Sunday, June 17, 2012

On Fathers

I do so like this photo of my dad.
As many of you may have guessed, I wrote most of this past week's Digital Notebook posts ahead of time, so they would publish while I am on vacation.

This one, however, I did not.

It didn't feel right to write about Father's Day too far ahead of time and, at the time I was writing the other posts, I was not sure I would write about it all. Seems sort of overly obvious.

But as Father's Day approaches, here I am sitting in my father's house on the end of Long Island doing just that.

However, something is very different from our other visits.

My father is not here.

While he and Lorraine, his effusive wife of many years, are on a river cruise in Germany and Austria, he offered his house near the beach to my family for our use, and we eagerly accepted the offer.

But as I sit here in his office where he writes, typing on the computer that he uses, looking around at the things he has hung on his home office wall, the things that inspire him and that he considers important, it seems strange not to have him here.

You might not guess it if you've met me and seen my stature (or lack thereof), but my father is a tall man and so he moves with that careful deliberation particular to people who live their lives further from the ground than the rest of us.

They have farther to fall I suppose.

So it seems odd to be in this house where I always see him and not to hear his slow pace on the creaking stairs, or to see him crossing his overlong legs in his favorite arm chair, glasses down his nose, while he works out the day's New York Times Crossword Puzzle, ("in pen," he will be sure to point out with a look that requires you to recognize the significance of the confidence he has in his answers).

He is a smart guy, my dad. He got that way mostly by reading books. Thousands of them.

And if you have ever read his blog, you know that one of the miracles of modern science is that his house does  not sink three feet into the ground from the weight of all the books it holds.

Perhaps its no surprise then, that he writes books too.

His most recent, "The Man Who Ate His Boots," was well received and well-written but it does not seem destined to make him rich.

The story of the hardships to be found in the search for the Northwest Passage, which it chronicles, is gripping stuff and a testament to man's determination -- and his arrogance -- but it's a tough sell to an American mass audience with a terminally short attention span and a (hopefully) temporary fascination with zombies.

When I told my mother that I intended to write for newspapers, she sighed. "Not another writer," the sigh seemed to say. (She wanted me to be a park ranger.)

But in some ways, it seemed inevitable, that I would follow in my father's footsteps, but in my own way. So often, that's what sons do, whether they intend to or not.

Given the uncertain future of newspapers, I fear for my own son, who informed me recently that he and a few friends at school intend to revive Pottstown Middle School's newspaper, The Echo.

"No, no, no" I told him. You should instead focus on the skills that won you and your partner First Place in that statewide investment contest. "That's where the money is. There's no money in newspapers," I told him.

Just as my father told me.

A free-lance journalist as well as an author and editor, my dad has paid his bills between books writing for magazines like Esquire, American Heritage, National Geographic Adventure, Connoisseur, and The Atlantic.

But no one gets rich as a free-lance writer either.

How clever I thought I was, picking newspaper journalism.

"At least this way, I still get a check every week," I told him when I got my first newspaper job at a now-defunct weekly in Westchester County, NY.

And of course that was before the company that owns The Mercury went bankrupt for a time.

We're back in the game, and seem to be forging ahead, trying out new models of journalism, which is exciting to be sure. But the shadow of financial failure remains in the backs of our minds, particularly as we watch lay-offs at the once-mighty Philadelphia Inquirer and, just this week, the Times-Picayune in New Orleans.

But I like this job and one of the things I like most about it is you get to do something different every day, at least if you try to.

And so that's how it is that I got the chance last week to interview Allen and Delbert Ferster for a Father's Day feature that is scheduled to be published in today's Mercury. (Barring a major fire or five-car crash, I assume it's in there today.)

Both Fersters are teachers, one at the start of his career at Rupert Elementary, the other just retired from Owen J. Roberts. Both had won similar awards for their teaching efforts.

I was struck during the interviews by one of the comments made by Delbert Ferster, the dad, who said he had never told his son to become a teacher. He said he would have been just as happy with any profession his son Allen chose, provided he loved it and found to be fulfilling.

