Ollie Carnigie, Buffalo Bisons, circa 1935
We make our own histories, Thucydides says, tailor our memories to "suit our sufferings." Not just sufferings, but happy memories, too, fall subject to our mental alterations: the sled hill at Brighton Park, terrifyingly steep when I was six, terrifying still in my memories, is barely a hill at all; and the onion rings at Jester's, the place Grand-Pa took us after I crashed my sled at Brighton Park, probably didn't possess restorative powers capable of healing broken bones, but you can't convince me otherwise.
Which brings me to my father.
Yesterday would have been the thirtieth anniversary of his death, and next Wednesday would be his seventieth birthday, if he were still around to celebrate birthdays. I didn't mention it yesterday, simply because I'd forgotten, would have forgotten still had my younger son not said at dinner last night, "Do you know whose birthday today is? Hugh Jackman!" and I felt this sick feeling that something important had happened that day, and then I remembered October 12, 1979 and realized that my boy knew more about Hugh Jackman -- his birth date, for starters -- than he knew about his grandfather, and all I could feel was shame and ingratitude.
He is thirty years gone this month, not much more than An Historical Figure to most of his progeny, the guy who ran track and played baseball, the guy who worked construction, the guy who left a long time ago. Even for those of us who remember, the memories are faulty, altered, tailored to what we want to believe. He is gone long enough that I can no longer recall the sound of his voice, and when I think of him, I am suddenly sixteen, and everything that roils the water between a father and son when the son is sixteen and the father is the enemy shakes me and pounds me and makes me want to go very far away.
My father was a kind and decent man, a builder, an athlete. He was a competitor, fiery and strong, who'd drag me to bowling alleys and high school tracks and ball courts to score him and time him and count his baskets, always muttering to himself, pushing himself, demanding more from himself. He wore tight white t-shirts and white painters pants to work, and when he came home he was covered with drywall dust, white and slightly shimmery, an archangel in work boots. I cannot count the number of times people I barely know have told me, "Your father was a great man. Your father had a huge influence in my life." That was Jerry.
My mother has been a widow for not quite twice as long as she was a wife, and she still wears her wedding band, which says something about Dad, but says far more about Mom, says she is loyal and loving and patient and faithful, with all the ennobling attributes that faithfulness implies. For her, Jerry is not the guy who left; he is the man she is going to, wholly confident in their reunion, sure that she will be happily, gloriously returned to him when her time here is over.
This makes my roiling, my arrested perspective, all the more shameful. I was loved and cared for by parents who loved each other and who did all the right things. And still my thoughts of reunion in some eternal family with him -- a concept central to my faith, essential to my faith -- makes me quiver.
Mormons believe in a personal God, a God who is just and merciful, who gives us precisely the challenges we need in order to make us the people He intends us to be. Lying in a Missouri prison, abused and illegally held, Joseph Smith offered a prayer that is filled with despair, a prayer that wondered whether any One is even bothering to listen. And in that extremity, Joseph was told, "All these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good." It is a hard thing to hear, that God not only permits our trials, He knows that we cannot grow without them. It's a conviction that makes the unbelievers laugh and scorn. It's a conviction that demands much from the believers.
My dad and I form a mutual "All these things shall give thee experience" club. I love him, and I know that he loves me, but we are so different from one another, it is hard to believe that we are father and son. Embracing the notion that we have to embrace one another, in all our differences, if we expect to be worthy sons of God, is a challenge.
Maybe some of this is because our relationship was arrested by timing, caught in the Mobius strip of adolescence and early death. I don't know. I am round and soft and slow; he was all action and sinews and fast-twitch muscles. I love music; he owned two records: "Orange Blossom Special" by Johnny Cash, and "These Boots Were Made For Walking" by Nancy Sinatra. I am books and notepads and silly blog writing; Dad was tools and trucks and getting things done. The thought of seeing him again, me thirty years rounder, softer and slower, him, lithe and lean, an eternal thirty-nine, fills me with dread, convinced that all I will see in his eyes is incomprehension and disappointment.
Right before he died, the last time I saw him alive, barely alive, hollow eyed and drugged at Buffalo General, Dad looked straight at me, for a long time, and said, plainly, evenly, without malice, "I would have become a teacher, if you hadn't come along." It wasn't a hateful thing to say. Replaying it hundreds of thousands of times over the years, I can't say that it was anything but honest, like the father in that old Paul Simon song saying, "You are the burden of my generation/I sure do love you, but let's get that straight." My birth changed his life, closed doors for him, and he loved me enough to keep those doors closed, to work and fight and sacrifice, not for me alone, for us, for all of us. I just happened to be the oldest, the one who would remember, the one he thought would understand. And he needed to say it, even if I wasn't ready to understand.
It's crippling, the conviction that you can't meet a dead man's expectations. It's adolescent, foolish. There is no reason to think that my father, with his blue blue eyes and his Lincolnesque lankiness would be anything but enthralled by my wife, charmed by her kindness and grace, would be anything but delighted by his grandchildren, hugging them and laughing with them and loving them, would be anything but impressed by the easy athleticism of the youngest, anything but thrilled by the wit and fire of his granddaughter, anything but moved to tears at hearing the eldest sing, his sweet, ringing tenor a gift from God. There is no reason to think that he would see what I've done with my life, and do anything but nod approvingly and declare it a good work, an acceptable offering. There is no reason not to believe these things. And I try to believe it, to believe in him, but then I am sixteen, and he is looking at me with those glazed and hollow eyes, and the roiling starts again.
When I was maybe ten years old, I found a box of Dad's old baseball stuff in the cellar, spikes and balls and an ancient glove, its lacings loose and rotting. And there were flannel uniforms, five or six of them. One was grey and sleeveless, with a zippered placket and a script "Amherst" chain-stitched in black and scarlet across the chest. Another was an actual, honest to goodness Brooklyn Dodgers jersey, one of a set of cast off uniforms that somebody who knew somebody had procured for the team sponsored by one of the local veterans' groups, the Sikora Post. It even had Billy Cox's name stitched onto the front tail. For a summer, I wore those heavy, itchy flannels everywhere, the full regalia, riding my Sting-Ray in stirrup socks and billowy woolen pants, suffocating under a cotton t-shirt, raglan sleeved undershirt, and one of those beautiful jerseys. People would see me on Webster Street, and ask, "You have a game this afternoon, son?" and I would solemnly explain, "No, I don't play baseball," and take off, humming, peeking at my furiously pedaling shadow out of the corner of my eye.
I don't know what it did to my dad, seeing the remnants of his past glories draped on his pudgy eldest son. Maybe it made him mad. Maybe he never even noticed. What I wanted him to see was that even though I could never be him, never be strong like him, never be a competitor like him, I loved him. I loved who he was, and what he was, and I wanted, desperately, for him to feel that way about me.
This is all memory, all stitched together stuff. It's probably a mess (I'm actually afraid to go back and re-read it). It's like snow thrown up by a plow, artificial peaks and ridges where the ground is really flat and smooth. I need to get over it.
There are still flannels in my closet, not those old ones -- they disappeared decades ago, and besides, they'd be too small for me -- ones I've bought from boutique companies catering to nostalgic middle-aged men. Every time I wear one, I think of my father. I try not to make the memories suit my sufferings. I try to think like a man, not a teenager. I try to believe he's proud of me.
I hope he is.