A View of the Fathers: Can We Give Our Fathers the Gift of Personhood?

“You were to me the measure of all things.”
Franz Kafka

If mothers are the air we breathe but cannot see, the mirror that shows us everything but itself, what is a father?

Fathers are a field of vision. A scope of the possible (although not always desirable). While mothers seem to occupy the space closest to us, fathers are more like the horizon. Clear, defined, even untouchable?

I remember a quick line in neurologist Oliver Sacks’ autobiography where he mentions his father’s disappointment when the young Sacks published medical findings in a book (and would continue to do so throughout his life). Sacks’ father’s response was “it isn’t what doctors do.”

Ultimately, Sacks recognized that his father “hoped that his sons, whatever we did, would also earn good names for ourselves and not dishonour the name of Sacks.”

Again, this image of a father as a horizon comes to mind. Constant but unapproachable.

Equally, but without the same reconciliation, was Vincent van Gogh’s relationship with his father. Van Gogh’s elder brother Theo remonstrates Vincent for embittering his parents lives by leaving a career in the church.

Van Gogh’s response was essentially a verbal shrug:

Whenever one says something to father to which he has no reply, he comes out with a reproach of that sort and says, for example, ‘You will be the death of me,’ while he sits there perfectly calmly reading his newspaper and smoking his pipe. So I take such reproaches for what they are.”

From The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh

Van Gogh’s contemporary, Paul Cezanne also had an exceedingly difficult relationship with his father and actually painted the unthinking, unfeeling figure Van Gogh referenced.

Cezanne's "The Artist's Father, Reading L'Événement", 1866."
Paul Cezanne’s “The Artist’s Father, Reading L’Événement,” 1866. The father is uneven, downcast with a shrouded gaze and little concern for his son. Cezanne notices his father, the father notices the paper. Source: The National Gallery.

But there is a large difference between an uncommunicative father and an unloving father. The former might be more of a form of protection than rejection.

I remember reading how poet Ted Hughes never asked his father directly about his experience fighting in the First World War. Not once, this massive, explosive drama just sat between them like an unfinished roast.

My mothers’ father only spoke of his experience in WWII seventy years after it happened and only a few years before he died. And even then it was more like quiet exhales of a long-held breath than an informative narrative.

Memory is not always one of the things we inherit. Sometimes it needs to be buried with the lifetime that formed it.

Rune stone, 1100-1150 Sweden
Rune stone, 1100-1150, Sweden. The carving reads ‘Lidsmod had this stone carved in memory of Julbjörn [his] father.’ Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

But as a child – regardless of age – ‘Why don’t you talk about the war’ is internalized as why don’t you talk to me about what affected you most?

It does seem odd that the people closest to us in the world do not share that world with us. But they cannot, they are our parents. Their job is to give us hope. Hope is extended forward through the ages while memory reaches back, affixed to the point that is our life.

What I have in common with my father is not that I am his daughter, but that we both have fathers. Fathers from similar gene pools.

Contemporary poet Rupi Kaur engineered beautiful language surrounding this unexpected connection with a father:

father. you always call to say nothing in particular. you ask what i’m doing or where I am when the silence stretches like a lifetime between us i scramble to find questions to keep the conversation going. what i long to say most is. i understand this world broke you. it has been so hard on your feet. i don’t blame you for not knowing how to remain soft with me. sometimes i stay up thinking of all the places you are hurting which you’ll never care to mention. i come from the same aching blood, from the same bone so desperate for attention i collapse in on myself. i am your daughter i know the small talk is the only way you know how to tell me you love me. cause it is the only way i know how to tell you.

From Milk and Honey

American poet Robert Lowell, who farmed his daily life for epistles of universality, echoed all the “places of hurt” Kaur imagined her father to embody. Lowell’s father, a deliberate, quiet, and aristocratic man, wore a mask his whole life.

In a way, Lowell’s confessional poetry sought to unmask this man:

Father’s death was abrupt and unprotesting.
His vision was still twenty-twenty.
After a morning of anxious, repetitive smiling,
his last words to Mother were:
‘I feel awful.’

From Robert Lowell’s “Terminal Days at Beverly Farms”

In one of my favorite poetic endings, a dying man is overcome by soulful honesty.

Illustration "The Comfort of Being Read To" by Marilyn Yee. Featured in "The Comfort and Wonder of Being Read To."
“The Comfort of Being Read To” by Singaporean artist Marilyn Yee for The Examined Life.

The unmasking of fathers (or anyone for that matter) can be intentional or unintentional but its resulting affect is the person is seen as a human, not only a father. Our parents are so deeply connected to our self-identity, we rarely see them apart from how they affect us. Which means who we are integrates who they are, like it or not.

Author Dani Shapiro has an interesting story about this. When a chance DNA test revealed to Shapiro that her father was not her biological father, she wrote a stunning narrative on how we form our deepest notions of self:

If my father wasn’t my father, who was my father? If my father wasn’t my father, who was I?

Franz Kafka – as he usually did – put it more bluntly in a letter to his father:

I remember for instance, how we often undressed in the same bathing hut. There I was… for you were to me the measure of all things.

It is not unusual to deny our parents’ personhood. We are overly sensitive when they fail to do something we think is easy, or to understand precisely what we mean at all times. We even want to make them in our own image: teaching them technology, adjusting their political keel, buying them new clothes that “aren’t embarrassing” and worst, posting their bad behavior on social media as a way to affirm yes, indeed, it is bad behavior.

In denying a father the reality that he is a person separate from us, we deny his quirks might be because of us. I always imagined my parents fully-formed, complete humans. They were some granite and gneiss rocks against which I threw my little self in order to become stronger, brighter and better.

The author's husband and daughter.
My husband and daughter.

Then I became a parent and realized I am vulnerable, undone, and very much in flux. I never understood my parents as much as I do now (and in a very tiny way I hope my kids have kids so they can understand me.)

The moment you accept your parents as individual humans is a defining moment of life. We might never reach that paternal horizon but we can marvel at it. Let it surround us.

The author's father.
Me and Dad.

I remember the exact moment I learned my father was human and not fully formed. I learned to forgive and love his imperfections as much as I love his perfections.

Whether he stabilizes or inspires, communicates or withholds, the father is, above all, human. As we all are. We demand to be seen as individuals from almost the moment we are born. Can we give our father the same gift?