|My Father, Bounding Down the Stairs|
|Essays and Memoirs|
(Written Summer 2002)
In Des Peres, a comfy St. Louis suburb where my family lived when I was a teenager, Saturday afternoons about two my father would, following his nap, suddenly bound down the stairs. From second story to first hung a stairway (for his stair-assault) in the middle of the house, leading up to three bedrooms and two baths. Above a plant garden Mother tended with high-intensity light, the staircase seemed to float like a cataract, its thick maple steps, wrapped with plush carpet, bolted onto ruler-thin, wrought-iron black railings. The effect of his flurry was noisily musical, a run on the xylophone, fingers danced across a counter. You heard then felt before seeing the rumble of my Swede/Czech heavy-set father barreling down those nine steps. Brúm-brum-brum-brum-brúm-brum-brum-brum-brúm, and he’d be down, bicycling cartoon feet, all-hands-on-deck hurry-up, each step taken with no-hands fearlessness in two seconds flat. Like an iron-wired marionette, the hanging stairway quivered in his wake.
I would be reading in the living room on those weekend afternoons. Then, like gangbusters (as my mother used to say), he was down, and I was looking at him. A presence unimpeachable. It was, after all, his house—another level to come down from was a big deal. This was the home he had worked for (so he reminded us), the pinnacle of mid-life largesse for mother and him, my two brothers and me. Finally, as he had promised, we each had our own bedroom, where Steve (older bro) and I or Jeff (younger bro) and I would be doubled up no longer. A large sloped front yard, a large backyard with patio, a two-car garage, and central air-conditioning completed the suburban mini-ranch. Dad would have been taking his twenty-minute after-lunch nap and then boom, he was up, washed-and-dried his face, used the toilet, and the bedroom door would pop open, a truck-passing whoosh of air going in, and the big man would barrel on down. It was disruptive, inevitable, theatrical. He was a master of entrances, be it the despair-cum-exhaustion after work, be it the military "rise and shine" into our rooms to wake us up for school. One moment the house was quiet, his absence a fine presence; next moment, the house surrendered to him.
Entrances—with intent, force, confronting what was left of Saturday. I had to behold him, for his descent back into family space might mean new instructions, more chores. Weekends like snowed-on sidewalks were made for chores. Often, he’d ask if I’d done the thing he’d asked of me. Sweep the walk; wash the car; empty the trash; mow the lawn—verb, article, noun, keep the house, mind your mother, his cretic commands. I would wonder, sometimes worry, at his rushing down—was he groggy, angry, fluey, ill-tempered? Was he addlepated by a dream? Did he dream? If nothing was bothering him, if it was raining, if it was late in the day and he and mother were going out, he’d say, "Hey, buddy, what’re you reading?" Once, when I was immersed in Of Human Bondage, he told me he had read that book himself in high school (really?), a million years ago. Liked it a lot. A hint of envy curled his lip. But then he left for the garage to sort nuts, screws, bolts, and washers into the little drawers of the Hardware Organizer we bought him for Father’s Day, or some other project that compelled him to plunge down those stairs and ride his hobby horse.
Reading was my passion in high school. I liked to read in the living room, having moved from my bed to one of the living room’s easy chairs. There, I loved the quiet, the ample light, the cool forced-air in the muggy months of summer. Since I was soon heading to (what would be) a noisy, bare college dorm, I felt a graduate’s affection for that sunken living room—its toe-friendly carpet; its tasteful, dull furniture; its mostly unpictured walls; a closed-top spinet no one played; a closed-top large console record player with horizontal door that slid open to my parents’ jazz collection. one Frank Sinatra and one Perry Como LP. And no books. Life and Time and Ladies Home Journal on the square fake-oak coffee table and, unlike my room or my brothers’ rooms, no book shelves, no books scattered about, no books, not even Reader’s Digest Condensed. A room for living, for bridge parties, for tearing open Christmas presents, not reading. And then a shock into the high-long noon came the rumble-rushing of the old man and the stairs.
