I have not forgotten—nor will I forget until all memory fades—the day, the moment, in which my father and I parted. We did not put an ocean between us, or a country. He did not disown me, nor I him. We parted as a cloud passed between our hearts, shadowing what we had been, shadowing what we would be henceforth.
At this time I was barely fifteen years old. We had come recently to America from England. There, he and I had been pals, chums, co-conspirators in fictions and fantasies. For as long as I could remember, each Sunday my father and I would set out together for tramps down village lanes, across meadows, through churches, churchyards, and burial grounds. We explored ruined castles, fought off Norman invaders, Vikings, Black Knights. We rowed the rivers curling through the countryside, rose in and out of locks, scrambled up and down brambled banks, slipped reverently past fallen abbeys.
This was who we were before the cloud passed between. Wizard and trusting apprentice. Storyteller and credulous listener. Teacher and student. All this we brought to America and, for a while, attempted to nurture, though there were no hedgerows or ruined abbeys, no hairy Vikings, and certainly no sniveling Normans. Each Sunday, as in former times, we set out on a quest to keep us as we were, to hold back my years.
Then, that Sunday morning, my father came out to where I shuffled in dread in the gravel drive. I didn’t know how much damage I was about to do, but I knew I was about to cast us away. He came to me, sandwiches for us, and a thermos in his bag, and asked if I was ready to go. “Gee, Dad,” I said, “A couple of my friends are picking me up and we’re going to go over to the baseball game.” “Oh, alright,” he said, though his face could not hide “Goodbye” as he turned and walked away, the golden cord unraveling as he went.
We were not the same again, of course. We continued to grow apart in the years that followed until, at his death—now many years ago—it seemed we were barely acquainted. My adolescence was beyond him. He watched, as if helpless, as I tried out various foolish and dangerous ways to become what passed for manliness. As I continued in my education, pursued my own dreams and ambitions, I left his knowledge and his understanding far behind.
He had left school at the age of twelve to help support his mother and sister after his father gave up and ran away. He educated himself and was often mistaken for an Oxford man. But my journey left him by the wayside—as, so he felt, had life and all hope and possibility; and there he rooted in anger, regret and self-destruction.
He was a man who, had he had a fathering father, had he not been born into abject poverty, had it not been for this or that, for fate or happenstance—had all that beside-the-point not been so, he would have been a man whom all the world knew by name. But the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons from generation unto generation.
I never met my father’s father. To the best of my recollection, my father never mentioned him. Certainly, there had been no blessing there, no approval, encouragement, nothing conducive to happiness or welfare. And so my father strove to succeed without blessing, and always success eluded him. And with that, he failed to bless his son.
And so, again and again, the sins of the fathers, visited upon the sons, from generation unto generation.
Well, a sad story, mine—and maybe yours. But I’ll claim some hope of redemption. In a poem called, “Thanks, Robert Frost,” David Ray writes:
Do you have hope for the future?
someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end.
Yes, and even for the past, he replied,
that it will turn out to have been all right
for what it was….
That’s what redemption is. At any rate, that’s a way of thinking about what redemption is: giving the past hope where the past itself held none.
How do we redeem the past? Surely what was, was? No. What was always is, blessing the present or reliving its sin generation after generation. The only hope for breaking the cycle, for our children’s sake, is for us to redeem the past, which is to forgive it all, to bless it—a thing conducive to happiness or welfare.
For whatever else it may have been worth, I have made some beginning in doing that for myself, saying: Yes he did those things, did not do those things, and he suffered this at the feet of his father—bless him, too—and carried all he suffered into the present, as do we all.
And it is not too late for me, still, in frequent tears and much puzzlement, still putting it all together and finding it not too late, now even past fathering and into grandfatherly-age, it is not too late to bless my children, seek their blessing, wishing blessings on all the generations to come.