"When you know a thing, to hold that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it—this is knowledge." (from The Analects of Confucius)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

On Coming, Going, and Home: Some Thoughts on Dad

Aerial view of "Edgewood," Barronett, Wisconsin

“If you don’t go, you’ll never know. I tell that to my kids.”

That’s from film legend Robert DeNiro in a rare interview earlier this year with Esquire magazine. The quote made me think of my dad, a retired dairy farmer, whose own maxim for his five children, implied though never stated outright, could be this: “Don’t go.”

I don't mean, for example, I've ever heard my father say to me I should stay on the farm to earn a livelihood. He’s no fool on that front. There would be no future in that, at least in any conventional way. I’m really talking about the worldview he holds from his barnyard bunker, his personal Shangri-la, or, simply put, his land, which he sometimes calls Edgewood. That's a name he encountered in a book set in Maine that he read as a kid. Though not particularly imaginative, the designation is perfectly apt for the 160 acres he grew up on and has inhabited for more than seven decades running.

The don’t go mentality, which plays out in his disdain for travel or really anything out there, amounts to this: not far beyond Edgewood Farm, the world is too much; whether it’s tainted, foreign, fallen, or all of these things, it just is not for him. I would imagine that this notion has only intensified over the decades.

At least since 1958, the year my parents were married, my father has spent no more than a few nights away from the farm. No exaggeration there; I mean you can count them on a single hand. And during this time, he’s probably traveled no more than a couple of hours away, on very rare occasions.

Years ago, in the hay-day of the telemarketer, my dad answered the phone from a credit card company. The female voice explained that by signing up for this credit card, he could be eligible for two free tickets to Hawaii! To this, my dad replied, “Ma'am, I haven’t been out of the county for forty years, and I’m not goin’ in the next forty.” He still amuses himself by imagining what the woman must have thought: “I’ll bet she had a laugh at lunch break. She probably told her co-workers, ‘You wouldn’t believe the nut I had on the phone.’ And, she probably was right," he says.

But there was a time when Dad did go.

In 1956, just barely seventeen and with first-crop haying finished, he headed west to work the harvest fields of the Dakotas and Montana. That was July to October. He was back on the farm through the winter and then took a job in town at a cheese factory that spring (I mean, this is a Wisconsin story after all).

Finishing his senior year and graduating from high school had already been ruled out by this time. But not more adventure in far away places. By the following fall, the day before Thanksgiving to be specific, he and a buddy headed to California.  

“When I left for California,” says Dad, “I had no intention of ever coming back to the farm. But in four months, it changed my mind about a lot of things – when I saw how the other half lived. I didn’t exactly live in the high-rent district out there.”

When I talk to him about this time in East Oakland, I’m looking for disturbing events or traumatic encounters, but it seems the galvanizing circumstance was simply being around people who, as he puts it, “had no conception of home.” He says, “That’s when something started to dawn on me."

It was meeting men like Danny Silva, who had left his family, including a wife and small children in Massachusetts, for the promise of something new in California. Dad recalls, “He would sit down and try to write a letter to his mother, but he never could think of anything to say.” To Dad’s knowledge, Danny never did write that letter.

Dad left California and came back closer to home, this time living and working in St. Paul, but still with an eye on the horizon. “Me and a couple of my buddies – we were gonna hop a freight, and at the last minute I didn’t go. They wound up in Albuquerque, New Mexico,” he says.

“The reason I didn’t go,” Dad explains, “is because I had met this girl that I was so enthralled over that I kinda lost interest in the box car riding. Well, the girl is your mother.” Thus would begin a series of circumstances that would eventually put him back on the farm, actually taking it over from his father.

I suggest that with slightly different circumstances during his time in California, he may have made different conclusions, may have indeed never returned to the farm.

To that he says, “Oh, it’s possible.  But there’s something in my makeup that I could not stay away from the woods.”

I ask how he felt in the woods. “Comfortable. I felt at home,” he says.

As a kid, I absorbed my father’s reverence for nature, watched him, studied him as huntsman and woodsman. I also gathered recollections from him that helped explain how he grew up seeing the land and the woods – as a place where he could live out his own version of the adventures he’d read about in Jack London or Zane Grey novels. But there were more urgent influences. The woods became his sanctuary from the unceasing farm chores his dad could find for him and from the painfully strange world of high school, which to him was like “a prison.” School was no place for a suaveless farm boy who took a bath once a week. No place for a hayseed who had as much use for sports or sock-hops as Daniel Boone had for doilies.

Though my own adolescence was, I'm sure, radically different from my dad's, I do recall a span of time when I tried to emulate, rather pathetically, what I understood to be my dad’s relationship with the woods. And then in my early twenties, as I've only recently come to understand in retrospect, there was a kind of estrangement between the woods and me – as if Nature could see my innate ineptitude and my shameful insecurities, and I wanted no part in being exposed.

And so in a way I turned my back on the woods and the land, never forgetting them but trying to diminish their importance. An unsuccessful attempt, thankfully. It was at some point in my thirties when I was drawn back to Nature and came to realize its sublime indifference toward me. Which was liberating. I, too, could feel at home in the woods – could be myself – though that self in so many ways differs from my father.

And so now I continue to appreciate the peace that comes with the recognition of just how small my self is in relation to Nature, even to the point where, sometimes, the distinction of a me and of nature falls away. I can move in a green freedom of sacred things, quiet mysteries, and transcendent moments when I am wholly present and, I would go so far as to say, the holy is present. But it probably all started with Dad.

