore would have no working basis to seek enlightenment. During one practice, I was taught to visualize my father on my right, and my mother on my left, while I prostrated, thousands of times, to images of Buddhist teachers. This practice makes it impossible to ignore your parents. Whatever you feel about them is vividly present in your mind. Often you remember and relive scenes from childhood, revealing symmetrical patterns that transcend time.
When I was a little boy, my father used to wake me up at night for the bathroom. If I couldn’t go, he turned on the faucet. The sound of the water started me.
I woke up sick with nightmares and said there were monsters hanging on to my curtain. “They won’t let me sleep.” He told me to walk right up to them and punch them in the nose, and they would go away. I went back to my room ready to follow his advice, but they were gone.
Now he was a withered, senile old man who got confused and wandered off by himself. I found him standing on a construction site, fumbling with a broken coat hanger.
“Dad, time to go home. Get in the car.”
“Wait just a goddamned minute, till I finish the job.” He stood there and peed in his pants. The monsters were not gone after all, however much he shook his fist.
I took him to the doctor and had to get a urine sample from him. I led him to the bathroom, unfastened his diapers, and instructed him to urinate into a specimen container. Nothing happened. This was an embarrassing moment. Having broken the Biblical taboo against looking on my father’s nakedness, I still had no sample. What to do?
I turned on the faucet.
Ironically, the person who brought me back into touch with my father’s genealogical work was my oldest son.
Every summer, my son stayed with my parents. While I was preoccupied with my divorces, academic career, union activity, and Buddhist education, my father was taking him upstairs and teaching him how to find and hold jobs, how to cope with an angry stepmother, and what family lore was contained in those notebooks and card files. The old man must have figured that if I did not care enough about the values of my own culture and family tradition to pass them on to my sons, he would make sure the job got done without me.
Eventually I had to put my father into a nursing home. I stored his genealogical records in my attic and forgot about them. One day my son asked me where they were. We dragged them out together.
“Gramp showed me all these books, Dad,” he said. “Didn’t you ever see these? Look, this is fascinating.”
He rehearsed with me the lineage of our direct-line Butterfield forefathers, beginning with Benjamin, who settled in Chelmsford, Massachusetts. They had fought in every New England Indian War since 1675. They included Lieutenant John Butterfield, who enlisted with Rogers’s Rangers during the Seven Years’ War. In 1759, Lieutenant John fought on the Plains of Abraham at the capture of Quebec.
His sons John and Peter Butterfield traded six-month enlistments in the colonial militia, one brother going away to fight the British while the other stayed home to take care of their widowed mother. At the battle of Bennington, John, by that time a seasoned veteran, led a charge on a Hessian wagon, captured several enemy soldiers, and saved a Hessian prisoner, who had already surrendered, from being shot by a panicked adolescent boy on the colonial side.
This John had fifteen children. The tenth, Daniel, born in 1785, fathered the branch that leads to me. Daniel’s photograph, taken in the 1850s, hangs in my study. “That’s the grandson of the man who fought on the Plains of Abraham,” said my son, looking at his face. “Doesn’t it make you feel weird?”
I felt so weird that it was like waking up from a dream to find myself on fire. My sons and I went canoeing on Lake George in New York, to visit the places our ancestor would have seen. My father’s work was a thread of continuity holding us together. We talked about him incessantly.
In this way, he had converted his isolation, anger, and injured pride into something of priceless value to us. I spent a few days in the Library of Congress, checking the accuracy of his research. He had been meticulous, using vital records to correct the errors of other genealogists as he went along. He preferred truth to legend, always. I found the names of our forefathers on the muster rolls for the French and Indian Wars and the Revolution. I read histories of the period so that I could make a chronology of their lives.
The domestic ignorance and aggression that plague the human species are well represented among these forefathers. My great-grandfather was a wife-beater and child-abuser who drove my grandfather, an eleven-year-old boy, out of the house to live on the streets. Great-grandfather was married and divorced twice; grandfather was married three times and divorced twice.
Suddenly I understood why my father should have regarded life as a battle.
While taking volume after volume off the shelves, looking up references, making notes and copies, I felt his presence over my shoulder, smiling and advising, “Check this, check this; I already did that; now you’re on the right track.” I returned home to Vermont at the end of the week with a briefcase full of new material, having visited Bennington while searching for the site where Revolutionary John had saved the Hessian prisoner. Some kind of expansion was happening to me that I did not fully understand, but I rode this current without resistance, curious where it would lead. I saw the forefathers lined up in a row, their faces creased and squinting from hard work, piling up stone walls, cutting trees, and watching for enemies from the woods. Their features changed slightly from generation to generation, but they all had the characteristic Butterfield glare. I felt lifted out of myself and brought before an archetype in colonial dress, named simply “Father.”
