桶装饮用水订购:What Kind of Father Am I?: an article by James McConkey about parenting and being parented by sons | The American Scholar

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Spring 2008

What Kind of Father Am I?

Looking back at a lifetime of parenting sons and being parented by them


Oneevening—not long after my family moved to the old country farmhousewhere my wife and I have lived for 45 years—our youngest son (mynamesake, Jim, then three-year-old Jimmy) came into the woodshed, while Iwas there putting away some tools. “Look,” he said proudly, cradling inhis arms the largest rat I had ever seen.

Instinctively, in what no doubt would be a genetic response of anyparent, I tried to grab the rat from his arms before it bit him; but, asI reached toward it, the rat tightened its body, menacing me with itssharp teeth. At once, I stepped back: that, too, was an instinctiveresponse, though rational thought immediately followed it. Was the ratrabid? Whether that was so or not, it was clear that the rat trustedJimmy but not me, and yet it might bite both of us if I threatened itfurther.

“Where did you find it?” I asked my son.

“In the barn.”

“Which barn? The one with all the hay?”


“It was just lying there, on the hay?”

“Yes, and he likes me.”

“I can see that it does.”

With the possible exception of the difference in our use of pronouns(which just now came to me without conscious intent; could it have risenfrom some submerged level of my memory?), that little dialogue isn’t anexact transcription—not only because it happened decades ago, butbecause while I was talking, my mind was elsewhere. I was looking at thegarden tools I’d just returned to the wall behind Jimmy, thinking Imight ask him to put the rat on the floor so that I could kill it with awhack of a shovel or some other implement. But my son trusted me, justas the rat apparently trusted him; and what kind of traumatic shockwould I be visiting upon Jimmy if I smashed the skull of an animal heconsidered his friend?

The woodshed is in a wing of the house connected to the kitchen,where my wife, Jean, had been preparing dinner. She surprised me bycoming quietly to my side; apparently she had overheard our conversationthrough the screen door and now was offering a solution to the dilemma.She said, “We need to find something to put your pet in, Jimmy.”

“A box,” I said. “Just keep holding it while I find one.” For Iremembered at that moment a stout box I had seen while rummaging amongall the agricultural items that had collected over the years in thecarriage barn across the road—items that fell into disuse after thefields had been cleared, the house and barns constructed, and finallyafter tractors and cars had replaced horses. Amid the jumble of oldharnesses, horse-drawn plow parts, scythes, and two-man saws was a smalloblong box that might have contained dynamite fuses or explosives forremoving stumps. It had been sawed and sanded from a plank about twoinches thick. Like the house itself, it was made of wood far moredurable than anything available since the virgin forests were harvested,and all of its edges were covered in metal. Though I felt guilty forleaving Jimmy and Jean with the rat, I was glad to have remembered thebox I had admired for its craftsmanship, and I ran in search of it. Forthe longest time, I couldn’t find it and thought (as I often did later,whenever I found myself unable to resolve a crisis besetting one of ouradolescent sons), What kind of father am I? I was close topanic before I finally found the box, more valuable to me at that momentthan our recently purchased Greek-revival farmhouse—the kind of familyhome I’d long dreamed of owning.

A film of these events still runs through my mind, but I willsummarize the rest of it here. Jimmy was initially the director of thismovie, with Jean and me the actors obedient to his command: that is tosay, he obstinately refused to put the rat into the box until a suitablebed was made for it—old rags wouldn’t do, for it had to be as soft ashis favorite blanket. The rat gave him his authority, for it trustedJean no more than it trusted me; it remained unperturbed in his embracefor a few minutes more, while Jean searched for and then cut severalsections from a tattered blanket. Our son was satisfied with that bed,and the rat—whose trust in a three-year-old seemed infinite—seemedequally pleased, permitting Jimmy to place it on the soft strips. Assoon as we put the lid on the box, I called the county healthdepartment, only to be told that the office had closed; I was to take inthe rat first thing in the morning so that its brain could bedissected.

In response to Jean’s immediate question, “Did the rat bite you?”Jimmy said, “No, he kissed me.” Could any parent have believed an answerlike that? My response was simply to put the box outside. Before givingour son a bath, we scrutinized every part of his body, finding noscratches anywhere on it. During the night the rat gnawed a hole throughthe wood, and by dawn it had disappeared.

Forty-odd years ago, rabies vaccination involved a lengthy series ofshots, each of them painful, and occasionally the process itself wasfatal. Neither the health department nor our pediatrician would tell uswhat to do. Once again we searched Jimmy’s body for the slightestscratch and again found nothing; so we decided to withhold thevaccination—though Jean and I slept poorly for several nights. Longafter it had become apparent that our son had not contracted a fataldisease, I kept thinking—as I again do, in remembering the event—of theerrors I had made, of what I should have done instead, of how helpless Ihad felt following my discovery that the rat had escaped.

