Father's Day
Nantucket Essays

Father to Son

by Robert P. Barsanti

Father's DayAt the Downyflake last weekend, I noticed that I took my coffee in the same way that my father did, regular with too much cream.  He drank his coffee every morning with the same slobbers of sugar and milk building up on the table cloth.  My childhood home ran with the efficiency of an old lawnmower, so half-and-half was an occasional commodity in the refrigerator.  Instead, he used skim milk, heavy cream, or whatever looked white and tasted the part.  My father enjoyed his donuts as well, and he left me that gift, along with regular coffee.  Unfortunately, my boys have also picked up that family trait.   After I got up to get the newspaper, the boys took care of a half-dozen Downyflake donuts on their own.  Perhaps, they will find themselves in the same booth twenty years from now, making their own regular coffee.  I hope they still have cream.

As my boys have grown up, I discover a disturbing amount of traits that I seem to have handed down.  When I was surfing the hormonal wave, I was constantly hungry.  I ate two Big Macs each time I went to McDonald’s, drank Coca Cola by the bottle, and vacuumed up anything that didn’t have a name on it.  My parents called me the human garbage disposal.  My son eats everything two handed.  Even worse, he grazes in the middle of the night.  After his last visit, we pulled a Ben and Jerry’s container and a nacho chip bag from his bed, along with the spills and crumbs.  Were I my father, I would get angry.  But I am a different man and my son doesn’t spend all that many nights under my roof.  To Rourke, I felt affection and pity.  I have handed him a set of difficult genes.

In the weeks after my sons were born, I felt them pull me into their lives.  “Love” is too gentle and confusing a word for it, although I loved them.  They tugged me out of my chair and onto the floor with them; I was drawn into their orbits.  Their gravitation pulled on all of me, so that every thing they did touched me.  Each time I picked up the little packages, I feared I would break them.  Each boy, with their moth breaths and bumpity hearts, was a Waterford glass that I was destined to chip.  Absent mindedness, a lack of hand-eye coordination, and a tendency to bump into things are also cards that I carry and that my children have been dealt.

I wanted something else for them.  I wanted them to grab some of the grace and athleticism and civility from their mother and graft it onto them.  Both boys should play hockey and crush their opponents into the corner.  They should catch lacrosse balls on the fly then deliver “heavy” shots to the net.  They should eat yogurt and bananas and slip easily into their school desks.  My genes had grown heavy over the years, and I wanted them to carry something far lighter.

My father had a different view of his own paternity.  He kept waiting for his qualities to burst forth.  Although I played four years of football, I never became the football star he was.  Nor did I ever become the golfer or the skier that he was.  I could read and I could argue, but neither one of those put him in the stadium with a button on his lapel and the thrill of his name on the speakers.  Instead of the button, he wore disapproval.  Yet, he adjusted and drove me to swim team practice.  He drank his coffee, ate a donut, and sat outside with us until the pool lights went on and the door unlocked.

After twelve years, I still don’t know how to be a father.  I don’t know how to plant and nurture the shoots that will make character later on.  I am no Huxtable, no Ingalls, not even Homer Simpson.  Everything I do seems improvised and embarrassed; someone else would have had a plan and discipline.  Instead, I react.  Sometimes, the best thing I can do is to sit next to one of them and let him push against me.

Sons rarely become what their fathers intended. Earl Woods may have gotten what he planned for with Tiger, but his success came with many costs.  The world knows his son’s name, but not for his character.  The other fathers I know, their children move apart yet stay together.  Lawyers beget English teachers.  Trainers bring forth physical therapists. Musicians create actresses.  We all stand atop the trash piles of our parents; we pull the best and get splashed with the worst.  As fathers, we let our children stand on us, try to provide a firm base, and hope they can reach higher than we could.

Last week, I sat in the principal’s office with a son who had tossed his English final away, berated the woman giving the test, and stormed out of the room.  We sat with his teary mother and listened to the young man rant about disrespect and the inanity of bubble tests.  At that moment, he had dirty hair, hungover eyes, basketball shorts that fell below his knees, and a backwards Charlotte Bobcats hat.  We eventually meted out our discipline, sent the boy from the room, and consoled the mother.   I watched the boy stagger down the hall towards graduation practice, I wondered how do I avoid this?

I don’t know.  My boys keep on spinning through the Lego, Skylanders, and Superheros of their youth.  I am distant from their world, yet as common and as regular as the moon in the sky.  I look down on them from millions of miles and hope that they can look up to me.  They have brought me into their orbit, and I slowly revolve around them.  Yet, they are pulled and pushed by the tides.  As I watch them in the back seat, bouncing off each other, singing Wierd Al, and spilling their milk.  How much does the moon know about his tides?