Editors’ note: A continuation of some of the best writing Notre Dame Magazine published in decades past about the men who’ve helped make us who we are. Happy Father’s Day.
Life has its seasons. Summer was turning to fall; he would start first grade in a week. The time had come. He followed me to the garage then waited outside as I pulled out his shiny blue bike with the sleek silver handlebars. He watched solemnly as I wrenched off the training wheels and tossed them into the garbage. There was no going back.
Out on the sidewalk I pushed him along, holding the seat. He wobbled and teetered and veered off the road. Again and again. I caught him each time. “Pedal,” I yelled, losing patience. “Keep pedaling. Faster.”
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“Don’t let go,” he screamed. “Don’t let go.”
“I have to.” I was mad. “You’ve got to learn.”
He fell again, and I said, “You stopped pedaling.” He said, “But you let go.” And I blurted sarcastically, “I suppose when you’re 15 and riding off with your friends, you’ll want me running along behind you, holding you up.” Then I pictured him older, riding off with his friends, turning the corner without me. He wasn’t even looking back.
But on this Saturday morning he was hurt and mad and tearful, and I said, “You know, this is as hard on me as it is on you.” And right away I wished I hadn’t said it; I heard that so much as a kid. He ran into the house, and I felt like a heel, having botched this rite of passage.
I remembered when my father taught me, and how mad I got at him. And how big and scary the bicycle felt. And how far it was to fall. Then I recalled the floating sensation, the triumph, when the bike began to glide along. And I remembered riding off into sunsets (hardly glancing over my shoulder) while my father waved goodbye . . . and when bike wheels turned to car wheels that carried me out of town.
My father is a thousand miles away; his grandsons are growing up six states away from him. Maybe it isn’t so bad, I thought, having them cruise the sidewalk in front of our house — at least for a little while — before they’re out on the streets on their own.
I lie on my back and stared at the clouds drifting by. One looked like a sailing ship, another like a swan. The late-August air smelled the way it did 30 years ago. When I was little, I pretended my red Huffy was a black Harley-Davidson. I clothes-pinned cards to the spokes to make the proper noise. We rode in gangs to look ornery and ramped off boards to look fast. When I was little, I was in a hurry to be bigger. Now that I’m big, I daydream of going back.
It didn’t seem that long ago when Casey was a baby pushing my orange basketball across the floor. Wanting to test his little legs, he pulled himself up onto it (I could see it coming) just before it rolled away and plopped him to the floor. I was new at this, too. Do I pull him away? Hold him? Get ready to catch his fall? Or watch as he learns about life’s hard knocks?
He fell and cried, and I comforted him. “All of life’s bumps should be so good to you,” I told him. I shuddered to think of the real-life Humpty-Dumpties who can’t be put back together again. But I had learned to hold my tongue when the boys later walked too close to the river or climbed a tree too high. I have since learned to look the other way when they hang like chimps from the monkey bars or leap from high-flying swings.
Sometimes I think life is a minefield, whose traps explode, arbitrarily, indiscriminately, on those who either dance or crawl along the way. A softshoe is better than any kind of fearful groping, but it is a tenuous fencewalk between timidity and trust. Where do you draw the line between cautious and afraid? I do not want them playing in lightning, but I like to sit on the porch with them while it is flashing all around.
It isn’t easy bringing children from innocence to independence in a world so ugly and cruel. There is too much to hurt these little boys with the sweet blue eyes, vulnerable, sensitive and serene. I do not like warning them about strangers and child molesters, the real-life witches and goblins who lurk behind the trees on the road to Oz. In time the circles will turn, and they will know the raunchy sides of life. Already they are asking about war and dirty words and why grownups kidnap kids.
Sometimes I feel like Holden Caulfield, who wanted to wipe the obscenities from the walls of New York City so the children wouldn’t see. I know how he felt when he said, “I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”
I remembered taking Ross to his first day of kindergarten. He was the one standing so straight, with the new blue shirt buttoned at the collar. His purple backpack had three white teddy bears across the back. When I stooped to say goodbye, I saw the tears in his eyes. I asked him if he’d be OK, and he nodded bravely. His lips quivered; he could not talk from fear of crying. I could almost feel the lump in his throat. I was sorry I told him to be a big boy now.
Then I wanted to stay and see him through it, to do it for him, to intercede on his behalf, to introduce him around, tell the kids what a great guy he is. But I didn’t; it would have hurt him in the long run. The world does not take kindly to those who do not know its ways.
