In my twenties, while trying to figure out the dance steps of relationship, how one navigates the moves of love, longing, lust and belonging, I was often lost. Trying to understand what it was that got in the way of two people simply being able to meet each other face to face, I imagined it truly as a dance. But while trying to manage the steps, I realized that we weren’t just two people on the dance floor. Behind me was my father, whispering in my ear how to do the dance. And behind him his father, and his father, the line leading back to the lost past, each passing down the steps and the rules and the ways to be. And not only that, across from me was not my partner, but my mother. Or rather, the reflection of my mother. With my grandmother, and her mother, and that line stretching far into forgotten times too. Multiply that by the fact my dance partner had her mother behind her and her father in front of her, and it’s no wonder the dance floor felt crowded.
And there was the fact too, that my father came from the generation of men who’d been whispered to by their forefathers for so long, “don’t be too happy, or too angry, and above all never sad. Work hard, value what can be made over what can be shared between people.” A prescription for loneliness and loss.
So that was my legacy and lineage. Within that I tried to figure out what it was to be a man, and if it was possible even to change it, to find something new. Thinking it could only go in one direction, from the past to the future. In this work at that time, when you went to work on your blind spots and fears, often what was focused on was your childhood. As Philip Larkin has it, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” If you worked with a counselor, as I did, part of that process that was almost required was to write a letter to your parents, detailing all the ways they’d denied you, not shared of themselves, been less than they were and could be. I wrote that letter to my father as I was encouraged to, and it was met with angry silence. Something to the effect of “that’s your opinion.” I think back now and wonder, how could I think anger would bring about anything besides more anger?
Perhaps the process worked, uncovering what was beneath the anger and resentment. Or perhaps it was just that love and memory came forward. One memory started it, his quiet teaching, a night he covered the table with bottles and salt shakers, cups and plates, to feed my hunger for understanding of astronomy. To explain to me how things worked.
I realized that I could not expect this chain of unspoken words and hidden feelings to be broken if I didn’t do myself what it was I wanted to be done. So I wrote a letter thanking him for all he’d done for me… And I still treasure the letter I got back, thanking me and saying, “I’m proud of the man you’ve become.”
I watch my son with his boys, and hope I did enough to pass on the best of our lineage. And to let what was less than useful stop with me. He sends me a message: “I’m reading at A.’s class today. And I remember having the coolest dad on the block come to read to my first grade class.” Tears fill my eyes, and I answer, “Now you’re the coolest dad on the block. And I’m so proud of you.” Continuing the lineage, weaving new bonds.