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Essays
Volume 40 Issue 7 • June 17-23, 2010
now in our 40th season

Fathers' Voices

by Robert P.Barsanti

Every year, I forget about Father’s Day.  The holiday appears after graduation, but before classes end and the summer begins in earnest.  I can easily shuffle it under the papers I need to grade or stuff it into my beach bag with the old towels.   When I was younger, it would arrive at about the same time as my father’s birthday.  We would get him a white shirt, or a tie, or some golf balls, and set about planning out our summer at the pool.  Forgetting the holiday fits into my vision of fatherhood; Dad is the support crew to the rest of the family.  He doesn’t act so much as watch and cheer.  He doesn’t take the test, make the speech, or win the race.  Instead, he stand behind the fence, takes pictures, and claps.  His holiday is best celebrated by a beer, a chair, and the purring snores of a sleeping house.  Dad can toast another year of peace, heat, and regular bed times. 

I had little to do with my own act of fatherhood.  Instead, I witnessed it.  I sat next to my wife and said kind and bland things to her while a team of doctors worked on helping a child emerge.  Later, covered with a cheese, the boy was whisked over to a heated scale where he passed his first test.  The nurses then wrapped the little one up in a white towel and a yellow skull cap. 

In the ensuing hours, the nurses made sure to instruct me on the correct way to diaper, to clean the belly button, to swaddle, and to prepare a bottle, in case I needed to.  Each nurse was careful to address me as “Dad” and to bring me to mastery on the various tasks of parenthood.  “Now, Dad,” they would say, “You want to make sure that you fit the diaper snugly, but not too tight.”
Still, fatherhood didn’t descend upon me until I took the baby back to the nursery.  For good reason, the medical professionals did not trust fathers to carry the child back and forth from the mother.  Instead, the bundle of tears is wrapped and placed in an aquarium on a cart and wheeled down the halls.  In the hours after the boy’s birth, I wheeled him back from a visit with the in-laws when the boy woke up and fussed.  The nurses glanced up.

The boy’s mother, who had done both the slow work of creation and the death defying feat of production, had advantages that I did not have.  She could feed the little one.  She could cuddle him in that warm mother scent.  She could press his head against her and let her heartbeat bring the child into a familiar mood.  She, however, was unavailable and this was, at core, man’s work.
The job presented itself to me.  I scooped him up, placed him on my shoulder and rubbed his back.  Still fussed.  I bounced him up and down.  Still fussed.  I swung him gently on my shoulder.  Still fussed.  Then I started talking to him.  I don’t remember what I said—I would like to claim that I recited poetry—but I probably just babbled.  But he soothed, rested, closed his eyes, and drifted off into baby sleep.

Fatherhood, to me, started with words and a voice.  Over the next few years, it became silly songs repeated over and over again, conversations, and poetry.  I read “Goodnight Moon” and “The Runaway Bunny” until the bindings wore out.  It wasn’t long before my English Teacher habits took over and I was reading “Old Ironsides,” “Jabberwocky,” and, especially, “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”

Somewhere along the line, “Cremation” became a staple of the bedtime menu.  With its rhythms and its rhymes, it soothed the crying boys into its cadences and pattern.  By the time I hit the final “Strange things done in the midnight sun,” yawns were flurrying and the son was feeling the gentle frost of sleep.  If there dreams were troubled by burning boats or frozen bodies, they didn’t show it.  None of the words had any meaning; the sound and the tone was all. 

Robert W. Service and his friends in a Child’s Garden of Verses have long since been retired, like the diaper bag and the changing table.  Today, my boys are all about Lego sets and cheat codes.  When I read to them now, I get to choose among Septimus Heap, Harry Potter, or Greg Haffley and the dreaded Cheese Touch.  Within a few years, I will stop reading to them entirely.  They will retire to bed with their own books and their own voices. 

And, underneath their own voices and ideas and dreams, stands the ground of their father’s voice.  Unnoticed, unremarked, and underfoot, their father’s voice measures out the sentences, rises in the cadences, and resonates into their chests.  Our adolescent egos scream against that voice, but it remains, if only as counterpoint.  Our father’s voices are with us even when we think they have vanished completely.  We hear them in the ominous 4 AM silence and in the noontime roar of triumph. 

I can’t remember much that my father ever said to me—other than I looked like an “unmade bed.”  But I know I speak in a time-delayed counterpoint to his tune from years in the past.  I pause as he did, I use the same cliches, and I hold a similarly high opinion of myself and my abilities.  I stand on his shore.

I have no doubt that he sang to me, read to me at night, and soothed me when I fussed while my mother slept.  A father’s voice comes in the slow lap of the waves, leaving infinitesimal deposits of sand until, years later, the beach has built up a hundred yards deep.  It shunts the currents far off shore, it protects from the ups and downs of the tide, and holds firm under the batterings of the storm.  Each grain means little; but a lifetime of words stands fast. 

So I hope for my own sons.  I sense the storm building in the coming decades; the howling winds, the oil soaked waves, the lighting and the gale. Let them be happy.  Let them be strong.  Let them be of use.  Let them build a strong house in the lee of a bluff.  And let it stand on the indomitable faith of their father’s voice.

 

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