It is not of the games children play in the evening that I want to speak now,it is of a contemporaneous atmosphere that has little to do with them: that of the fathers of families, each in his space of lawn, his shirt fishlike pale in the unnatural light and his face nearly anonymous, hosing their lawns.— James Agee
Among our favorite books, my friend Martha and I have two especially favorite ones: To Kill a Mockingbird and A Death in the Family. Two classics in American literature, both by Southern authors.
The former I could read over and over again. There are many great themes in that book; but the image of father that Gregory Peck incarnates in Atticus Finch is one of the best I know. Tender with his motherless daughter Scout, he sets his lawyer face like flint against injustice and racial prejudice.
The second book I can only read when I’m in a really good head and heart space, and I’m glad I discovered the book long after I was in any personal grief. In spite of that lovely quote above which opens the story, it is a grueling look in excruciating detail at a Death in the Family—the title says it all.
When my father died, something like what Agee described happened in our own family. It launched a grueling year; time slowed to excruciatingly detail. We lost our center of gravity. Strange stirrings began in my own heart. Although I was 50, and had lived some distance from him for years, (overseas in fact), I suddenly felt vulnerable, unprotected, exposed spiritually. The sensation was so strong and compelling I talked to my sister about it. Maybe it was because I was single, and still looked to my father for advice; perhaps if I had a husband...
"No," my sister replied, "I feel it too." We fell silent for a while, and wondered what it meant.
Some context: my father was a good father by most standards, although of course he had his own demons. He was a strong personality, a dominant authority, but also the parent who made us lie on the floor with our eyes closed and listen to Beethoven’s Pastoral, or Zorba the Greek.
Never afraid to launch us out into the world, he brought my older brother and I into New York City a number of times when we were quite young (I remember one trip at the age of 10). We would commute in with him, and he would show us the extraordinary design showrooms of architecture's heyday in the '50's. Then he would set us loose in that megalopolis for the day while he worked, instructing us to return at 5 for the commute home. Can you imagine doing that today?!
He bought little gifts from his occasional international trips, and could be counted on for a secret stash of licorice somewhere in the house, which maybe he would share. When he blew, we scattered, for he carried the rage of most World War II veterans returning from war, in an era before we had the label “Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.”
So when he died, the vacuum was huge for all of us, and on one level that took me by surprise--this feeling of being exposed and vulnerable. What were the spiritual implications of fatherhood that made our family planet spin off its axis? What is the role of ‘father’ in a family? Why is it so potent?