The night before my return, I had been reading a biography of Robert Rogers, looking for more clues that would enable me to reconstruct the life of Lieutenant John. In the 1750s Rogers was a dependable and competent leader of Rangers, but he failed in all his business ventures. He died, depraved, drunk, impoverished, and friendless, in a London slum, destroyed by his enemies, his best hopes unrealized. The story overwhelmed me with more than usual sadness at the futility of human ambition. His fate reminded me of my father: strong and competent in practical ways, but always girding his loins for battle, surrounded by enemies real and imaginary, and gradually undone by his own blindness.
I thought, I must see my father right away. I knew there had been some kind of change in his condition. I would tell him, “I see it all now, all your struggle, your longing; I know why this work was so important to you.” I felt certain that he would know what I had said, even though his brain could not make a coherent response.
By the time I got home my phone had been ringing for hours. The tape on the message machine was loaded. While I was reading about Rogers’s death, my father had died.
Now I understood. My surge of interest in Rogers and Lieutenant John was my father’s last attempt to communicate with me in this life. I had imagined sending him a message, but he had been the sender. The story of Rogers was only the medium.
There is no line of demarcation between the normal and the paranormal, or between the mind and the material world. Most communication from the dead probably comes through ordinary events, made significant by their timing and context.
My brother’s connection with our father had been sharper than mine, closer in some ways, but with more of a sting. Religion figured prominently in many of their arguments. On the morning of the day our father died, my brother woke up, put on his pants, and was promptly stung by a hornet which had taken refuge in the pant leg. He flashed at once on the New Testament verse, “Oh death, where is thy sting? Oh grave, where is thy victory?” He received the news late that night.
Soon I stood over my father’s coffin and touched his lifeless, leathery corpse, faintly odorous with the smell of death. He was haggard and bony, like the rock ribs of the New England countryside where our ancestors have lived, loved, hated, worked, fought, died, and been buried for 350 years. I saw his body lowered into the ground, just as he saw his father’s body similarly disposed of, and his father saw his father’s before him.
As I sit in my office transferring my father’s notebooks onto computer disks and preparing them for publication, I smile to think how he finally hooked me into this job. He did an amazing piece of work, valuable not only to me, but to anyone descended from the same roots. Using the numbering system he invented for keeping track of all these thousands of separate lines, the American genealogy of any Butterfield on the tree can be traced in a matter of minutes.
I smile also to remember how uncomfortable he was with symbolism, even while carrying in his pocket the measuring rule that symbolized his demand for certainty. For him, any job with dimensions could be reduced to a solution. He could not measure the confusion of human life, which is far too messy to have such qualities as dimension and solution; but the product of his attempt — his devotion to his family, and his elegant and precise compilation of our ancestry — illustrates how we transform our confusion into love.
After he turned senile, I did not like taking on the responsibility for his care. I thought about euthanasia. I would not have killed him, but sometimes I wished him a speedy death. Now I can see how his long period of decline gave me a chance to feel close to him again. I needed that chance, in order to dissolve any lingering vestiges of alienation from myself. Sometimes I wanted to deny he was any relation to me, but it was impossible: staff members in the nursing home always knew I was his son. “You look just like him,” they said. They reminded me that my father is woven into the very bones of my face and the color of my eyes.
Alzheimer’s disease gradually took all the battles out of him. In the end, he was gentle as a toothless old cat, smiling and weak, fumbling with his chair. I did not resent him for anything. Whatever had divided us came unwound along with the connections of his brain. If I had been able to dispose of him when he became inconvenient, or was unwilling to be involved in his care, that release may never have occurred.
Despite their battles, both my parents did far more good than harm. In my Buddhist path, I seek a greater vision than the teaching that “life is a constant battle,” but no such vision is possible without first accepting the truth of who we are. My father gave me a vital part of that truth. Then he reached past me to make sure it would survive my indifference. He was right to do that. Because of him, both my children and I have a family tradition that we can use to help us transcend our small selves, just as he rejuvenated himself by returning to the woods.
My father was impelled by the same deep desire that impels me, and, I suspect, all others: the longing to continue, from age to age, not merely a blind propagation of genes, but a light of loving awareness, which is never swallowed by death, but only more fully revealed.
“Roses on Fire” [Issue 150] is a companion piece to this essay.