"But I would be lying if I didn't say that I'm thrilled" that his son is a teacher, Delbert added honestly.

And I suspect that is what my father would say if anyone were to interview him on the subject.

We leave a lot unspoken he and I, as fathers and sons tend to do, although he has been sure to tell me he is proud of me, just as I make sure to tell my son the same.

And just as Allen Ferster made his choice, as much because he was surrounded by teachers as because he saw the fulfillment it brought his father, I suppose I stood little chance of becoming a doctor.

But like Delbert Ferster, and my own father, my wife and I have been careful not to tell my son what he should be when he grows up. Our job is to enable their dreams as much as possible, not to define them. (Given the state of newspapers these days, however, and Dylan's interest in The Echo, I am starting to reconsider that decision.)

After all, there's no money in it.

But it is fun, and it can make a difference -- kind of like teaching I suppose.

Still, it wouldn't hurt the family finances to have an investment banker or two in the gene pool.

* * *
Our gene pool is an interesting one.

One of the things I'm staring at hanging on the wall in my father's office is a photograph of he and I, his late brother Charles, and a cousin of theirs, Jim Brandt, taken at a family reunion more than 10 years ago in upstate New York.

My father and his brother took very different paths as men and as fathers and only later in life began to appreciate each other's choices.

For example, my dad pursued a career in writing, moved to a different state and fathered two very independent children.

My uncle went to law school, stayed in the town in which he was born, became the town attorney and raised six children whose daily interplay is a wonder to behold.

It's taken me a while -- 47 years to be exact -- to get to know my father.

He can be very quiet and does not say things unless he feels they need saying, or to make a pun. In that we are painfully alike.

But I found out there were things I still didn't know when he sent me an advance of his memoirs, as yet un-published.

The most surprising discovery, to me at least, was that he loved growing up summers on Long Beach Island, surrounded by cousins and uncles. (I knew he loved LBI and sailing there, but I didn't know about the big family part.)

His grandfather, for whom his father worked and whose daughter his father married, hosted much of the family in his modest summer home in Ship Bottom.

They ate, laughed and played together in a time before television.

This seemed a far cry from the man who worked at home during my childhood and whose requirements for solitude and quiet contemplation led to the establishment of a second home office up in the attic (yes, a SECOND home office), far from the hue and cry of my neighbors and I playing in the yard, and which further discouraged interruption for any reason, even after I got my pant leg stuck in my bicycle chain.

(Damned bell-bottom jeans.)

But suddenly, my uncle's fathering of a large brood made more sense. He was following in the footsteps of his grandfather, whom he venerated.

And when my uncle died of cancer several years ago, I only now began to understand the eager manner in which my father stepped into the breech as best he could with my cousins.

During a festive 75th birthday party my cousins hosted for my dad this fall, I saw him surrounded by his brother's offspring, and his own, and thought about how this must have a certain nostalgia for him, fueled by a past that, until recently, I had not known he lived, and missed. 

All part of the mystery of fatherhood I suppose.
Certainly, every family is different but mothers, it seems to me, are generally more immediate in a child's life. We grow inside them and form a biological bond with them that is intimate and strong and stretches beyond simple circumstances.

Fathers, however, can be different. Some are aloof, some close, some fun some serious, some quiet some boisterous. The role they have to adopt, or create, is not as clearly defined as that of mothers.

Less trapped by society's expectations, they are also less guided, left to find their way, or fail to, as best they can.

Uncertainty and freedom go hand-in-hand it seems.
When my wife was pregnant, I worried about whether I would be a good father.

I worried about it this morning.

I worry about it as I send my son, eager to use the computer, away again so I can finish writing this.

But these are questions, the answers to which, depend on time, and as much on who is providing the answer as who asked the question, I suppose.

And so the answer is as uncertain, it seems, as your latest choice, your latest decision and the principles you bring to the table to guide you in those decisions.

Chances are, your father helped you form those principles.

Happy Father's Day everybody.

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