At times I weighed in his rakish zip down those steps the hurrah of my father’s life. At the time he would have been 50 (my age now). He had awoken from his nap because it was Saturday and there were things to busy himself with—putz at his workbench, wire-brush the garden tools, golf-tee-gouge mud from his golf shoes. Such inattentive tasks were islands of putterdom that formed an archipelago between Friday night and Monday morning. White collar, he worked 50 weeks a year at the Graham Paper Company, flew on DC-8s to sell its typing and construction paper (some products his design) to schools in Fargo, Davenport, Moline, often gone a week at a time. In St. Louis, when he lugged himself in from those 11- and 12-hour days, he was beaten, dispirited, a slap-heavy, wingtip trudge. A poor actor, he let us know his poop was fact. Only on those post-nap, post-golf Saturday afternoons would I see the bounce in his step return, the energy enliven the temper of what I hoped was his truer self. The good father, not the critical one. I hated it that he had become enslaved to his job. He confided to me once that he despised office politics. "If I have to be nice," he said, "to people I don’t respect," but he stopped then, his face goatish, nose up, Larson-like.
When he said he had read Somerset Maugham’s novel once, in a flash I saw a halo appear and encircle the uncorrupted boy he once was (the Catholic choirboy Dad I remembered from photographs taken in the 1920s)—potent, dreamy, unspent, like the state of grace the reader occupies, ready to do his author’s bidding. When he turned away, uninterested or not knowing how to talk plot or meaning with me, I would feel the shackle clack in him—to marriage, to salesmanship—those things that kept him from risking opinions except on things he knew he could be authoritative: money, college, job. But I gauged (thought I gauged) what he was thinking. He had said it before, namely, that when I got to college I should consider a major in addition to English Lit "to fall back on," just in case that major doesn’t work out, and why wouldn’t it work out, because somebody’s got to put food (coarse bread, soft butter) on the table, oh, so it’s the staff-of-life metaphor I would think, and my noisy silence would mean we’d argue it out a bit but not to bitterness. To a person, we reverse the admonitions of our parents: Don’t do what your old man does or you’ll end up with no tread left on your soles and you’ll slip when you bound the stairs, suburban Saturday afternoons, soured on the regimen.
The passage of my father’s body to me remained largely unconscious until several years ago. One day, following my own afternoon nap I noticed I, too, bounded the stairs of our two-story house as purposefully as he had. (That I had a similar two-story was not lost on me, either.) I had rested and was ready for—what? my life: more reading and writing. No one was on the couch, no one heard me, no witnesses: My teenage twin sons weren’t at home reading on a Saturday. But my legs felt tagged with my father’s energy, his top-spin let-loose animation for the hour of life to come in which nothing would stop him, me, from the self-appointed round. His release in me snapped the bloodline photograph. I said out loud that day, "I’m just like him," resurrecting the Harry Chapin song, "Cat’s in the Cradle" from the 1960s: The son rebels against the father only to realize after his own unwise choices that he’s become "just like him."
But I wasn’t (am not) just like him. I’ve been fortunate to have a job or career that did not delay my self-pursuits for the weekends. I have it every day. To be a practicing writer, to be the self-starter my father hoped I’d be—I wish I knew if he ever palmed such leafy dreams. Adopted by poor parents who rented a downtown Evanston, Illinois, cold water flat, he majored in commerce at Northwestern University to get away, so he told me, from his adoptive father, an irascible, strop-wielding immigrant, who, a night watchman, never in 40 years changed his job but often threatened the family he would. My father rose—soda jerk, frat boy, college grad, paper salesman, Navy Ensign, paper marketer. And he grew disenchanted with his rise about the time I began noticing his flight down the stairs. In his 50s, he hoped to join the Executive Club with a promotion to vice-president, a slot a few golf buddies had "earned." It never happened. His lot—to hate the brass, those shit-eating execs who sent menial tasks to his in-basket, kept him in middle-management for life, reason aplenty to complain, to echo his father’s complaints. (I wish I knew what resemblances he mused between himself and his old man.) But, though the bosses didn’t choose him, still he rose, and he was proud of that. Encased, then, in his down-bound bond with those steps was a ceremonial release, a pass to me and loitering others that his arrival at middle-classness had punch, had clout.
