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January 8, 2010

Hawthorn Hill: Handed down memories of dad


This essay will appear one day after my father’s birthday. I do not have much that is concrete to hang on to since he died when I was two and a half, sixty-three years ago.

Add three years and that will be my age early next month. But I do have stories, told to me by my mother and several relatives. One of the things that I have learned over the years is that memories, replete with their images, are often more powerful than the realities that they represent.

I felt that way quite starkly when I finally got around to visiting Thoreau’s Walden Pond. I had a great day walking the pond’s perimeter, standing in the middle of the small plot of ground that was his cabin, and sitting on the bank he sat on musing on the pond’s innate wisdoms and nature’s infinite capacity to teach us all we will ever need to know about ourselves and our preciously short existence.

Today’s Walden Pond has a public beach, its perimeter path is littered here and there with trash, and the silence that so buoyed Thoreau’s spirit has dissipated, replaced by the sounds and vestiges of modern life. There is something to be said for staying away from mythical places.

One of my mother’s favorite stories about my father is about how he would come home from his office, often late, and pick me up and carry me around the Oriental rug in his office.

At the height of his career he was the country’s leading theater architect. As a result, he worked long hours and was away from home often. I did not have to be crying or cranky; he just wanted to spend some time holding me.

I can not claim to have any immediate memory of those moments.

But now, when I hold my grandson Grant in my arms and walk around the rug in his living room humming the tunes to him that I hummed to his dad, it is as if time has backtracked on itself and I am my father and Grant is me. The void deepened within me over the years by his palpable absence closes, if just for a few moments, and I feel my father presence in so tangible a way that it is impossible to describe. These are rare moments of pure joy to hold on to.

In ``The Brother’s Karamazov,’’ Dostoyevsky writes, " that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood.’’ Mine is not an actual memory. But it is a memory nonetheless, a quite powerful one that has always had the effect on me of what Wordsworth calls ``a renovating virtue.’’

Pictures also have a way of either conjuring up the past or creating a memory that is as meaningful, and useful, as any rooted in real experience. Earlier this year my cousin Fred sent me several photographs of my paternal grandparents, neither of whom I ever knew.

One picture of them, standing arm in arm, and seeming to be looking right at me, sits atop my desk.

My mother and father are to their right, and my son Tim, their grandson, sits to their left. It is as close as we have ever come to being together. If I include myself, it is the closest we have ever come to a family gathering.

And the wonderful part of it is that every day when I turn on my desk lamp before first light and see my family it is as if time and death never happened.

The pictures animate both past experience and imagined experience. Both are equally powerful.

I would like to think that each of us carries such lovely baggage and that as we travel through life and time from year to year these moments in our lives serve to wash away the despair so easily felt in light of humankind's increasingly adept capacity for self-destruction. Perhaps, to