I grew up in a family nearly devoid of grown men. No grandfathers, no uncles save one uncle by marriage I met once in California and never saw again. Like any kid, how I grew up seemed just the way of the world.
Every summer, we saw my grandmother and wacky and wonderful aunts and female cousins. In those weeks, the ordinary rules were suspended. We kids lived in our realm, quite happily, while the adults did their endless talking and laughing. In all this, my father headed our rambling crew, whether we were swimming in Maine’s icy Atlantic or visiting a Shaker village. My father taught his three kids to love E. B. White and Shakespeare, to fly a kite and cross country ski. The original YouTuber before YouTube was a thing, my father is a lifelong library aficionado. He taught himself — and so taught us — to paint a house and repair a leaking washing machine, to write a clear sentence, play Hearts, understand mathematics is exquisite, and lean into the happiness of lying on your back under the summer constellations. The list is eternal: use a sharp pencil to solve algebra; chop garlic fine; Plato is sublime; be polite to cashiers; work hard; pay your bills; hike.
If you couldn’t figure out an answer, keep thinking. My god, that’s useful.
I inherited his nose and his utterly irreverent sense of humor. He never indulged his children in the illusion that the world is easy or kind. The summer I was ten, we drove from New Hampshire to Wyoming to Colorado to New Mexico, living out of our green Comanche Jeep and careening back into New England two days before school started. By that time, my sister and I had read his copy of Huck Finn at least twice over and thoroughly kicked around Huck’s aversion to civilization. 86 today, my father is still modeling Thoreau’s behavior of sucking the life’s marrow, grit and all, while savoring espresso.
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,— Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays”
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?