The remoteness of fathers

The trouble with Father’s Day is not only that it is steeped in commercialism, but that it also trivializes the complex emotions that characterize our relationship with our fathers.  Setting aside a special day to remember fathers has become an invitation to replace unique feelings with stereotype sentiments, to articulate tenderness by the glibness of a Gibson greeting card, and to resolve guilt by the gadget of ritual remembering.

The truth of the matter is that a father, at least in our culture, begins as a tender presence in his children’s lives, becomes a remote and fearsome figure in middle age, and then returns as a long-lost friend somewhere near the end.  The variations on this theme constitute what is unique to every father-child relationship.  Sometimes the estrangement becomes prolonged, preventing an easy resumption of communication.  In extreme cases, the remoteness ripens into permanent resentment, blocking off all paths to reconciliation.  But in the best of situations, fathers become wise and the children generous, and silent forgiveness ends the cold war of generations.

It is this richness and subtlety that the commercial version of Father’s Day flattens into a set of idealized images that have no other meaning than as a prod to mindless gift-giving.  The event does not invite us to sort out our feelings, to trace them back to the contingencies of our upbringing, nor to understand this man we call father as a fellow sufferer.  It invites us only to celebrate, to feel good about being grateful to someone who has shaped our lives in still unexamined ways.  But the ritual is empty; it is not about father.  It is rather about ourselves wishing to avoid that awkward conversation with father.

I myself had an easy relationship with my father.  We talked a lot, for he loved to listen to stories about my work, my family, my travels, my friends, and people I met.  He would give me advice and warn me about certain things, but I cannot say that we really ever talked about life, its purposes and its meanings.  He occasionally told me about his dilemmas at work, asked me to read the legal opinions he wrote, but we never got around to talking about life in a reflective way.

My earliest memories of my father pertain to the way he embraced his work: not so much as a profession but as a vocation.  The law was his life and singular obsession.  He was a slave to its demands; he spent long hours interpreting its voice.  When he was not working, he was affectionate and generous.  Yet parenting always seemed secondary to him.  This was a task he completely left to my mother.

He tried very hard not to be like his own father, with whom he rarely talked.  I was a kind of bridge between these two proud men, who seemed unable to go beyond the sparse vocabulary of duty and authority.  My grandfather was a very stern and private person.  In contrast, my father was kind and approachable, and had many friends. I never found out what it was exactly that set them apart.  I always vaguely assumed it had to do with attitude towards money.  The old man spent a lifetime accumulating it.  His son never had enough of it, and never cared much about it.

They were products of different times, and their values were very different.  They made no effort to learn from one another.  Illness and old age did not soften my grandfather; it only made him more remote and more protective of his money.  My father tried to reach out to him through us, the grandchildren, but he was always careful not to be misunderstood.  He wanted to tell him that he cared for him, but also that he did not need his money.

I was living abroad when my grandfather died and never got to know what his final days were like.  But I doubt very much if the gap between him and his son was ever closed.  I think he faded away a very unhappy man.  In contrast, my father had two years to re-acquaint himself with his children.

On forced retirement because of his debilitating illness, he set about creating photo albums of all his children.  He traced their lives through many school transitions till the early years of their professional careers.  He deliberately revisited episodes in their lives to which he had been previously inattentive. If he were a writer, I am sure he would have written his memoirs.  He died surrounded by his wife and children, and completely without resentment.

We are all like our fathers in ways not always evident to us.  I catch myself at times talking to my children in the same tone that I used to hear with my father.  We are having a conversation, but there is a hint of remoteness.  Lack of practice keeps the warmth and the humor suppressed.  Awkwardness limits the conversation to perfunctory utterances.

I keep promising myself: one of these days, my children and I must talk about life, and not about grades and courses, boyfriends and late nights.  We must exchange notes about our fathers, the dissonances between their character and disposition, and the inner sufferings they have bequeathed to us.  We must try to trace the blind impresses of our personalities back to their origins.

“What was silent in the father,” my friend Nietzsche wrote in “Zarathustra”, “speaks in the son; and often I found the son the unveiled secret of the father.”  If he is right, then indeed, “a father understands himself better after he has a son.”


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