as taken by my father in 1959
The presence of absence is undeniable.
Fatherhood is celebrated this time of the year, but the love of my children, beyond all hope and expectation, does not change the complicated things my own fatherhood, and that of my Dad, visit upon me daily.
It was only when my wife and I had children that I, in my late 30’s, came to know how much children need.
That was not an easy realization. The extremity of dependence, the fragility of confidence, the factual lack of physical and emotional resources of my young children were not charming or cute to me. The reality of their reliance upon our parenting deeply scared me, and revealed the incapacities that were, and are, still with me.
Unfortunately my own lack of emotional resources made the normal vulnerabilities of my young children an abiding sadness. In seeing their unalloyed but natural fear in every unknown, or the ecstasy in every modest happy circumstance the damage of my early childhood was discovered as if it had happened 5 minutes ago.
The ignorant cope because they cannot hope to control what they are incapable of understanding. I could not understand my Mad Men childhood until I received the knowledge my coping had pre-empted.
There was literally nothing tragic about how I grew up. No illnesses, no poverty, a WASP family in Westchester at mid-century. Private schools, too much good food https://savedbydesign.wordpress.com/2010/09/14/growing-up-husky/ , both parents together, mother working at whim, not necessity. https://savedbydesign.wordpress.com/2015/05/10/mother-confusion/ Two older siblings who made the mistakes I could learn from, and a modest gift of intelligence that I could burnish into an isolated place of confidence.
But the flip side was the unseen actual world Mad Men distilled: alcohol was as usual as the morning cereal, but it started at 6:30pm and went until 12 or 16 ounces of it had been consumed – usually by 8 or 8:30. Then bed, or sitting at a desk, smoking relentlessly and sorting stamps until sleep.
Early bed meant a secondary element: that anger, fighting, and screaming had exhausted my mother and father into an early bedtime. I was never the cause of any anger, but I did know, know, that in some way, somehow, I should make it better. But that never happened.
The accrual of this 7 day a week, 52 week a year routine of dysfunction meant that at 13 I was sent to Buffalo, to be with a brother who had experienced this anger machine for 5 more years than I, and had born the brunt of its damage.
My mother thus discovered a place to be away with defendable justification: she went to Buffalo every 6 weeks for 6 weeks to be with “the boys”. It was really only after I had been out of Westchester for a few years that I knew she was not coming to be with us, but to be away from my father. https://savedbydesign.wordpress.com/2014/06/17/extremity/
Of course this meant my father could also, defendably, live away from his children, in whom I think he felt great sadness at his own incapacity to understand or help. He loved to watch New York Giants games on our black and white Zenith- with the tuning fork remote control. But when I felt the need to try playing what he watched he was incapable of understanding or encouragement, although he did profess amazement at the one game of mine he saw (I was motivated).
When he missed seeing all the things all the other parents saw because he was “earning a living” he had cover, but no solace. In a pale echo of his isolation, the natural absence of our children empty nesting us by going away to college gave me the whiff of the desperate incapacity he must have choked on every night in Westchester as I lived out my high school years in Buffalo.
The alcohol could not have made the absence any easier, but what do I know? He was missing, and I have to believe he knew it.
The choice to be “right”: stoically earning a great deal of money and spending it on private schools, a second (actually third) home in Buffalo and supporting his family was, in truth, the only way the alcohol consumption could be sustained and bring on sleep. Alone.
Missing me play Nathan Detroit, missing all but one college visit with me even though I went to his beloved alma mater, missing any connection with my day-to-day was easier than the alternative. Hanging onto control by separating himself from the risk of parenting meant his life had the purpose of being the Lawyer, the bread winner, the stamp and coin collector for the collection he would give to his children upon his death.
When he refused to co-sign the modest loan I needed to graduate a semester early from architecture school because, (in a drunken slur), I was “a bad risk” it simply made real what our mutual absence meant: he had missed most everything about both of us.
Missing is not acting out: he was never cruel or even angry with me: unlike my siblings. He just knew that I had gone away, or he had, but that, finally we were missing.
When I paid the loan back by dint of dangerous high paying work and I then had no money, and no desire to risk my life any more, no girlfriend and no prospects, he allowed as I might spend the fall of 1978 drawing up my thesis in our Westchester attic and look for work in New York.
But in coming home at 22 for a few months, it was clear we were still missing each other. We had gone different ways so early that being together was now, and for the dozen years he lived on, simply not possible.
This is not tragic, just sad. It was sadness then, and bizarrely, inexcusably, it is sadness now, abiding in me, for no good reason. Our missing each other justifies no inadequacies I daily evidence, nor did it make me a better parent: because missing, for me, and I am pretty sure for my Dad, teaches nothing except absence.