By Arthur H. Gunther III
When a son loses a father, there is such a flood of emotion that it will take perhaps the rest of the younger’s life to sort things out: No father-son relationship is ever fully understood. Here you have the offshoot of the tree, which itself was an offshoot. Which branch is the stronger, the more dominant? Is there a twist to the branch, a different look, an architectural sculpting that sets it apart? All those branches, all the sons of all the fathers, spend their worldly time looking for their own light, their chance to shine, away from the father’s shadow, which can be a long cast, indeed.
When my father passed last week at 92, a relatively quick moment since he had been quite well — independent, living alone until a month before — suddenly there was no Dad to visit, no one to argue with, no one to ask about family history.
I have spent the last 20 years of my life trying to figure out who my father was. Survival of self depends on knowing where you came from, how your positives and foibles fit a pattern, how the roots nourish the tree, the branches. This has become even more important since I have two well-grown sons, and even as I tried to fathom my Dad, they want to understand me.
In my journey with my father over these decades, I came come to know the man, the young man who he was, the economic difficulties faced in depression and wartime, early marriage and the climb to middle class in the great post-World War II opportunity.
When my father died, I was a little boy again, but my Dad was not by my side, walking away from the hospital on that long sidewalk. He was back there, gone, but my hand instinctively reached for his. For all my life, my father was present, even in our strong argument. I expected him to pass one day, and I was practical about it — assembling legal papers, asking him about final arrangements, etc. I am now my father, the oldest of my family, and there are others who walk beside me on that sidewalk. I have responsibilities.
Yet the little boy does not want that, not completely. He would rather be in the Sloatsburg woods looking for trees at age 4, or playing with his father and brother in Spring Valley’s Memorial Park at 7. Or helping move into the Hillcrest house at 10. Or talking to him after high school graduation, the school that was his, too.
As so often evolves in father-son pairings, a son relates more to the grandfather, the very person the father himself had moments with. Perhaps that is because the grandfather carries regrets that he was not the full father — no one ever is — or maybe it is because the grandfather recalls his love/dislike relationship with his own dad.
Such are the dynamics of the man, the son, the tree, the stronger and heavier branch, who begets another branch, and that limb brings forth another.
In my Dad’s passing, in my recognition of my own mortality, in my observation of my sons who are my family tree’s branches, I see that life continues. I see almost a plan, a blueprint of things that had to be. I look back for a moment at my now vast tree, just as you do yours, and I am at once immensely proud, grateful, sad, wistful, regretful. Most of all, I am thankful that the apple does not fall far from the tree, however unpolished at times it is.
Thank you, Dad.
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org This essay may be reproduced.