Even Holden Caulfield learned to let go. There is that scene at the end of Catcher in the Rye when Holden takes his little sister, Phoebe, to the zoo in Central Park. She rides that carousel and he watches from a bench. He says, “All the kids kept trying to grab for the gold ring, and so was old Phoebe, and I was sort of afraid she’d fall off the goddam horse, but I didn’t say anything or do anything. The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it’s bad if you say anything to them.”
I turned my back on Ross in the school yard, walked a few steps, then looked around once more. He was a lone figure, a fixed point in a sea of schoolchildren swirling about him. He seemed to be falling, floating away from me, as if on a ship slowly heading out of the harbor. Our eyes met and he raised a hand in a mournful wave goodbye: a puppy left on the doorstep of life.
The boys are now at such a tender age: ready to run from the house where they’ve spent their first five years; eager to join in the bruising chaos of the big-kid world; caught somewhere between the Smurfs and the streetwise kids they emulate when they march down the street with sticks. They tag along, looking up to the older boys the way they once looked up to me. I hope the big kids treat them as well as their father did, but I know they will not. I would give them Magicland if I could. I would keep them this age forever, so we both could believe Santa Claus is more than a myth. But there is no house at Pooh Corner; Jackie Paper never came home to Puff.
It is a big and little comfort, when you see your sons being tackled too hard, to know the neighborhood boys are making men out of them. It is hard keeping your distance when one son dives headfirst into the pile and the other is in a fistfight. But they still come home to curl up in my lap with teddy bears and blankets, and they get up early on Saturday mornings to watch The Muppet Babies on TV. Now at bedtime when I read them Dumbo, they tell me they are certain that elephants do not talk (even though they will then look out the window to wish upon a star). On those nights I want to hug them forever, knowing the hugs will not always be there.
Already they wish they were older. One night last week Casey informed me, “I’m through with silliness now, Daddy. I’m 6 now and ready for ’portantness. We need more ’portantness around here.”
“God made the world for children,” I wanted to tell him, “although grownups have made it theirs. Be of no mind — though you will know this too late — to hurry down that road. It is not what it appears to be. But you will remember always the firefly summer nights and the autumn scents of childhood in the leaves.”
Why is it, I thought as I lay in the grass and watched the clouds drift overhead, that parents spend half their time teaching children to go away, then spend the other half happy when they’ve stayed? Why are all the joys of raising children punctuated with the pain of a parent’s broken heart? Why did I not miss my own childhood until I watched my children losing theirs?
Soon after that Saturday, on a day when I wasn’t looking, Casey taught himself how to ride his bike. Now the backyard gate is always open, and he and Ross are always gone. There was a time our yard was big enough. That time, too, has gone away.
They still look like angels when they sleep. I still think of them as emissaries from God. They came as miracles of creation, incarnations of purity and goodness. I remember when they prayed for the animals in winter. They showed me again what Jesus meant when he said, “Unless you become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” They taught me to believe in innocence again, and in the possibility of happy endings.
A high school teacher once told me that every baby born was another attempt at human perfection. As a rebellious teenager, I felt like a far-fallen angel. In his classic, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee wrote: “In every child who is born, under no matter what circumstances, and of no matter what parents, the potentiality of the human race is born again: and in him, too, once more, and of each of us, our terrific responsibility toward human life; toward the utmost idea of goodness, of the horror of error, and of God.”
I suppose most parents have felt the weight of this belief, whether consciously or not. At least you are braced in the event Milton was right when he wrote, “Childhood shows the man, as morning shows the day.” And later, when you see the little one sinking his teeth into the calf of his big brother or the big brother chasing the little one through the yard with a bat, you remember another poet’s admonition: “In the lost boyhood of Judas, Christ was betrayed.”
After all, the little person in your arms began with a virgin soul, and you feel compelled to keep it fresh and clean. It is easier in the early years to feel as if you’re succeeding. For a little while, you can protect him and shield him. You can surround him with Care Bears and cuddles, nursery rhymes and fairy tales. You can polish out the nicks and scratches, and steer him away from the collisions that can cause major damage.
In the early years you give full flight to your children’s imagination. You nurture their naiveté, their idealism, their sense of wonder. For now it’s all right for them to think that unicorns are real. You let them believe in Bambi, Thumper and Flower; the time will come soon enough to teach them about hunters and fire. And if you are like me, you may secretly wish the world really were as the children see it.
“Know what it is to be a child?” wrote the poet Francis Thompson. “It is to be something very different from the man of today. It is to have a spirit yet streaming from the waters of baptism. It is to believe in love, to believe in loveliness, to believe in belief; it is to be so little that the elves can reach to whisper in your ear; it is to turn pumpkins into coaches and mice into horses, lowness into loftiness, and nothing into everything, for each child has his fairy godmother in his soul.”
