sharing the extraordinary in ordinary lives
I read Gilead a number of years ago, which means I’ve forgotten most of it, but it is, nonetheless, a book that bubbles into my conscious thoughts from time to time. It’s written as a letter from an old Methodist Minister to his very young son. He lives in a forgotten little town in rural Kansas called Gilead, and he wants to write this letter because he realizes he won’t live long enough to see his son grow up. I don’t contemplate my life in precisely the same terms as this minister does, but as I read the book I found myself treading with him on plenty of common ground.
Mostly what I think about though when I think about Gilead is my Dad. From where I’m typing I can glance up and see its narrow spine wedged between some larger books, and what I see is Dad disappearing into the blueberry bushes along the fairway of the golf course in Maine searching for one of his errant drives. Another time when I look up I might catch a glimpse of him standing in the distance in front of a backstop on some muddy baseball field, tossing up a baseball and hitting me fly balls.
When Dad was alive we fought like crazy. He talked too much, which irritated me, and I was often dismissive towards him, which no doubt caused him no end of grief. The Vietnam years were especially stormy. We got into some real knock-down drag-outs in those days—on one occasion quite literally so, with a black eye and damaged furniture to show for it. We partook in no long conversations at any point in our lives. The only safe topics we could talk about tended to revolve around our mutual love of sports—how the Yankees were doing or if the Giants would ever get their act together again. I never remember him giving me fatherly advice. Actually, that’s not true. What I remember is him giving me advice about one thing or another while I sat blocking it out.
Here’s a bit from Gilead that I underlined:
“A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.”
I like that quotation. Though I’d alter it by adding the word “recognition.” I don’t think it’s contradictory for a father or a son to experience both mutual incomprehension and chances to share at least some occasional flashes of mutual recognition. Maybe if the old man in Gilead had been lucky enough to see his son grow just a little older—or luckier still, see his son grow into a man and have a son of his own, maybe then he’d know what I am talking about.
One of the last memories I have of Dad is when he was elderly and walking with a cane. He and Mom were down on a visit, and I walked the old centerfielder over the long stretch of uneven grass to a seat on the bleachers where he could watch my son, Ben, play baseball. It was a blustery early April afternoon with a biting wind that made Dad’s eyes get oozy, but not oozy enough to dampen their sparkle as he sat there leaning on the handle of his cane taking in the action and hearing baseballs cracking into gloves. At one of Ben’s at bats he hit a screaming line drive over the second baseman’s head that bounded out between the right and center fielders. As Ben got midway to second base, he looked over his shoulder, and when he saw that the right fielder bobbled the ball, he made his commitment to try and stretch his hit into a triple. We all knew that Ben was a fast runner, but when he put his head down and rounded second he notched it into a higher gear than I had ever seen before and was moving way faster than you would expect such an ungainly knobby-kneed 14 year old could run. I saw Dad lift himself up just slightly from his seat and heard a little sound catch in his throat and I knew as Ben was streaking towards third, the wind rushing over Ben’s face was blowing across Dad’s face too, and that the crunchy feel of infield dirt being swallowed up by feathery baseball spikes was just then pressing up against the soles of his brittle old man’s feet. Even though there wasn’t a close play at the base, Ben slid anyway, but too hard, and awkwardly, so that he rolled over the bag and had to reach back to it with his hand.
When I sat back down and the excited chatter from the smattering of parents in the stands had quieted, Dad and I sat there side by side with our eyes fixed on Ben as he dusted off his uniform. When Dad spoke, he didn’t offer any words of praise. Nothing like that. All he said was, and just loud enough so that only I could hear, “When are ya gonna teach that kid how to slide?”
Some people, especially daughters and moms might not understand this, but I’m telling you that these little drops of mutual recognition—which may only have materialized from time to time—raised the river of my father’s and my mutual incomprehension just high enough to keep us from wrecking on the rocks. Moments like these kept us floating together in the sometimes swirling currents in what turned out to be—astoundingly enough—the same general direction.
Indeed, whenever I come up gulping and look around for a place of safe purchase, I can see Dad … just there, riding the currents with me still.
Jono Walker is a writer and book review blogger who moonlights as an advertising executive and marketing consultant. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife Julia, their big weedy garden, a couple of poorly behaved dogs, and his trusty fly rod. Visit his blog at www.jonosbookreviews.com