Fathers and Daughters, Mothers and Sons

Rachel Hadas

My father died in August. All that fall
the sight of happy father-daughter pairs
stabbed me. At the desk in Whitman Hall
I had to turn my head to hide the tears,
seeing a junior kiss her dad goodbye.
He'd taken her to dinner. Aquiline,
smiling, sallow, unmistakably
akin, while I—what father now was mine?
a voice demanded histrionically
inside my head. What likeness could I claim?
Only sorrow, and a secret shame.

And that was thirty years ago. The ache,
having moved inward, buried splinter-wise,
for decades, lately has begun to make
marked if sporadic reappearances
halfway to pleasure—more than halfway there.
As Aristotle says, mimesis is
why we turn to art, why we can bear
sorrow once captured in performances,
catharsis moistening the driest eyes.
Dilemmas shaped in skillful imitation
turn pain into a source of consolation.

Agee's "Knoxville, Summer of 1915," set
by Barber, which I lately heard performed,
gave such a boundless, such a bittersweet
sense of the child's tranced safety—drowsy, charmed
by his triumphant luck at being here
now in the cicada-shrilling dark
with parents who would never disappear—
that recognition did its deadly work.
I groped for Kleenex for the sudden tears
that signaled less self-pity for the past
than joy such ancient losses still weren't lost.

Yet art's mysterious power of transformation
had changed the focus, so that though the tone
of Agee's lyrical imagination
reanimated losses of my own,
I could no longer be the child ensconced
between its parents. Now I was a mother,
and the bereavement I had suffered once
changed as I wiped my eyes into another
of the life cycle's scattered pressure points,
always dormant till a sudden shock
of recognition makes us start awake.

I am a mother. And my child is where?
Away at camp. No, that's not what I mean.
Where is he in the heart's interior?
Or where do memory's labyrinthine
passages conceal the pivotal
moment when—let's not say that childhood passed,
but rather love began to flow uphill?
In Proust the longed-for kiss does come at last
to him who waits. I'm not so sure it will
once love's arrow changes its direction
and Mom's the one who waits for some affection.

I think back to an endless afternoon.
Humidity was high, ambition low.
School was out. We inched toward mid-June
with a piano recital still to go,
and other chores, before our true vacations
out of the city. (When does life begin
feeling like a string of obligations?)
Sticky, groggy, listless, I gave in
and stretched out for a nap. My true vocation
having been always taking books to bed,
for what seemed hours and hours I dozed or read

a history of the Olympia Press,
sinking and bobbing in and out of slumber.
Southern, Nabokov, and Girodias…
And next to me my son, the latest number
of Dungeon Master or Nintendo Power
under his arm, lay down. So, parallel,
we partly napped and partly studied our
respective reading matter till night fell.
Tranquility: an open-ended hour,
a humid hollow in a sleepy day,
an interlude we filled up silently.

The tempo quickened soon, as tempos will,
and life resumed a more demanding pace,
the fuss and flurry of departure, till
summer's separation carved a space
from which I found I suddenly could see,
remote and burnished through the double glaze
of time and distance, with great clarity
this simple sight imprinted on my gaze:
not an epiphany, just a lanky boy.
Curled up reading, his long legs a Z,
he turns a page and sighs contentedly.

Leave him a little, resting on the bed.
Let time move forward as it always does,
his summer melting into seventh grade.
There's one more moment where I want to pause:
a chilly Friday morning in late fall.
He's home from school and feverish with flu.
A carpenter, here measuring the wall
for bookshelves, shakes his head: "Oh, man. Me too.
I've been sick all week. What can I do?
You've got to work. But this is when I miss
my mother. Men need moms to care for us."

The carpenter went back to noting down
measurements. The boy dog-eared a page.
I drifted to the kitchen to put on
the kettle, in a cloud of youth and age.
The griefs attached to us!—a leg, an arm,
habitual and almost effortless
until a chance remark sounds the alarm,
alerts us to the permanence of loss
so deeply rooted, so much part of us
that random rhythms, phrases, smiles all may
transform a gaping hole to memory.

Missing is one more form of loving. Sad?
Not as sad as never having known
the mother who brought tea to us in bed.
Sneezing, the carpenter (he's my age) climbs down
his stepladder and starts to pack his things.
The cat sits on the bed to wash her face.
I bring the tray in. Life on silent wings
wafts us to a slightly different place,
a temporary level of repose,
a plateau where momentarily
love is something we can name and see.

The aura of the comforting and lost,
the halo we ascribe to what is gone
and not to be recovered! If the past
is the one place where feeling can be seen,
it still is not a place we can sit down,
drop our luggage, put our feet up, stay.
Its only mode is visions of what's been—
rare and fleeting, I was going to say.
And yet how often, as the years go by,
messages make their way somehow or other:
some friendly stranger thinking of his mother.

Rachel Hadas is an American poet, essayist, and current Board of Governors Professor of English at Rutgers University—Newark.
Originally published:
October 1, 1998


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