Father Math

My father was 30 when I was born, a nice round number that should make it easy to say where he was and what I was doing when he was my present age. Yet I struggle with the math and have to do it anew every time I compare us. And the past is murky. Mine is clear enough, but my father at my present age is mysterious. I wasn’t paying attention, though wish I had been.

This week, on Halloween, my son turned 21, a number that sneaked up on me and might have sneaked up on my father as well, though he had seen three children hit 21 before I arrived at that milestone. By the time I turned 21, my father had watched five children leave home for college. Three were already working, financially independent and well gone. I understand now what relief he might have felt, and how empty the house must have seemed, and how it must have felt to be nearing the end of that part of his life.

His father, my grandfather, was my present age—54—when my father was born. My grandfather and his wife started late, and my father arrived as the last of five brothers. The first died in the flu epidemic of 1917, one dropped from the sky in World War II, and only three lived when my father reached my present age. I don’t know if they were close, whether they talked, whether they shared the sense of time fleeing, whether they missed their father or barely thought of him.

I didn’t really talk to my son on his birthday. I sent him a text: “Welcome to your majority, Mr. Marshall.” He sent a couple of confused texts back, and I had to explain the legal meaning of “majority” (one who’s no longer a minor, eligible for inheritance and full legal rights) and why he was “Mister” instead of “Master.” The exchange was much too complicated, and I’m sure he didn’t care much. I understand.

My father would have been my last thought at 21. With so much ahead, I barely looked back, and, though I felt considerable affection for my father, I barely knew him. I sometimes wonder if my son feels he knows me. I wonder if he wants to know me more, as I wish I might know my father more. My son’s life is so exciting, and mine not, really. Just as, when I was in college, I groaned inwardly when my mother passed the phone. What could my father have to say—what really changed in his life?

My grandfather, 84 the year I was born, hardly seems real at all except that my younger brother requested his records from college, and I’ve seen his immaculate handwriting clinging to the lines of his college application. He graduated in 1898.

My son will graduate in 2014, 116 years after my grandfather. Sometimes our generations seem to swim in different dimensions, my grandfather, my father, my son, and me. We meet in shadowy overlaps, layers of future and past that seldom accommodate the present. I often feel the urge to tell my son about his future, but then it seems as futile as telling my father, dead since 1993, about his past. We only understand where we are. Maybe that’s right.

This weekend I intend to call my son, ask about his birthday celebration and bridge gaping time and place again. I remember my own 21st birthday, not as though it were yesterday, but as though it still matters, and I hope I’ll be able to tell my son so. We do so much these days that reaching birthdays hardly counts, but they do count. They are more time together, and, even if we are not exactly together, years layer like pages of a book bigger than any of us.

They are the lives all of us have, do, and will lead. They are all of us, even if in our own time, living.


Filed under Aging, Birthdays, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Thoughts

8 responses to “Father Math

  1. Your posts always find some soft spot in me, no matter how much I try to conceal all of them.

    I should probably just buy your book and get all mushy in private.

    • dmarshall58

      Thanks. This post was different for me. The math made it easy to approach and back away from the love I feel for my son… and my father. It’s funny how, even in writing, you can feel disconcerted, that momentary blush that comes on when you are about to say what you need to say but would rather hope is understood. I don’t know if I can describe that moment, but perhaps you know it. –D

      • I do understand that.

        This post brought up a lot of emotional things for me, in spite of your writing it with distance.

      • dmarshall58

        I’m fascinated right now with this idea of approaching subjects. I’ve been thinking about them as birds recently–you want to get close, but get too close and they fly away. I find myself edging forward and back trying to keep the subject there. –D

      • Great analogy. I know just what you mean.

      • SC

        I usually come back every “cupluh two, tree munths” (I’m not really from Brooklyn) to see what new posts there are. I hope you are on summer vacation and haven’t left the blogosphere. While I was here I thought I would dive into the archives where I found this gem.

        It saddened me that you lost your father when you were still a young man. I lost mine this past year, when I was 58 — he was 95. I am very fortunate to have gotten to know him as my own perspective on life has changed over the years. I wouldn’t say that I barely knew him — I certainly didn’t know what he was like before I was born. I think most of us change considerably once we get married and start raising a family; I know that I have. I did get to know him well over the last 20 years or so. We played a lot of golf together and we talked every day until his hearing left him, then we started to text. He became my best friend.

        My daughter turns 20 this August. My relationship with her is probably about the same as my relationship was with my father when I was 20. I hope I can live long enough to reap the rewards of a special relationship with her as she gets older.

      • dmarshall58

        Thanks for so moving a reply, and I’m sorry I’ve been so slow in responding. You’re right, I was taking the summer off, but apparently I’ve needed more time than that. Writing competes with a lot of other demands in my life—or what seem like demands. I didn’t want to reply before I had something to offer, and I’m still not sure I’ve reached that standard.

        I’m sorry to hear about your dad. As much as we try, we can’t really prepare for a parent’s death. Maybe it’s selfish—our loss, not theirs—but there it is. I’m an intellectual and don’t think much about how my own children will react to my death because I’ll be gone—maybe that’s selfish too.

        Like you, however, I cling to my children now. When I wrote this post six years ago, I seemed resigned to my son’s distance, but since then I’ve been more insistent that we talk. This summer I persuaded him to drive back with me to Chicago after I did a visual art residency in Wyoming. Our sixteen hours or so in the car were great. I felt as if I was getting to know him again, and I hope you and your daughter will find the same kind of rapport you and your father did. Increasingly, I’m convinced those connections are all that matter. What else are we here for but to love one another? It sounds silly to say so—maybe I’m not an intellectual after all—and maybe it’s my age. Still.

        I hope all is well with you. I so appreciate your reading my blog and all your support.


  2. Well said, It applies to mothers and daughters as well. and mothers and sons, fathers and daughters.

    Rhonda Hudgins

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