When my mother turned seventy a year and a half ago, the occasion coincided with my rotation in the Good Letters blog. My post to mark the milestone was titled “Telemachus to Penelope,” the title of a poem I had written for my mother in the wake of her divorce from my father after thirty-three years of marriage.
My poem, inspired by Joseph Brodsky’s “Odysseus to Telemachus” and written soon after college, was pretty awful in hindsight, but the title was perfect in that my mother, Penelope, shares her name with the Grecian archetype of faith and fidelity. The idea, if not the execution, was that her Odysseus had wandered far and wide (even longer than the original) while living under the same roof.
My father had never seen the poem, and given his toddling ways on the Internet coupled with my vain insistence that it was my family’s job to track the blog, not mine to apprise them, I knew the boomerang of “Telemachus to Penelope” had little chance of hitting him when I threw it into cyberspace.
A year later, in the effort to correct my negligence, I made mention of previous posts for those who hadn’t read them, including one about the death of my grandmother, and another about Mom turning seventy.
You can see where this is going. At the time, I didn’t.
In the intervening year I forgot that incriminating line about Dad with its Odyssean trope, and failed to consider how he might feel coming across it in such a public fashion with no warning.
I can still feel the jolt of a Friday night last September when I realized that my e-mails and one or two calls to Dad that week had garnered no response.
Oh, shit. You idiot.
The boomerang hit me right between the eyes, as it should have, undoubtedly having already hit him the same.
That Sunday I was quick to address, and try to dress, the wounds. I could hear the gut-punch echoes in his voice when I called to say I was sorry, and I could see the lines in his face when I arrived at his apartment later that day to say it again.
Not that there was anything intentionally hurtful in what I had written––just a poetic twist to the facts. It’s hard enough to see your sins aired by your child in print; but to be sent a group e-mail that basically says, “Enjoy!” to the family at large?
A preliminary one to Dad alone saying, “Beware!” is the least I could have done.
From his apartment I took him around the corner to P.J. Carney’s in midtown Manhattan. As cliché as it felt for my Hibernian heritage to take recourse in a pub, on that day I knew the right thing to do was to bury the grief with a pint of Guinness, and a shot of Jameson for good measure. An Irish funeral, if you will.
“‘P.S. I F&%# Up!’ will be its title,” I said to Dad at the bar, regarding the follow-up post I planned to write.
The letter my father wrote to his own father almost fifty years ago was the product of far worse circumstances.
That letter followed a funeral, his father’s at the age of fifty-seven, when Dad was only twenty-five and advised by a psychiatrist that one step toward forgiveness would be to read a letter at the tombstone.
Forgiveness, for the drunken beatings with a coat hanger, for the awful family dinners in which the first of three brothers (one mentally impaired) to finish the meal received double dessert, which in one fell swoop killed all conversation and birthed a lifelong struggle with food.
Forgiveness for the time he greeted an Italian girlfriend of Dad’s in high school wearing a wife-beater undershirt, then said in front of her that he did so to make her feel at home.
Forgiveness for countless other times in countless other ways, only to have a last memory of carrying his father to the bathroom weeks before he died. The former giant, shriveled by cancer, looked at my father with fear in his eyes and said, “Please, don’t hit me.”
Conversational family dinners, with Dad there most nights despite the hour-long commute from Wall Street to Connecticut. Dad often present for high school soccer games, when he left work after lunch to come watch me play. A nightly back scratch at bedtime, and a revolving door for friends who received at our home what was lacking in theirs.
No, it wasn’t a bed of roses. There was plenty of strife to go around our family of six, and plenty of our dinners took a nosedive—sometimes painfully so.
But when I compare his childhood to mine, I imagine a Blakean Satanic-mill of family legacies that had been turning for generations until Dad stood in the way to stop it, trying to give his own kids something far better than what he had been given.
He got mangled in some ways, and readily admits how much he f&%# up. But let him who is without sin cast the first stone.
For various reasons, we agreed I wouldn’t write the follow-up post as planned last fall.
What good is an Irish funeral if you turn around and resurrect things?
But today, after all of that, my blog slot just so happens to coincide with his seventy-fifth birthday. Surely the Greek oracles would have ascribed such timing to the gods, and in the parlance of my own faith tradition all I can say is: sometimes the Spirit moves in fairly blatant ways.
Happy Birthday, Dad.
Bradford Winters is a screenwriter and poet, and works for The Levinson/Fontana Company as a producer and writer in television. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and three children.