When I got in trouble, my father’s impulse was to hug me. He did punish me for the little things, but when I did something corrupt, committed a youthful transgression that had the potential to color how other people saw me or how I saw myself, my father presumed my shame. Rather than come at me, he’d help me to rebuild.
One could explain this as a parenting tactic. You know, someone assumes you feel bad about something you did, so that even if you didn’t, you start to. But my dad wasn’t much of a strategizer when it came to raising his two boys. What gives him authority is that he is kind. Kinder, in fact, than I would think possible, if I didn’t know my dad.
Uncalculating generosity is the most common permutation of my father’s fundamental temperament. He’s a giver, always giving of his robust warmth — at times a palpable heat comes off his body. No one meets my dad without commenting on this glow. This kindness takes many forms, and my brother and I haven’t always understood every manifestation of it as the thing itself. But we do now. I know this because we have said as much to each other. But what becoming an adult has revealed to me is a view of those inconspicuous and surely instinctual means by which my father gives of himself.
Silence: My father likes to talk; he’s a writer and a professor, so it’s only natural that he should want to speak his mind. I’m quiet, sometimes even mute. Several people close to me have described the silence I slip into as pathological. My thoughts more often seek an interior cradle than an outward kinesis, which bothers me because I, too, want to write and teach. It also bothers me because I think it hurts my father sometimes. But he has always endured my hush. Whether I was the dumbfounded ten-year-old traveling through the West with him; or the sullen teenager driving with him from the beach, face turned out the car window, flushing against his questions; or simply the closemouthed space-out, incapable of concentrating on talk, my dad never accused me of coldness. He’d show hurt — and why shouldn’t he show that to a son? — but he has never made me feel negligent. The gift he gave at these moments was letting me figure out for myself what behavior does. My father never told me who I was or what I would become; wisely, he bequeathed that work to me.
Life by example: On a recent winter night in Maine, with my girlfriend and his wife in the house, my brother Nicholas and I drank beer outside in the snow and wondered why we’re crazy. We’ve understood for some time that we’re prone to fits of antisocialism, impulsive behavior, and a profound distaste for being told what to do. These idiosyncrasies have impacted both of our lives in negative ways. The trouble is that we are also ambitious, in that restless kind of way of always wanting to do more. “Yeah, this is good,” we’ve said, “but what about writing a book, or making furniture, or hiking in Patagonia.” That night we decided we felt this way, in large part, because our father is a writer — and, more importantly, was a writer when we were growing up.
My father led an enviable life. In the house my parents built in Vermont, his office was in a turret, a third-floor hideout floating in a pine canopy. He went up there when he wanted to. If it snowed, my mother, my brother, and I trudged to school while my dad went skiing. If he stayed out late drinking, climbing the pole at Chez Henri, he would sleep in. My dad didn’t come home tired at 7:00 p.m. after pushing paper at an office. This may have spoiled Nick and me with unrealistic expectations about what a working life is, but it has also become our paradigm. My dad’s life as a writer demonstrated to us that we don’t have to lead ordinary lives. This knowledge may sound like the privileged burden of a coddled son, but I figure it’s better to be bitter because you want what your father has than because you want what he doesn’t have. I have no doubt that that was my father’s intention.
Nicholas: My dad gave me my brother. Nick is older (so, in fact, I was given to him), but when he was a boy, he and my dad had a relationship that was more worded than our own. When I retreated, Nick acted his mind, pushed. And my dad presented us with plenty to brush up against — stories, laughter, irreverence, eccentric writer friends. More than me, Nick used my father’s amplitude as a dynamo, as a phenomenal presence around which he circled to charge himself with an energy for life. In this way, they powered each other, shaped each other from a distance that was neither remote nor oppressive but every point in-between. And when I wasn’t sure, Nick taught me who my father was. My dad lived large enough for my brother and me to need each other to talk about him, and we’ve never drifted apart.
The Duke: I would be unjust to leave you with the impression that my father plays instead of working. Writing, of course, can be fun, but a writer’s life isn’t always. Until several years ago, my dad drove every road in the northeast to reach teaching jobs at colleges, universities, and writer’s conferences. And in that hovering office, he wrote his autobiography, The Duke of Deception, a book about his own father, an irascible teddy bear who died before Nicholas and I could know him. As if my dad weren’t enough for us, he summoned another man for my brother and me to live with, forged him from hard memories. He did it with so much largesse that now Nick and I live as much to please the Duke as much as our father. And he did it with a skill so organic that it can make a young writer like me shrink. But what should I be envious of? I have a happy life and a good man to write about, and I’m doing it right now. It’s easy and exhilarating, like that bike-riding trick in the driveway: “Look, Dad, no hands.”