Fathers and Sons

My father’s grave was marked by a simple marble stone whose original reddish-brown hue had aged into a darkish pink that seemed inappropriate. I remembered helping my mother pick out the headstone at a time when she was scarcely capable of making the least decision and the proper headstone struck her as a very important one.

Ultimately she had opted for the slight reddish tint over the plain gray because she felt it would reflect some of the softer side of the man. I was not aware there was a softer side. I was eighteen and remembered my father as a stern, unyielding maker and enforcer of family law.

“There was much more to your father than you knew,” mother had told me, echoing a sentiment she had expressed throughout my rebellious teenage years. “He had a very sensitive side, too.”

Even now, many years later, I found mother’s statement hard to believe except as an abstraction: Men can show more sensitivity to their wives than to their adolescent sons. But in reality I could not see how that could apply to my father.

In my memories, I could never conjure up father’s face. The man was always a looming presence, something large and dark and forbidding. I pictured the presence behind me, watching, and somehow in the frame of a doorway, as if just entering. Or just catching me in the act of something.

“Authority,” I said to myself now, laughing inwardly as I heard the word coming in Dr. Sia’s voice. “That looming presence you feel as your father is why you have such difficulty with authority today.” Typical of Sia: Quick and easy and clichéd—but possibly right nonetheless.

Some people should not have children, I thought, including myself in the proscription. They haven’t the gift or the patience for it and they do a bad job. Without knowing they’re botching it, probably. With reasonably good will and decent intentions.

I had been squatting on my haunches before the grave. I stood now and looked down at it, a grassy plot marked off at head and foot by stone but bordered laterally only in the mind, part of the broad sweep of tended grass, indistinguishable. But alive in the way an artist lives on in his work; father’s handicraft walks above him now in the twisted framework of my psyche.

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