Friday, February 26, 2010

Imagine that

My father, Jim, as a baby, 1917
I have been ruminating a lot on age lately, how it is both such an inescapably binding and yet liquate and amorphous thing. Time marches our bodies physically in one direction only (science fiction speculations notwithstanding) and yet we retain all the ages we have ever been inside us. 

It is a hoary old aphorism that in old age we recapitulate a second childhood, yet bearing witness to it renders it with fresh sad amazement.  At least my children were out of diapers before my father moved into them.  That much sandwich, I think even I couldn’t take.

My father, as soon as he arrived home from the December hospital disaster, before we lost him into the folds of his mind, when he was clearly nearing the end, but still present with us, demanded that Bruce and Lois, my brother and sister, come to visit him, NOW.  He summoned them.  And was very clear he wanted them not just for a day, but for a considerable length of time, a real visit.  He had a lot to say.

No one ever said it out loud, but we all knew he wanted to say goodbye while he was still himself.  A wise move on his part. 

Because the visit was over a weekend, their presence allowed me to spend some much needed time with my children, who had barely seen me during my father’s intense hospital stay.  So I was not there with them while Dad talked and talked, somehow knowing his time with words was coming to an end.  Bruce told me that Dad had been dreaming vividly about his father and brother, dead these many years.

Although there was love there, he had never been close with his older brother, Alan.  Of vastly different temperaments and fortunes, they embodied the fork in my father’s family: one tine made up of artist dreamers and the other all ambitious businessmen.  My father the former, his brother the latter. 

His thoughts of his father were, as always, complex and painful.  His father had been rather a rat bastard, living with and supporting the family only sporadically, keeping another life, and presumably other women, in the city.  The one time he took my father & his brother out with him, into the city, he warned them: “I’m your Uncle, not your Father. My city friends don’t know I have kids, and I intend to keep it that way, so call me Uncle John.”

At 92 my father still cries about how he felt abandoned by his father, how he always felt less than the other boys he knew, who had fathers at home every night.  Whether those fathers kissed or beat those sons didn’t matter, theirs were there, his was not. 

I have been turning out drawers looking for old photos of Dad, thinking I’ll need them soon.  I’ve found quite few of the father I never knew – a dapper young man who wore suits with panache and a bowtie.  The father of my youth was a middle aged hipster, and then an old hippie.  I think he wore a suit once, to my first wedding, under protest.  But it tickles me to see him with blond curls in short pants.

I show the old pictures to Ethan and his brain can barely wrap around the concept: Grandpa was once a baby!  It’s hard enough for him to imagine his own parents as babies, children, teenagers themselves, in spite of the voluminous photographic evidence that supports such madness.  But that old man to baby transformation is just too much for him. 

Age is one thing to the body, quite another to the brain.  I remember my father saying to me, just a few years back, how amazed he is every time he looks into a mirror, to see an old man looking back at him, because in his own mind he still feels himself to be the same person he was at 20.  How can the mind have such coherence when the body changes so? 

The changes of age still baffle Ethan.  Used to the dictates of childhood: older = bigger, he is confused by this idea of old people shrinking, or why his father’s brother, his Uncle Jim, is shorter than his Father, even though Jim is older.   He thinks it hysterical that he will be taller than me and is counting the minutes till the magic moment.

“Will I be as tall as Daddy? he asks, hoping to cross that threshold of six feet.  “Who knows?” I answer, thinking “probably not, you will probably always be shorter than your brother”; thinking “let him have that one advantage please, don’t have to win everything.”   Ethan is one minute older, but Jacob was, and will likely always be taller, larger.  “Fair” I’d thought at their birth, “they each have one starting advantage.”

Knowing I was having fraternal twins I expected difference.  Little did I know what was coming down the pike. 

Jacob, too has a grasp of age and change.  He will look at old photos of himself and his brother and say: “That’s baby Ethan, that’s baby Jacob”  However, the size = age corollary has an even stronger hold on Jacob.  “Cocoa’s a baby” he keeps saying about our middle aged cat.  Seven pounds sopping wet, the boys were about her weight when born.  So he is right, she is baby sized.  But two years older then the he is, imagine that.

As I search for a way to take the ribbon of this post and tie it up into a neat bow for a tidy ending, I see how very meandering it has been.  Ruminative, I suppose, does not lend itself to tidy, and I guess that’s just the way it’s going to be today, with loose fringy ends all over the place.

Kind of like my life.  Imagine that.


  1. Ruminative is a lovely word.

    I was rereading Paul Auster's book, "The Invention of Solitude," just a few days ago. He speaks of his father's passing and of how his father was invisible in this world in his life. Unknown by those around him, and also unknown to himself.

    Your father sounds as though he was instead a man of substance. A man who looked into the mirror and saw past the exterior to the boy within. To the heart within. To the soul within.

    And as though he was a man who knew how to make others see him. The thought that he would summon his children to hear his stories one last time before the telling was no longer possible?

    That has made me cry.

    And that you saw him? That you can share him with me this morning?

    That's just beyond lovely.

    My condolences to you.

    And thank you.

  2. Life is often like that isn't it? I long for it all to be tidily wrapped up in a bow but it won't let me no matter how much I tug. Beautiful post about your father.

  3. Fantastic post. I love the idea of us all being all our ages inside - so true. When an old lady tells you that she still feels 18, part of her does. I felt for your father - being told to call your Dad Uncle to keep up the mirage of his double-life would have been heart-breaking.

    Thanks for sharing this story. And thanks for Rewinding at the Fibro today. :-)


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