Though no believer, I can on occasion draw something useful, even beautiful from Christian scripture. So I’m thinking today of the Parable of the Prodigal Son from the gospel of Luke. Recall the dense narrative and the three main characters that comprise it – the father, the younger son (the Prodigal Son), and the older son. The parable works on one level to illustrate the supposed supreme and indefatigable love of God (symbolized by the father in the story).

But I’m drawn to the story for other reasons. Consider the arc of my dad's life and the roles he's played: younger brother to two siblings, older brother to three others, an unexpectedly forlorn adolescent wanderer, and, soon after that, a husband, father, and inheritor of the family farm. You could say that Dad’s been all three characters in the parable. Of course real life does not play out in such stark absolutes – the pure love of a father, the sudden transformative self-insight of a chagrined younger son, the open resentment of a dutiful older son.

Yes, Dad has often called his trip to California “foolish,” not unlike the Prodigal Son himself, who, after having asked for his portion of inheritance, sets off for “a distant country,” as it’s put in Luke, only to squander his money and find himself basically concluding, Hey, my old man and the farm ain’t so bad.

Eventually my dad would take over the farm and become the older brother type, remaining behind with his folks and watching his younger siblings move away and in essence sever ties with the farm and the land forever.

But my dad’s longest running role in terms of the parable is of the father. And my longest running role? I am the baby of the family. I am single and childless – and nearing 40. When I left the farm for college 20 years ago, even one that was less than two hours away, a natural process of separation had begun between son and father. Or maybe it had already begun years earlier and my departure was simply its geographic culmination. To the extent that I have ever been prodigal, that is, “wastefully extravagant,” as the dictionary defines it, in real or figurative ways, I’ve never found myself swept up by an epiphany about my father or the place I come from. My appreciation for both have grown gently, incrementally and seems always to change in nuance, especially after a visit. I’ve even set off for distant countries, though the literal distances I’ve traveled are dwarfed by the vast stretches covered internally, that is to say, within my own understanding of who I am and what it means to live a life.

Many, perhaps most, of the differences between Dad and me, political or otherwise, are intractable. And with all due respect to my father, he is much more interested in reinforcing musty notions formed decades ago than ever seriously entertaining a truly new and, dare I say, more accurate idea of the world.

Is that really such an inappropriate thing to say? I think not. I say it confidently but calmly. And I also recognize that I am part of an all-too-familiar tableau of father and son facing each other across the proverbial generation gap – a dynamic that will continue to play out across time and space long after both of us are gone.

But I also know this much to be true: Over and over again, with every visit I make home, Dad, in his own quiet way, is saying this: “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found."

Each time that I go creates another moment to come home again.


Ian said...

Excellent post,

My father was the son who left the farm and although returned to help, never took it over.

I visited with him last weekend as my mother was up north celebrating her 60th birthday with her sisters.

He told me about his life after the farm but before me and my sister and our mother, his second wife. A lot of jumping from night shift computer programming gigs, hard work, renting apartments and working in some run down industrial neighborhoods in the big city in the late 1960s.

As far as I know, my grandfather may have not wanted to be a farmer (my mother thinks he might have wanted to be a lawyer) but my great-grandfather owned a number of farms and had his sons run them. When he died, his sons were given money and the opportunity to buy the farms. My grandfather successfully overbid his brother Roy for the farm Roy lived on. They didn't speak for decades.

By that time, my grandfather had a good business mind and made a decent living farming and its what he knew. He also believed the farm was too small to share with his son.

So my dad chose another path and when my grandfather retired, he offered the farm to my dad. I believe they had a similar relationship in some ways as the one you describe above. My father seriously considered it, but he had married a city girl and they had two children and a separate life in Mankato.

So, for me the farm was the place to visit, the place where there was always at least a breeze (if not a windy day), a grove with a mourning dove, an old barn and peace. The peace I as an urban dweller forget about.

After my grandmother's death in 2005, I consistantly had dreams of the old farm, many times I was living there. She sold the homestead when my grandfather died and I didn't see it again...

Until I got married. I wanted to show my wife the part of Minnesota where people knew how to pronounce our northern German name and where my ancestors farmed the land. We visited the old homestead but it seemed quite foreign to me - small, without many of the old buildings and the big willow tree and most importantly, my grandparents' love.

I haven't had a dream about the farm since but I still pray and think about my grandparents often and hope to someday honor them by naming one of their great-grandchilden after them, God willing.

Thanks for the thoughtful (and thought-provoking) post. See you in July!

Anonymous said...

Beautiful stuff...

Our fathers are the same in so many ways and completely opposite at the same time.

Nature hikes - identifying trees, sitting under the apple tree, bird watching, foraging for morels, fishing and hunting with dad are my very first memories.

Tim says I have an old soul and he calls me grandpa because of it - I got that old soul from my dad.

When I was 8, dad was 62 and mostly retired. When I was 21, I planned a road trip to D.C. with college friends over Thanksgiving break. Dads health was in question and I offered to skip the trip and spend the week at home. He told me I needed to go and see the world "while I was young".

I went. My traveling crew two American girls, a German and Japanese guy returned a bit early to spend some time at my parents home. We rolled in about about 1am Saturday night/morning and the folks were still up - they met my friends and we all sat around the kitchen table talking until 3:30. My friends - adored my parents! We had a long and easy conversation in the dark November wee hours. I was grown-up and it felt great.

On Sunday afternoon, I spent a few hours with dad, while mom made herself scarce in the kitchen. Dad was drinking a gallon of bowel cleansing juice - prepping for a colonoscopy. We talked and shared deeply. Five months later he passed.

I have no regrets for spending a week in D.C. Because of the trip and the people I took it with, my dad could see I was grown and would be okay without him - of course I didn't realize it the time, but now I think it's was brilliant on my fathers part.

"Non, je ne regrette rien" ANTON

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