I think of this when I see parents hurry to turn their children into little adults. With nursery school, preschool and real school, I wonder where childhood has gone. But sometimes I think something is wrong with me because I see it as a kids’ world versus mine, and that it hurts me to see them leave that world behind. Parents, after all, are not shelters from life but are, as Kahlil Gibran said, “the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.” That’s not always easy to accept, especially when you don’t know when or where the arrows may fall.
But now, all appears peaceful when they sleep. Casey is sideways and uncovered, the Snoopy bedspread wound tight around one leg. Ross is curled into a little ball, clutching his bear, Fuzzy Wuzzy. Ross keeps a stickhorse by his bed to fight off any bad guys who come in the night. He keeps toys under the bed in case he chooses to hide there. Then he will have something to bide his time while the bad guys ransack the house. Some nights Casey asks me if he will have a nightmare. I say no; he asks, “Do you promise?” He is disappointed that I can’t. I heard once about a boy who was afraid of monsters under his bed; his father sawed off the legs. If only it were that simple.
There is a night light and a bulletin board with pictures they have done. There are posters of the evil Darth Vader dueling with their hero, Luke Skywalker, the Jedi knight who conquered the Dark Side of the Force. The floor is littered with cars and robots, and the Masters of the Universe — the armies of He-Man and Skeletor who have spent the day engaged in epic battle between good and bad. If only it were that simple.
Graham Greene once wrote that he lost his childhood when he learned to read and discovered that the world did not come in black and white. It comes, he said, in black and gray. One thing that hurts a parent is watching that happen in a child once innocent and pure . . . and knowing the loss is irretrievable.
I hadn’t jumped from a swing since I was a kid. Or built a snow fort. Or climbed a tree. I had not really tried to catch a butterfly or wondered why the sky is blue. It isn’t easy explaining thunder and rainbows, but it resurrects the mystery in a grownup brain gone stale. Children see more in a sand castle than grownups see in the sky. Sometimes I think their vision packs a poet’s wisdom that is beyond adults, who have grown tired, hard and dull, literal and skeptical. When Ross told me the trees make wind by waving to God, I thought of the Little Prince, who said, “Grownups never understand anything by themselves; and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.”
The best part of having children is going with them on their explorations. They take you to the fields where they play. You, too, can be a mountain lion or a pirate or a knight slaying dragons. you can play hide-and-seek, or just lie in the grass and blow the fuzz off dandelion globes. The magic draws very close when you’re there; the bad things go very far away.
Children, like real-life Peter Pans, take you to a world no longer yours to track down alone. They take you to enchanted kingdoms where evil villains can be expelled with the swipe of a sword or the wave of a wand. Sometimes, when the boys spread out their “real life action figures,” I will set up the little soldiers, the cowboys and Indians I played with as a kid. They still have the crayon marks for blood and teeth marks from my old dog, Scamp. And when I turn them in my hand, they look and feel like they did then. And when I build forts with my plastic red bricks, the boys build theirs with Legos. And when the players come to life and the battles reach fever pitch, you believe in magic.
Then it happens. You become a kid again and the world goes far away. You laugh like you did and you run like you did. You feel free for the first time in years. And when you play freeze-tag with the neighborhood kids or argue a close play at second or feel the wonderful exhilaration of kicking the can and setting others free, you become (just in the wink of a moment) yourself again — the person you thought you’d left behind long ago.
In A Death in the Family, James Agee wrote: “How far we all come. How far we all come from ourselves. So far, so much between, you can never go home again. You can go home, it’s good to go home, but you never really get all the way home again in your life. And what’s it all for? All I tried to be, all I ever wanted and went away for, what’s it all for?
“Just one way you do get back home. You have a boy or a girl of your own and now and then you remember, and you know how they feel, and it’s almost the same as if you were your own self again, as young as you could remember.”
Then they grow up. And they leave you alone and empty-handed in a world that’s lost its magic, where trees never wave to God. You have only bittersweet memories, the babybooks and paintings, the notches on the closet door where you measured their growth. There are photographs and feelings, but so much more is left behind. All the things held so possessively in tightly curled little fists, all the animals with whom they shared their bed, all the mystical playgrounds have been discarded for bigger games and broader horizons that they must explore alone.
And you learn again that none of us is Peter Pan; but we all, in a way, belong to the company of the Lost Boys, wanting to partake in the whimsical heroics of Never Never Land. We are all caught somewhere between childhood and maturity, yearning for the days of sweet remembrances — the mornings of boundless horizons; the evenings of carefree calm; the nights when mothers and fathers pulled the quilts to our chins and kissed us gently goodnight. Childhood is like that. It is a memory that fades too quickly, images wrapped in a longing to feel that way again.
