Publication date, Month, year
For the buried, closure.
For the missing, space–
This Illinois distance
Where a man can walk forever,
Stubble and sky,
Where a house on the other side
Is ever the horizon.
Ten years ago this month—June, the month of Father’s Day—what was thought to be the remains of my father’s body were found in some woods along a ridge by a couple of hikers. He had disappeared three years before from a VA hospital in rural Pennsylvania. His Parkinson’s Disease had finally exhausted my mother, and she couldn’t keep him at home anymore. On most days, he was helpless, but every once in a while, he could with a struggle dress himself. Gaining momentum, he’d then shuffle about, gathering speed as he went, head-down and charging like the soldier he once was into enemy fire—that is, into whatever was in the way, be it a lamp or a shelf full of crystal, and down they’d come. And if a door were open, out he’d go, which is exactly what he did that day at the VA.
My brother and I and our three sisters gathered from across the country to help in a search that included helicopters, bloodhounds, and an extraordinary group of volunteers. We had his picture everywhere—in coffee shops, gas stations, and on sign-posts and trees—but after five days and nights without sleep, we finally gave up—gave up the physical search, at least, but certainly not the emotional one.
When one of my sisters called three long years later with the news that human remains had been found not far from the VA, I didn’t believe that this was my father and am unable to yet, despite the final judgment in court. To have him declared officially dead was in the best interest of us all, my mother especially, but I cannot dispel the fantasy I still live with, that my father has never died. I know that he did, somewhere, but like Hamlet, find myself saying “Alas, poor ghost” each June when Father’s Day rolls around, and I see him walking the battlements, his shadow stooped and beckoning.
No wonder we believe in ghosts.
Where else do our shadows go in the dark,
Putting on someone else’s clothes,
Dressing up to haunt us?
I don’t want his winter coat.
I know you’d just bought it,
That he only wore it once.
I know it will fit me fine.
I know, I know, I know.
Don’t send it, please.
A divorced father myself and living in a time when fatherhood has undergone some redefinition, I realize this cool Friday morning in June, two days before my two grown children will surely call, how “father” really haunts us all, whether he is living or dead. It’s no wonder, then, that “Father’s Day” is such a commercial success. It’s also been well-timed: the crabgrass is spreading and the Yankees and Red Sox are slugging it out on the field. Thus, giving Dad a new weed-whacker or a day at the ballpark confirms the picture that most fathers see of themselves. Dad might just be someone else inside, however, and not really that interested in whacking anything, be it a dandelion or baseball.
Last month, my children and many like them sent their mothers lots of flowers, a gift that seems harmless enough, but imagine the national consternation if fathers across the country received similar bouquets this coming Sunday. “Dad just loves daisies, Mom,” says the strapping sixteen-year-old son to his mother. “Yeah,” confirms the sarcastic daughter in hip-huggers, “and how about some pansies, too?” I laugh at how amazed my tough-minded old man would have been had I sent him a lovely arrangement back in his prime when he was part of the “greatest generation” and served in the tank corps from l941-45. My earliest image of him was from a picture he’d sent from the war. “This is your Dad,” my mother probably said, and I remember distinctly this grinning guy with a helmet on standing in front of some kind of frightening machine.
What looked like my fallen blocks lay strewn all around, buildings and statues blown to bits. The happy man was holding a bottle in one hand and in the other, a statue’s head, its eyes fierce above the thin, mustached lip. “Me and Hitler at the Rhine,” my father had written on the back. Like him this photo has long since vanished, but like my father, too, it did indeed exist and remains fixed in my imagination, the ultimate family album.
The two faces in that picture my father had sent—the one of boyish triumph, but the other, grim and scary—remained with me into manhood. It is, I believe, the national image: the father as a happy-go-lucky, game-loving guy, or he’s the other extreme, some version of Adolf Hitler, a “Darth Vader.” The light and dark fathers are seldom one, at least in the view of him that we hold because father, by choice or chance, has been away a lot of the time. We simply don’t know who he is.
