Distance from the Tree
'As my father used to say . . . '
(Readers complete the line.)
"My Three Sons" © 2002 George Kunze
Carla E. Anderton
Thomas M. Catterson
Robert Klein Engler
Malcolm M. Gordon
Earl W. Roberts, III
Laura Sherwood Rudish
~ . ~|
Fathers are very large when we first meet them. Cast, according to stereotype, to hand around cigars and praise our bald-faced cries. Cries that can't be ignored—not at the pitch and decibel level Nature gives infant windpipes. They're frontline soldiers, drill sergeants, heroes, bullies, breadwinners, guides, coach and cheering squad, moral compasses, protectors, control freaks, competitors, and more.
As we grow, their size diminishes and their flaws glare. Still, fathers remain remarkably powerful. His own experience has forewarned Dad to anticipate the timeless plaint: "I didn't ask to be born!" Maybe we forget the request—the child, 'father of the man,' possesses a selective or inventive memory—just as we forget the language of heaven (Galway. Kinnell).
For as long as I can remember, the family has reportedly been falling apart. The first wave of watered-down TV dads—William Bendix (Life of Reilly), Fred MacMurray (My Three Sons), Robert Young (Father Knows Best), Charles Farrell (My Little Margie)—were ridiculous portrayals: inept leaders, mildly stern at best, benevolent, who resolved small-time crises with last-minute, accidental wisdom.
Steinbeck's East of Eden (novel 1952, film 1955) dramatized real life family dynamics: A serious dad with serious sons on the confrontational make squared off in a Cain and Abel story set against the backdrop of America's entry into World War I. If there's no pleasing Dad, displease him real good. If he did military service, dodge. If he didn't, enlist. Smash your crazy smiling face against the train window as it leaves the station, and hope to reconcile before his permanent departure. If you're stuck at home, try your best to at least not hasten his departure, pitying the man his daughter (Cat On A Hot Tin Roof), his wife (Rebel Without A Cause), his father (Long Day's Journey into Night)—and fail.
For those of us born at the tail end of the woodshed days, "Just wait 'til your father gets home!" still has special literary significance: You combed every bookshelf to find the best softcover to tuck into your soon-to-be-burning britches. After posing all day as Organization Man, Teamster or Man with the Hoe, lots of dads were ready to kick something that couldn't kick back. Let the dog greet him first, sniff out his mood. Even a good mood was easily spoiled if Mom told him you'd been bad. You offend, he punishes, but time comes you have it out: 'Never darken my door again!' he yells. Fine. You were going anyway. Not as though you're being turned out of Eden.
The Brave Front
Thanks to the efforts of Sonora Smart Dodd, we've celebrated Father's Day every June since 1909. Nothing like May flowers, but still a big Sunday of gifts: ties, slippers, shirts, wallets, hammocks, grills. Whenever I asked my father what I should give him, he'd always say, "Treat me like a stranger."
Dads aren't doing well these days. Dad's bad. Drunk, dismal, deadbeat. 'Daddy didn't mean to hurt you' a decade-old New York subway ad, followed the attention-getting poster, 'Did you hit your child today?', soon pulled from Chicago buses. Once beyond reproach, the image of religious fathers is being pummeled in the press.
Yes, nuclear or extended, the family is still falling apart—aided by zero-tolerance cultural mantras and the local impact of centralized zero-base economic agendas. Latchkey kids are back, home alone or not home at all. Single moms out earning Workfare. Absent fathers always present. And the ones who won't go away.
TV is still trading profitably in families. The Bundys (Married With Children), once a sociologist's nightmare, are still united in reruns, while Full House has morphed to Raising Dad, The Cosby Show to My Wife and Kids, Family Ties to Grounded for Life, The Jeffersons to The Hughleys, and Sanford and Son to Titus.
Parents are sitting ducks for the confessional poem, and perhaps the most notable are those trashing Dad. Sylvia Plath ranted against a Nazi dad. (Her feelings are less black and white about her "bag full of God," the abandonment.) Franz Kafka's book-length Letter to His Father (undelivered) names the source of the self-loathing and terror that drove his pen:
Purity of the world ended with you and the filth began with me. . . . My writing was all about you; all I did there, after all, was to bemoan what I could not bemoan upon your breast.
Many of the poems in this feature are as grim as James Tate's "The Lost Pilot" ("I feel as if I were/ the residue of a stranger's life"), as resentful of a father's absence or of his drinking as any son of Karamazov. Others express, as Anne Bradstreet did, tenderness and gratitude to one "most truly honored, and as truly dear," who cherishes their "little sleep's-head sprouting" or protects them through frost at midnight—even if absent, ill, or gone gentle into the dimming.
"The whole of love falls on the child awake" (James Merrill) who loses his father—even to natural causes—and he may take small comfort in reminders that the natural order wills it so or prescribes some fit mourning season. Hamlet does not openly challenge his mother's "all that lives must die," or even the urging of his uncle, now stepfather Claudius, kind at first, then harsh, to snap out of his 'unprevailing woe':
'Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
Hamlet. [solil.] Oh God, a beast that wants discourse of reason
Thus, so excellent a king is avenged by a son as unlike to him as to Hercules. A less excellent, 'flattered like a dog' by his daughters, and a knight whose one son is a kindly bastard, the other a knave, meet as outcasts where rain wets them and wind makes them chatter, and commiserate on their children's betrayal.
Glouc. O ruined piece of nature! This great world