I did not expect to want to stop the clock so soon. But D. H. Lawrence was 31 — about my age — when he wrote, “The glamor/Of childish days is upon me. My manhood is cast/Down the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.” Elizabeth Akers Allen was 28 when she wrote, “Backward, turn backward, O Time, in your flight. Make me a child again just for tonight.”
I think of this most when I am home from work, changing clothes and watching the gang from my upstairs bedroom window. I’d give anything to join them in play; my heart feels that young. I open my closet to hang up my tie and I remember when I was little and my father came home from work. I remember the way his closet smelled and the suits and ties hanging there. I remember how he’d ride me on his shoulders: my head would scrape along the ceiling; I’d wear his tie around my neck. Sometimes, when the world has been mean to me, I wish I could go back. I’d sit in the kitchen while Mom made dinner, or “rough house” on the floor with Dad.
I suppose part of this ache to return comes from seeing your parents’ arms grow frail and watching your children outgrow yours. But part of it is reaching the backstretch of your own life. You come out of the first turn of your youth and look down the straightaway where you can see old age, really see it, for the first time. The impulse is to go back to simpler, more carefree days when you weren’t so tired and you were bound for glory.
But life has its way of turning summer to winter, leaving you to long for the sun-filled afternoons of swimming holes and games of Marco Polo. And even on those rare occasions when life favors you by letting a dream come true, it is never as good as when you had it all.
“And God knows he was lucky, so many ways, and God knows he was thankful,” wrote Agee in A Death in the Family. “Everything was good and better than he could have hoped for, better than he ever deserved; only, whatever it was and however good it was, it wasn’t what you once had been, and had lost, and could never have again, and once in a while, once in a long time, you remembered, and knew how far you were away, and it hit you hard enough, that little while it lasted, to break your heart.”
Your heart is twice broken. Not only must you bid farewell to your children’s innocence, but you must say goodbye to your childhood and youth as well.
When I was younger, having children was only a passing thought. Fatherhood was a part of life I just assumed would eventually come. What I looked forward to most was playing ball with my kids or taking them camping. I never dreamed they would mean so much so soon. I knew they would need me in the early years; I didn’t know I would come to need them. My sons have given new meaning to Wordsworth’s observation, “The child is the father of the man.”
They have helped me grow up; they have kept me young. They have made me feel so purposeful and needed; I have come to depend on that. They make me feel wise (because I know where the sun goes when it sets) and strong (because my arms can still lift them high into trees). Children are like that. They think you’re terrific because you can build paper airplanes and make circuses out of cardboard, crayons and string. And on days when the world has been rotten to me, when the plaster is cracked and there are too many bills to be paid, they make it all right with a kiss and a hug.
They have returned to me a child’s vision of the world and made me promise to remember what Wordsworth vowed when he was my age: “My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky. So was it when my life began; so is it now I am a man; so be it when I shall grow old. Or let me die.”
They have taught me that Homer was wrong when he said, “You ought not practice childish ways, since you are no longer that age.” And that Confucian teacher, Mencius, was right when he said, “The great man is he who does not lose his child’s heart.”
And when I am caught in adult “matters of consequence” and think I have too little time for them and their handlebars that need to be straightened, I remember the time will come too soon that they will have nothing to do with me. And that the Little Prince was right when he said, “Only the children know what they are looking for.”
And them? For now, I wish their childhood would be something to carry with them always, and not something left behind. I wish them days like yesterday, when the only monsters were the ones on Sesame Street, when their biggest problem was learning to read and write, and when the worst thing that happened was having to go to bed. I wish our yard would always be wherever their imagination said it was, that they would always dance in my arms across the floor and hold my hand when I walk them to school. But I know none of that will happen.
Just yesterday when I asked them to play, they said, “Aw, Dad. Can we go down to T.J.’s instead?” And this morning, when I was about to ride my bike to work, Casey was out teaching Ross how to ride his.
But then (while Ross was scooting down the sidewalk, one foot on the ground) Casey came and hugged me around the neck and said, “Kiss me, Daddy, on top of the head.” So I did, and he said, “I will wave to you as you ride away. I will wave until you cannot see me anymore.” So there he stood as I pedaled away, waving his little hand in the air, getting smaller and smaller as I rode down the street waving back over my shoulder at the little boy whose dreams are now more important than my own. Waving and smiling, front teeth missing, till we couldn’t see each other anymore.
I know the time will come when they will ride through life without me. They will grow strong and my arms will grow frail. Their childhood and I will fade into memory, like the distant, green shoreline of a land left behind. But before I go I need to remember to tell them what an aging poet once wrote to his godchild, “Please remember to look for me in the nurseries of heaven.”
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.