But neither does he.
My old man, then young, was fighting the real Hitler when I was born, but his absence continued as he tried to support an ever-enlarging family. He was gone before I woke up, off to make a sale. Who is this guy, the little boy I was must have wondered when he came home. I even called my father “Doug,” for a while, as my mother did, long before I ever called him “dad,” which I don’t ever remember doing. Instead, he was “Pop,” at times as funny as a party favor; at other times, as explosive.
Who was that guy, I find myself still asking. In those surreal months just after he’d disappeared, I would mistake some poor bent-over man for him whose image I could never quite reach, despite how stumbling his step. Or out in these fields of central Illinois where the empty landscape allows the mind to wander in distance, I would see in the grayness an image of my father trembling along through the stubble.
The missing need a place to be,
As much as for themselves as we
Who cannot rest for tracking them, we
Who dream of snow, his footprints fresh and he
Just ahead I’m sure, just over the next rise, see
Where he stumbled here, how he needs
An arm, a place to lean,
Faster now, faster, please . . .
Since he was away so often when I was growing up, my father’s disappearance from the VA seemed very much in character. It seemed especially so when I later discovered from talking to his brothers that their own father had taken off one February night from the family farm in upstate New York and never came back. He left four young sons and a wife in the Catskill cold. “We hated the bastard,” my Uncle Sheldon told me.
“Why your father wanted to find him, I don’t know.”
But find him he somehow did after the war. My father’s father turned up in Newark, New Jersey, selling fire insurance from a stark office over a pawn shop in that rough city. It was then that we moved, on a hot August day in l950 with my father at the wheel of our Studebaker stuffed with kids and cats and my beleaguered mother. But we were heading towards that hated man, not away, and had left New England so that my father could go to work for someone he hardly knew, that strange man who came to dinner the first Thanksgiving in our new home, that scary man who never said a word.
He was that severed head in the picture, I realize now, with his fierce brow and dark stare. He had no friendly name like “granddad” or “grampy,” and I never spoke to him at all other than in a trembling voice to call him “sir.” My father jokingly called him “I am,” but never to his face—“I am,” because when he did speak, the man began every sentence that way: “I am the first,” “I am the best.” He was also “I am” because to my father, this stern and silent figure must have been a terrifying god—“I am the Word”—with such power as he seemed to have.
In the lightning, sudden on the ceiling like a searchlight,
I can see the statue rise, massive and stiff—
In my chest can hear it marching, marching, in strict steps
Striding towards the river now,
Its right arm out and rigid,
A man’s head in its marble hand.
Like his brothers, I wonder why my father ever sought to find his own. He certainly didn’t expect an apology, and how would someone apologize anyway for what my grandfather did? Surely, Pop wanted what any child does, a parent’s recognition, but that never came. On his death-bed in a mental hospital several years later, he turned to my father, the only family member there other than my mother, and said, “I don’t know you,” then muttered the names of his other three sons as he died—and only their names, the bastard.
My father had just turned nine when he woke up to find his father gone, the same age Jackie Gleason was when his father walked out on him in Brooklyn, New York. Gleason was my old man’s favorite entertainer and died around the time my father disappeared, which is why I know about “Ralphy-boy’s” history. For some reason I wanted to learn who else had “vanished” that year, and when I found out that Jackie and my old man had the same kind of father, I began to wonder if Pop saw something of himself in this funny, sad man.
On Flatbush Avenue, a skinny kid
Now nearly ten,
Sets out for home
From P.S. 101
And while the other tenement kids
With dreams of their own
Like balls in their mitts
Go off to play together,
He takes off alone, meeting
As he goes along
The many failures he’d become . . .
My father loved all those abandoned Gleason characters like the pantomime “Poor Soul” whose hand-me-down clothes never fit, and his opposite, the brash and pushy “Loudmouth.” Pop saved Friday nights for laughs as vigorously as he earned cash the rest of the week. My father was Ralph Cramden with his get-rich-quick schemes and must have longed to say something like, “Alice, you’re the greatest” when he’d get home, or, no doubt, “To the moon, Alice, you’re goin’ to the moon,” as if real family life could have ever had the half-hour resolution of each Honeymooner episode.
