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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: A father’s mark

by Philip Martin | June 19, 2022 at 2:14 a.m.

The original version of this column appeared on Father's Day 1999.

Facts slide through my mind reluctantly, heavy as mercury, nagging yet reticent. I remember old houses, sharp smells of wet dog and wool, the crunch of frozen grass underfoot and the tender nap of flannel, floating faces but no names. Snow but no cold. This is childhood.

I try not to grab the first easy image. I fight the nostalgic impulse. It was hard for them, I now know, though it is to their credit I didn't then. Trailer homes and base housing, klaxons going off and high alerts. Missiles in Cuba. Chicken pox and my first dead president.

A compact man, never more than 150 pounds. I could wear his sportcoats when I was a high school freshman. but the sleeves were too short when I was a sophomore. I used to post him up and shoot over him. He said he never let me win, but I don't believe that.

I remember baseball games--his better than my own. He was just a kid then, half the age I am now, and I never thought about what dreams he might have had deferred or abandoned. I was a young man when he died, but he was younger than that then, with a family, a toehold in the lower middle class.

He came from nothing. For a long time I didn't think about that. I didn't think about the Depression or the monks who saw some long potential in the townie kid. I never thought about how he never knew his father and how that might have compounded his disappointment in my failures. I never thought about complicated things because I never needed to when I lived under his roof.

Each of us is a museum, and no collection--no recollection--is ever complete. Sometimes it feels like I'm only stirring up the mud, dragging the bottom for drowned memories. But it's all in there, the scientists say, everything we've seen and felt, every sound, everything noticed and unnoticed.

They say we might retrieve all experience, talk ourselves clear of the tangling rubble of the past and be free. It is good to do this, they say, to escape the sucking gravity of our parents and establish ourselves as beings independent of the hurt and damage inflicted upon us. Remember Philip Larkin's lines? They f*** you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to, but they do/They fill you with the faults they had/And add some extra, just for you.

I would not know Larkin if not for my father, who read him, and in whose books I first found those lines. In retrospect it seems strange he should have such a book--the only poet I can remember him ever mentioning was Kipling, the only lines I ever heard him quote were from Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade."

I close my eyes and I can hear him softly reciting, "Half a league, half a league, half a league onward ..."

He learned the poem at Belmont Abbey, the prep school in North Carolina he attended as a day student on scholarship. He was a poor boy, more accurately a poor relation, but he could run and throw. He played on the same American Legion baseball team as Jimmy Hall, who set a rookie record for home runs when he came up with the Minnesota Twins in 1963. He was a shortstop most of his life--also a boxer, an intelligence officer, an altar boy. A father.

I remember his rough hands and the way the stubble on his chin scratched me when he hugged me. I remember the way he could snap a baseball through bright air, how he could make the ball seem a humming, vibrating, living thing.

I remember the blue haze of his Pall Mall smoke. I remember wartime absences and the gray and yellow-striped queerness of early morning tarmacs, earth-rattling B-52s roaring and the emptied belly of a cargo plane. I remember the old Thunderbird he had for a while, and the blue suit I borrowed from him while I was in high school. Details swarm together and for an instant form a picture; just as quickly they float away like ashes.

There are tangibles. I have his baseball glove. In my mother's house there is a drawer full of military ribbons, old watches, Zippo lighters, all the paraphernalia of a certain kind of mid-century American masculine existence. I can recall specific moments, days. There are few photographs. But there is evidence--no one goes through the world without leaving a mark.

I am, for better or worse, my father's mark.

Maybe I am more the part that read Larkin than gripped baseballs, though I have gripped baseballs and have at times thought them more my metier. The older I grow, the more I remind myself of him. I have lived more than half my life without him. I look like his photos, though without his piercing blue eyes.

It is difficult to know how much we attribute to our fathers, how much to our mothers, how much to the crowd we fell in with. How much to blood. How much to the wild secret voices within. We are trick boxes filled with strange ethers, irreducible to components.

I dream of my father and wake in quiet sorrow. He never saw a cell phone, but sometimes I think I expect him to call.

A "past" is a personal myth, a narrative we create to give our unruly lives a sense of order and purpose. Our stories are the way we justify ourselves to the world and to ourselves.

When I remember him, I wonder if I ascribe qualities he would not claim. Would he think himself kind, quiet, strong? My father was not one to talk much about himself, much less about how he viewed himself. If he constructed a private biography, he kept it private.

I hear his voice--his inflections, his hesitancy, a little vocal catch that signals a groping toward the righter word--in my own. I have assimilated his gestures and, they tell me, his smile.

Near the end, he told stories--about growing up in Asheville, about his single professional boxing match, about a cobra and a Jeep in the jungles of Thailand, offered more as anecdotes than as answers, scraps of stories from which I have patched together a comforting quilt. He wasn't trying to explain; at the time there seemed nothing to explain other than the large mystery of why people are born to die and why dying sometimes had to hurt so much.

In a way I was glad for him when he finally gave out, when the suffering was over. But maybe it wasn't like that, maybe I was more selfish than that, maybe I was tired of the hospital smells and the waiting. Maybe I was not as good a son as I could have been.

This is hard to think about; I might have wished him dead for selfish reasons. I know I could not help it, that awful thoughts breeze through the minds of saints. Still, I wonder if I let him down.

It would not have been the first time, though we never had the break that some sons and fathers have. We never couldn't talk. Karen says you cannot "love a little bit," that it is an all or nothing thing, and she is right. I loved him.

And I think we would be friends; that he would like me and this life I've made. He would be OK with how things turned out. I miss him, but I'm not sad when I remember, and I suppose that is the best for which we can hope.

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