And so, we believe the son’s being resides in his father’s body. It need not be mystical, though memory and absence make it feel so. It is what one body transfers to the other through its long-time presence. It’s been said that the majority of male inmates in American prisons have one thing in common: They have had no older males in their lives from whom they might have learned their spatial-emotional relation to other men’s bodies who would have already measured the world with theirs. A father’s presence is the best solution for lost American boys. Most women have less of this need; their body intimacy is inborn, in the children they will or feel they can carry.
My dad anchored me to the physical world: how I lean on a table with both elbows up; how I itch an unshaven cheek; how I speak with authority on the phone. These things issued from his body’s mass and motion—its doorway size, its hairiness, its oblate shape, its bird legs, its compactness; its grace while driving, its gawk while hitting a golf ball (torso-twist on top of skinny-legs is funny)—and the occasional intimacy with me—his touch, his lingering on me, his face and cigarette smell, few and precious held moments. At my bed, he would snuggle his cheek against my face. It was dark, clean-shaven, fleshy, warm, and infinitely mine until he smiled his safe-night smile, then reached across the bed to shut the light.
Another time. The summer I was 12 and I explored my sexuality, I wanted to tell him that I was wrong to have peeked on my bathing mother. She had seen me, and I had slunk away but, ashamed, unable to run, came home after dinner and went to bed. That no one would mention my depravity I was certain. But I knew my father knew and would come in with it on his heart. I wanted to tell him what I’d done was stupid, stupid and wrong. I thought if ever I were to be stain-free, I had to tell him. But I couldn’t; I couldn’t. Not my father. Not with words. Instead, when he leaned down, calf-nosed me a goodnight kiss and said, "Sweet dreams, Tommy," I told him in my hug that there was another boy inside who would never do that again. I pressed that secret with all my might, my cheek to his. And if there were a chance that he didn’t know, then protecting him from such knowledge by never telling him was the best way for me to be.
I remember no more than fifty words my father ever said (surely, there were others—orders, proclamations, assignments). Fewer than a dozen lines (most oft-repeated) are etched on my mind, which he said to me or my brothers or to mother. Those snippets survive, and I have made much of them in autobiographical writing, using each to launch an entire scene (how much has been filtered by my imagination, how much is "accurately" remembered, who can know). Oh, the scenic import of such palpable lines: "Son, when it’s all said and done, it boils down to the almighty dollar." "Buddy, what you need to learn in this life is how to sell yourself."
Knowing my father’s body, I sense how my skin, size, tone, strengths and weaknesses have affected my sons. I have passed things to them that as yet have no name, but are back-packed with feeling, and which I think they recognize as mine. The day will come when they, too, bound down the steps or scratch tired eyes with the butt-end of their palms, repeating my habit in them. But it’s too early to tell what habits will stay and what they might mean. Besides, the meaning of my life in theirs can only be mused into being by them. Should they choose to write or express it some way, they will of their own accord, not mine.
Indeed, when today my son hurries out to his truck, free of home, headed for work, soon to find his own apartment and there to meet destinies he can and cannot control, I see only the still ship sitting on the horizon. From my beach towel, I am shaken by this epic genomic self—my father in me, me in my father, me in my son, my son in me (they are all equal and grave potentialities). But then, in the agitation with which I think this, I sense so many connections—oh, spare us the rivers of life, the rivers of fathers, the rivers of time, spare us, oh—are not true. And suddenly I’m free to remember my father’s difference from me in his own life, his interests, his call, things I will never know and can’t reconstruct; suddenly I’m free to think I cannot capture him, don’t want to capture him and his era; suddenly I’m free to think there’s something else, mysterious and unwieldy, sealed in my son’s gonads that speaks of him and not me. And all these "suddenly"s are spiraling into family and blood as they are coiling into family and blood, the myth, we were boys once, we are men now, as much as the history, the great kingdom of the unconscious in which so much of life lies.