My father had all of Gleason’s records, too. We forget—and for good reason, hearing such schmaltz—that Jackie conducted an orchestra, and my father would play the stuff all the time. Not one note was original, and all possible dissonance was resolved by the comedian’s magical baton. I can see my father now as he listens in the dim light of the living room, sitting there alone, swaying slightly, eased to sleep after the mad dash of his day. The “Loudmouth” and the quiet one: both were Jackie Gleason, and both were my old man.
By himself on the stoop
Before his mother calls him in,
He lifts a dream baton
To the street lamps
Coming slowly on,
And in the stage lights’ glare
Gropes through the curtain
At the end of the show,
All swagger, all sweat,
Wrapped in the wealth
Of a boxer’s silk robe
To wave us all good-night
Who’d laughed till we cried . . .
Like the famous acorn, I fell not far from my father’s tree and have at least two faces myself. I write and publish poetry and hold a PhD in literature. I am also an avid hunter and fisherman. My hands are small and my fingers delicate, but I can use them as deftly composing a sonnet as gutting a deer. I am exactly my father’s size and literally hiked in his boots for years after his disappearance, hunting the gray November emptiness of these Illinois fields. I wore his bright cap, too, in hopes that he might see me from wherever he was, its brilliant blaze-orange, a small fire in the cold.
Pressing my thumb to my wrist
I count the tiny sheep
leaping there, beat by beat,
Minutes, hours, morning,
Teaching my son to tell time,
The big hand, the small,
The numbers slipping from them,
Seven, eight, nine.
I find my father with his sleeves rolled
Driving a stake with a stone.
I hear him say from some far field,
“Watch how the shadow falls
In a circle on the ground.”
Often without meaning to, the behavioral hand-me-downs passed on to me, I have, in turn, passed on to my son and daughter. Naturally, I can more easily see my influence, both good and bad, on my son. Brendan likes to fish, for example, and, like me, played ball through school. I taught him how to hit and throw, but what did I teach him about love, I wonder? It’s not a skill like casting a fly or swinging a bat. It’s not the mastery of technique as even poetry at its worst can be. Does his hand tremble with joy or fear when he touches a woman?—for I have seen his fingers that are shaped like mine shake almost as uncontrollably as my palsied father’s when he’s tried to net a fish and thinks I’m watching, whether I actually am or not. And for my daughter, which of the many “me’s” have I been to her? How can I make her know I’m real and not some image from the culture?
Eight years ago while teaching in Greece, I had the rare chance for both of us to find out who I am as Megan, then sixteen, came to live with me for most of the spring. Her stay was the ultimate Father’s Day gift. I got to be both Mom and Pop, an opportunity my own father seldom had. I was especially determined to bring the parts of me together for my daughter. I had witnessed the consequences of a woman’s knowing only the stern, unforgiving kind of father in my former wife and Megan’s mother, a woman I had loved profoundly. She has forever feared her workaholic father and to this day, acts like a frightened child around him although he’s eighty-seven years old. Those yet living can haunt us, too, and in my wife’s mind I became the shadow of that man she never knew.
I didn’t help matters much either, being as blind about my own behavior as Oedipus was when he could see. The father-daughter issue in Sophocles’ play is rarely talked about but should be. We forget that Oedipus also had sons, but they never appear in the play. Only Antigone and Ismene do, which throws emphasis on the daughters’ relationship with their father. Who he is in their eyes becomes very important. How to be a king at the dinner table is the contemporary version of being on the throne in Thebes.
By the end of a pretty bad day, Oedipus is more kingly as a humbled man than he was as royalty, and Antigone and Ismene—two images themselves: one strong, one weak—are there to accept, forgive, and even admire. But first there must be some painful self-recognition on the father’s part, and what better place than Greece to help one “Know Thyself.”
