November 23rd, 2018
I’ve long since retired and my son’s moved away
I called him up just the other day
I said, I’d like to see you if you don’t mind
He said, I’d love to, dad, if I could find the time
You see, my new job’s a hassle, and the kids have the flu
But it’s sure nice talking to you, dad
It’s been sure nice talking to you
And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me
He’d grown up just like me
My boy was just like me.
And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man in the moon
“When you coming home, son?” “I don’t know when”
But we’ll get together then, Dad
You know we’re gonna have a good time then.
Harry Chapin, “Cat’s in the Cradle”
Humans are designed to recognize patterns, even where none exist. We constantly seek out signs of order in a complicated and chaotic world. Some patterns are obvious almost instantaneously, and others only become visible after years or decades.
With the passing of my father, one of the last representatives of an entire generation has departed from my family. He was born in the Great Depression and grew up during the War Years. His experiences were radically different mine, but I suspect that we had some things in common. Human nature changes very little over time. The basic struggles of one generation are often the same as those of the generations that follow. The stories of the families in the Book of Genesis are still relevant because those scenarios have been repeated over and over through the millennia.
Why is there the repetition? Why do people make the same mistakes again and again? We don’t seem to learn from the past. I don’t. Partly, that is because I really don’t know the past.
As I look back, I am aware that I know very little about my father’s youth, or about the home in which he was raised. He told me some stories, most of them were bitter rants. I never got a coherent image of his family. I got splintered fragments of his memories, usually blurted out in a fit of anger. When I did ask specific questions, I often received evasive answers. My picture of his past is like a jigsaw puzzle with too many pieces missing.
I am forced to make educated guesses. To understand my father I have to use my intuition. I know that somehow he was badly hurt. I don’t know why. I just know that when it was my turn to meet him, he was already damaged. He was wounded, and sometimes he wounded others. What was the root cause? I have no idea, and I can’t find out. Almost all the witnesses are dead, and the few who still remain have no intention of talking about it.
Would it make any difference if I did know his story? Maybe not. The past cannot be changed. Perhaps, if I understood, I would have more sympathy and compassion for him. Maybe I would be able to understand me. Maybe.
Do my children know my story? Do they know much about my family? Not really. They know bits and pieces. I haven’t told them many things because, frankly, it is too painful to remember a lot of them. Even if I wanted to tell them everything, I don’t know that it would make any sense to them. Much of it doesn’t even make sense to me. When I leave this world, it is likely that I will be as much a mystery to my kids as my father is to me.
It just keeps on giving.