My father died in the autumn of 1989 of congestive heart failure. His name was Lester and he was 79 and, as he recedes into the past, he gradually ceases to be a single human image and becomes a body of memories. Perhaps this is just as well. When my mother called to say he was dying, I drove from Syracuse, where I was teaching, to their house in New Hampshire and sat with him for two days before he died. He was not a tall man, and in the previous year he had lost about 60 pounds as all food came to taste bitter. Previously, he had loved to eat. He looked bloodless, stick-thin, and in these last days he needed increasing doses of morphine, as he swung between waking and dreaming and fought his death, grabbing his last gulps of oxygen through the plastic tubes stuck in his nose, growing ever weaker; and then that was it, he gave up, it was over in mid-breath. He became an object. I stayed to watch the undertaker’s assistants wrestle him into their blue polyester body bag. So my last image of my father was seeing the fat silver zipper being drawn across his forehead. Better to translate that image, the specific human being, into a body of memories in order to get the warmth back.
He was born in 1911 in a small town in Oklahoma where his father had moved from Kansas around 1890 to start a hardware store. My grandfather had thought the town would become the capital; it became the county seat. The hardware was a rambling one-story building that smelled of oil and leather, wool and cold metal; its wood floors creaked when you walked; it lasted until the 1970s, when Wal-Mart moved into town. My father said my grandfather had fried chicken for lunch every day of his life, and he had a gesture he would imitate of his father coming out of the chicken coop with two squawking chickens held by the neck — a little circular swing of the fists that snapped the chickens’ necks. My grandfather was a strict Methodist who joked about the liberalism of his church by saying they could play dominoes in the rectory. I remember lying in bed at my grandparents’ house on Sunday mornings listening to “Jesus loves me this I know, because the Bible tells me so” being played on the church bells. We lived in East Lansing, Michigan, at the time, and small-town Oklahoma around 1950 seemed as strange as Mars.
My father was the middle of three brothers and was bullied by the oldest, felt bullied by the hardware store and the roughness of the world in which he grew up. He never liked sports or hunting or fishing or horses or cars or chasing girls or getting drunk. To avoid chores and working in the store, he took piano lessons. His mother had been a schoolteacher, and she encouraged him. He was a good pianist for small-town Oklahoma, and after a year or so at the university he got into Julliard. But it didn’t take long to see that what was good for his hometown meant little in New York, so he transferred to Columbia, where he met my mother and eventually got a master’s in music education, with a thesis on music of the Hitler Youth, which his adviser plagiarized and published as his own. My father was in Berlin in 1935 and ’36 and visited a number of Hitler Youth camps. When, after singing for three hours, 3000 uniformed and jackbooted teenagers turned to my father in his theater box and shouted “Heil Hilter,” he rushed to the bathroom and threw up.
After graduating, he taught high school music for five years and hated it, so he changed professions and a few years later became director of the YMCA at Michigan State. In his early 40s he took a few courses with Paul Tillich at Union Seminary in New York and decided to become an Episcopal minister. He credited his conversion to reading C.S. Lewis and the letters of St. Paul. When he entered seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, I was in seventh grade and had pretty much decided that while God was a nice idea, it was, at least for me, a gigantic improbability. Although I felt I respected my father’s decision, I was so messed up with adolescence, so shy and at the same time such a huge discipline problem at school, that I had very little time to pay attention to other people’s lives.
At my father’s funeral, his younger brother’s wife — my aunt — told me how they had all considered my father an artist: his piano playing, his interest in books, how he had been such an outsider in his hometown, his decision to go to New York, the fact that he had lived in the Village and loved opera and jazz — such was her evidence. I was amazed. I had never thought of him as an artist. After all, he had never produced anything except sermons, and they had taken a lot of trouble. I thought of myself as the artist — my aunt said I got it from him, which was also irritating — since I was a poet and novelist and had the books to prove it.
In many ways, I never knew my father — in part, because he rarely talked about himself; in part, because I was so rebellious; in part, because we were quite different and had completely different senses of humor. I remember how he would sit through episode after episode of Monty Python with me just because I found it hysterical. He would become furious because he didn’t have the least idea what I found so funny, and I would become furious because he didn’t get it. But my love of music comes from him. All sorts of music was in the house from the very beginning, and he took me to jazz and classical concerts while I was still in grade school. We shared a love for Duke Ellington, but I could never make him like the Rolling Stones.
He had tremendous compassion and empathy. It amazed me in high school that my friends when they were tormented, had an insoluble problem, or were simply confused, came to the house to talk to him, while I wasn’t able to talk to him at all. Although one time when I was a freshman in college in western Illinois and perhaps 16 inches away from a breakdown, he dropped everything and flew from Detroit and met me in a Chicago hotel. We didn’t really talk about my problems — I was too private for that — except that he called room service for club sandwiches and bottles of Heinekens (this was the man who was furious when he had caught me drinking). So I told him I was unhappy and didn’t know what to do, and he was patient and listened. And when the breakdown came and I quit school, he continued to be supportive. And when I crawled out of it and began to publish, he read my poems and novels, sometimes reading them again and again. Even when he didn’t understand them or like them, he encouraged me and was proud that I had written them.
I like to think of my life as having a completeness, a beginning, middle, and end. That is a sort of vanity. Rather it is a few pages in a long story, and those pages arise out of the pages that came before it. Certainly my pages have their own subject, their own energy and purpose, but they wouldn’t exist without the previous pages and the pages before that, going all the way back to the beginning, wherever that is. So my parents, both of them, make up the pages before mine. They were sensible, educated, well-meaning people who loved me. Yet the child responds with his or her own complexity. It’s like the body of memory and the final image; the two pieces of information add up to a third — the child as a mixture of the parents and some other confusion.
Because my father had been a minister and active in half a dozen dioceses, three different bishops took part in his funeral service. And positioned on a pedestal between the bishops and several ministers in the chancel and the people attending the service was a little white box. It looked just like the box you give your girl before the prom, the one containing an orchid, except this box held my father’s ashes, his mortal remains, all the passion and energy, the love and complexity, the knowledge and memory, the final dispersion of a lifetime, scaled down by flame, traveling back to the earth.
This article is part of the Father's Day issue. To read additional articles from this issue, click here.