I was as nervous when my daughter arrived as I might have been on a first date. We weren’t “doubling” with another couple. Instead, we would be isolated together in a strange culture where neither of us knew the language. I was the one who felt sixteen, although when really her age, I was far more self-confident than I was at that moment. Back on a street corner in Jersey in the late-fifties, with my collar up and hair slicked back, I knew what love was then: “five feet of heaven and a ponytail.” Love was as easy as those words from a Frankie Avalon song, but it had somehow become more complicated over the years. More than forty of them, in fact, and there I was waiting for my daughter in the smoky Athens airport and terribly unsure of myself.
But did I know me well enough, a father’s first obligation? Could I trust myself not to lie or boast as we traveled and ate together; to not be too judgmental? Was I self-confident enough to admit when I didn’t know something or to say, yes, I’m lost, too?
Not always, but I tried.
Our six weeks together zipped by, quick as a lizard on a Santorini hillside. We shared the present moment in hurried taxis and eternity under the gold mosaics of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia where we’d gone for our last trip of her visit. And then she flew home, the Monday after Father’s Day which we spent with some Greek friends who lavished the family’s patriarchs with, of all things, flowers. Cascades of yellow and pink bouquets, and then they wept, everyone did, bawled like babbling babies, even those swarthy Greek men, the older ones anyway, cried until they laughed, as we all did. And, next day, when she flew off, I shamelessly gushed again.
I don’t remember ever seeing my father cry. What would I have thought if I had? It would have confused me, just as his getting flowers one Sunday in June would have baffled him. He must have cried, I’m sure, though men of his generation seldom did in public. I do know he loved to laugh, when he had the time.
I wish I could have told him about a word I learned in ancient Greek: “klafseeyalos,” as it might be spelled phonetically. It means “laughter” and “tears” in one word, not two. It’s also the perfect word to describe so many of Jackie Gleason’s characters, like the shy and shuffling funny pantomime of his “Poor Soul” and, of course, the brassy yet sorry Ralph Cramden himself.
“Klafseeyalos”: we see this wise word most often pictured above a stage, perhaps like the one where Jackie Gleason would take his bow at the end of the show, sweat marks on the silk of his robe. “Klafseeyalos”: the comic and the tragic mask, but they are the same face, really, with just different directions for the mouth. The same person, too, as the ancient Greeks realized, Father or Daddy. Even Pop.
Wherever he went that day, years ago now,
I see him leading a platoon
Of men like those not there around him,
Purple Hearts and heroes, all of them, yes,
But not on this mission with a daffy Captain.
Instead, they’ve found their way to some green ballpark,
The 9000th inning about to start
And beer for all forever:
Just a bunch of happy ghosts, waving to the camera.
Bruce Guernsey is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Eastern Illinois University where he taught Creative Writing and 19th Century American Literature for twenty-five years. He has also taught at William and Mary, Johns Hopkins, and Virginia Wesleyan where he was Poet in Residence for four years. He was awarded seven faculty excellence awards for teaching at Eastern Illinois, and in 1992-93, was selected as the State of Illinois Board of Governors’ “Professor of the Year,” the highest award in that state system. He has also been the recipient of two Senior Fulbright Lectureships in American Poetry to Portugal and to Greece and has twice sailed around the world as a faculty member with Semester at Sea.
His poems have appeared in The Atlantic, Poetry, The American Scholar, and many of the quarterlies and among his awards are fellowships in creative writing from the NEA, four from the Illinois Arts, and the NEA Residency Fellowship at the MacDowell Colony. Five of his poems have been featured in Ted Kooser’s “American Life in Poetry.” He is a former editor of The Spoon River Poetry Review.
The author of thirteen collections of poetry, his most recent book is FROM RAIN: Poems, 1970-2010 (Ecco Qua Press, 2012). He also recently edited Mapping the Line: Poets on Teaching, a collection of class-tested exercises, written and used by some of the country’s best poet/teachers.