I wrote this essay thirteen years ago today. It isn’t as well written as I thought it was at the time, but it conveyed exactly the point I wanted to make and I think it holds up.
For everyone who has a Father and for everyone who is a Father, I wish you a very happy Father’s day.
I spent the evening with my father recently. We ate and talked, drank wine and talked some more. After dinner we took a leisurely stroll through the town of Princeton, crossing streets and wandering through the empty campus, exchanging thoughts and laughter. We stopped to look at the bricks that commemorated my grandparents’ and my father’s business and to look at the names of the other people and businesses that have long since vanished from existence in every way save for our memory of them and the fired clay blocks that lined the path.
I enjoy the company of my father in a way that does not translate to other relationships that I have, because, well, because this man is my father. This is the man who once stood up for me on the day I married, who read to me every night before bed as a child and who taught me skills like fire-building and archery. He played chess with me, listened to my problems, hiked the five tallest mountains in New York State one summer because I wanted to. I remember him running to the top of Haystack mountain in the middle of a fierce thunderstorm while I crouched behind rocks hundreds of feet beneath the summit, frightened and trembling at the thought of him being struck by lightning, while he fearlessly raised his arms in triumph, his poncho whipping wildly in the driving rain.
Once, while canoeing the rapids at Foul Rift on the Delaware River, we were swamped by standing waves and my father, losing a grip on his paddle, reached out for it and fell from the canoe, slipping beneath the surface and disappeared from sight.
I was left to ground the canoe on a rocky outcropping, empty its contents and dump the water, before repacking it and continuing on down the river alone and shivering, without him. Half a mile down the river I found my father waiting for me in a speed boat where he had managed to be picked up by a couple of fishermen along with a couple of jugs of drinking water we had lost as well. He was smiling when he saw me and I will never forget the feeling of relief I felt, knowing that he was still alive, still my father and that I was still his son.
Not long after my wife and I found out that we were expecting our first child, my father came over for dinner to our new apartment. It was one half of an old farmhouse on the only working farm left in Hopewell. He came into the kitchen and looked out the windows at the view of the fields and the woods that lined their edge, and when my wife had left the room he said to me, “I’ve been here before.”
There was a feeling of history in the air.
“When was that?” I asked.
“Your mother and I came here to a party once, before you were born. I remember drinking wine from Dixie cups and dancing with your mother right here in the kitchen.”
I was silent, the image of the two of them, young and in love, dancing slowly in each other’s arms, filling my thoughts. He stared out of the windows, I imagine, with the same image in his mind as well when he said out of the blue, “She was pregnant with you at the time.”
There was a long pause, motes of dust falling and swirling in shafts of sunlight that poured through the kitchen window.
“So I guess I’ve been here before, too?”
“I guess you were.” He said, somewhat sadly.
I guess that’s how things are when you stay close to your roots. Things change, but not that much. People and time intermingle, like in a ghost story. Places mean one thing at one time and another at another time, but nothing really changes all that much. Not really. Fathers love their sons and sons, in return, love their fathers. Both spring forth, not only from their connection to one another, but from the very ground they live upon. The ghosts of my family fill this valley and I can never really escape them, even if I wanted to.
We walked slowly down the sidewalk, our eyes darting across the inscribed pavers at our feet. One of the names inscribed in the bricks we read that night was F. Scott Fitzgerald. Earlier, before we had eaten dinner that evening, my father had dashed off to his library to retrieve a copy of a book I had lent him, one that he had originally given to me. “This was great.” He said. “I almost never read fiction anymore, but I am glad I took the time to read this one again.” He handed me a tattered copy of The Great Gatsby, one of the greatest novels ever written. I opened it and began to read the closing passage out loud while the rice simmered on the stove…
Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for the Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night. Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we’ll run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning — So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. Our ancestors were those Dutchmen who arrived in the early years of the seventeenth century and the view they saw was no different from the one Fitzgerald described. I try to imagine sometimes what it was that inspired them to do something so adventurous, so unexpected and daring and what they must have felt when they saw this land from the deck of their wooden ship. I often wonder why it was that when they put down their roots, they chose this spot and why it is that I cannot seem to let it go, even as I see it receding before my eyes, changing into another land that will undoubtedly be inhabited by another people in the not too distant future. Already there is the sound of different languages; the sight of different people than my own and they look like they plan on staying, regardless of the impact on those who went before. Perhaps this is the way of all people, like the Lenape who camped where my garden now flourishes, like the Dutchmen in their creaking boats who now are little more than a memory.
Before I left for the evening we sat in the dark of my father’s library listening to ‘Rienzi’ performed by the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra and my father quoted Oswald Spengler, from a source I had never heard before. “When the last sheet of music is burned to ash, then we will be gone.” He drank from his wine glass and stared off like he could see it and it seemed to me in that moment, I could as well.
In a couple of days I will be joining my wife and son on vacation and we will celebrate Father’s Day over six thousand miles from our home, with her family. And I will tuck my son into bed and I will read a story to him, as I always do and as my father did for me, but my thoughts will be back home with my father and with his father and with every one of those who went before us, those earnest and honorable men worthy of that title, who carved a home on this continent for their sons and their sons’ sons, so long ago. And when we return home I will dance slowly with my wife in our own kitchen, in the same house where my father was raised and where his own parents surely must have danced, once, long before we both were born.
Happy Father’s Day to you as well…