I’d love to know how Dad saw me when I was 6. I’d love to know a hundred things. When a parent dies, a filing cabinet full of all the fascinating stuff also ceases to exist. I never imagined how hungry I’d be one day to look inside it.
― David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks
This past Thursday, RedLine Gallery Milwaukee opened an exhibition of my late husband’s work. From earliest crayon drawing of his name to his final self-portraits, his life in art is all represented. Our friend Rose devoted scores of hours to mount this show with me. We opened up the virtual filing cabinets of the fascinating stuff of his life. It had not ceased to exist like David Mitchell suggests about a parent’s death. For this apparently simple thing, this archive of Paul’s life, I am extraordinarily thankful. With Rose at my side, witnessing this archeology of sorts with me, I was able to discover and rediscover parts of my spouse kept in tissue until multiple sclerosis released us.
I had no such luxury with my father, Wally. He died shortly after I met Paul nearly 32 years ago. He had just driven 30 miles or more to visit my sister, apparently opened the car door and died in the driveway. A week later, after a funeral that was remarkable for my being told not to get carried away crying, I met my mother at their apartment. She gave me a cardigan that had been his and a signet ring with an onyx stone. There was no filing cabinet for me to see – no fascinating stuff.
My father’s story started with being the oldest of twelve. His mother was from a line of Poles who could trace their history to Revolutionary America. Apparently they had come as mercenaries and stayed. Her father is buried in northern Wisconsin, an obelisk marking his grave, surrounded by the five wives who pre-deceased him. My dad’s father was born in an area that was sometimes considered Russia, sometimes Poland. I never met my paternal grandmother or either of my maternal grandparents. My paternal grandfather, however, lived with us for several years. I knew even less about him than those who had died.
My grandfather came to America in the early 20th century. He arrived at Ellis Island and settled for a short time in Rochester, New York. From there he made his way to the Midwest. Along the way he falsified his age so that he could get work. He may have arrived in the U.S. on his own at about age 15. Why he left Europe, how he traversed a continent, why he came to the Midwest, where he met his wife – I learned none of this.
In contrast, it likely seemed to my father that his life was an open book. I knew all of his surviving siblings. One had even lived with us for a brief time. I knew where my father worked. One summer when I was seventeen, I even worked with him. I knew where he drank every day. I met his drinking buddies. I knew his weight, his height, and his preference for wool gabardine pants. I knew the fragility of his heart and inherited it. I know he wanted my survival and would defend me.
But I didn’t know from him if he wanted me, liked me, or trusted my intelligence. I didn’t know why he left us for a time when I was four or five. I didn’t know what brought him home.
As I reflect on fatherhood this week, I am struck by how our construct of father and fatherhood is incredibly limited and limiting. The limitations of our construct mark the boundaries of our communities in a way. We cannot see what is possible if we cannot see our fathers. When we make them heroes, we doom them to being villains, especially when they cannot or will not stay on the pedestals we require of them.
Young children don’t really want friendship from a father, but a heroic figure to look up to. Is there something in fatherhood as we know it that by its very nature blocks communication?
– Siri Hustvedt,Living, Thinking, Looking: Essays