While reading arecent biography of William James by Robert D. Richardson Jr., I foundmyself recalling those suspenseful and seemingly never-ending hours. AsRichardson demonstrates, James was aware of the extent that circumstanceand random events (like the one that led my young son to a particularrat so long ago) can alter the course of history as well as the lives ofindividuals, making the future unpredictable. James, like my favoritewriter, Chekhov, was trained as a medical doctor and became anauthor—though not of stories and plays (his younger brother Henry wasthe fiction writer) but of books and articles on philosophical,psychological, and spiritual matters. One of the founders of Americanpragmatism, James rejected European reliance on Platonic absolutes or onreligious and philosophical doctrines that declared the historicalnecessity of certain future events. Despite his realization that muchlies beyond our present and future control, James still believed in theindependence of individual will, a view essential to the long-lastingbut often precarious freedom underlying our democratic system.

Though my life strikes me as more stable than most—Jean and I havebeen married for 63 years, raising our children in a house now 176 yearsold—I’m aware that circumstances and forces exterior to us have played adominant role in our lives. A party that Jean and I gave soon after mydischarge from the Army at the conclusion of World War II brought us tothis Finger Lakes farmhouse. I had entered graduate school in English onthe GI bill at Western Reserve University in Cleveland; Jean, whiletaking some part-time graduate courses in chemistry there, was workingas a chemist at the Standard Oil research lab at the edge of the campus.Without that party—which angered our landlady, who lived beneath ourapartment—we might have remained indefinitely in Cleveland; instead, webegan the various journeys that brought unexpected events and chanceencounters with others, one of which resulted in my permanentappointment as a Cornell English literature professor.

For that matter, I never would have become an enlisted soldier in aninfantry division fighting in France and Germany had it not been for theJapanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941—as unexpected anattack as the destruction wrought by suicidal terrorists on September11, 2001. I can see how much I was a pawn—often a lucky one—of history.Soon after my division landed in Normandy, I was transferred from anantitank squad to divisional headquarters—and the following day a landmine hidden in the road by the retreating Germans exploded under thetruck carrying members of that squad, killing many of them.

So, instead of being a combat soldier, if I had survived thatcarnage, I became the editor of my division’s newspaper as we advancedthrough Europe. On a lovely April day, I was driving our Jeep in Germanyin search of printing supplies for the next issue. With me were thepublic relations captain and the newspaper’s artist. We somehow gotahead of our troops—something we didn’t realize until we came upon arecently felled tree blocking the road and heard the bullets whistlingpast our ears from rifles on a nearby hill. I zigzagged the Jeep tosafety and found another road. We were surprised even more when the newroad took us into two towns, once again before our troops arrived. Ineach town, dozens of German soldiers raised their hands in surrender,even climbing like puppies onto the hood of the Jeep; but how could wetake prisoners? As evening came, I was driving too fast to see anotherobject—odder and much smaller than the felled tree—also desperatelycontrived to impede the American advance: the long barrel of an antiquepistol, sharpened to a point at the end, its butt replacing a half-brickon the road. Positioned at an angle, it was designed to do preciselywhat it did: blow out two tires while flipping the Jeep over as itveered into a field. The two passengers fell out, unharmed, but I wastrapped by the steering wheel. The Jeep ended up back on its wheels,leaving me conscious on the ground but unable to move.

I remember a circle of faces looking down at me—neighboring Germancivilians, all of them apparently sympathetic, as well as my tworiders—the captain (who showed me that strange little booby trap) andthe artist. A German woman asked me a question in English, and Ianswered in her language. But bad luck can sometimes be followed byfortunate circumstances. Apparently we had arrived at the border of theAmerican advance, for a medical corps Jeep soon came, and I wastransferred on a back-seat litter to a forward field hospital. Inaddition to a broken pelvis, various organs in my lower viscera had beenpunctured. That field hospital had but a single surgeon, who had beenoperating for several days on wounded soldiers under the wavering lightsof a portable generator. As he shaved my pubic hair, I asked thesurgeon if I’d be impotent; he smiled at such a conventional questionand said I wouldn’t. I never learned the name of that doctor—only thathe was a friend of one of my college teachers, an unexpectedcoincidence—but his skill permitted me to live and to be the father ofthree sons. After the operation, an infection took over my body, and Ideveloped a high fever, accompanied by nightmares. Later, I realized I’dentered the process that leads to dying, for I was within a cone ofpale light that kept vanishing toward a single point. Just before itreached that point, I would see a head—it must have belonged to a nurse,not to my hallucinations—and soon thereafter (or so I imagine, havingthen no sense of time) the shining point always grew back to itsoriginal cone. Luckily for me, that field hospital had received some ofthe first penicillin available for soldiers, and the series ofinjections and blood transfusions administered to me restored me to fullconsciousness and at last to the pain that accompanies the injuredliving.

Some years ago, I remembered that cone of light while experiencing anactual phenomenon much like it. Unable to sleep, I had left the bed Ishared with Jean to work at my desk. Long after midnight, I wentoutdoors in my pajamas to look at the stars and found myself near theend of a narrow shaft of pale light that seemed to expand as it roseabove me. Our son Larry and his wife were visiting us, and I woke themas well as Jean to share what I had just seen. Still half-asleep, theystumbled outdoors. “My God!” Larry cried, for that eerie radiance bathedall of us and the house and rose into the heavens. Since a phenomenonlike that requires an explanation, we decided—rightly or not—that it wascaused by the tail of a distant comet, surprisingly not reported; andwe stayed outdoors until all of us became drowsy, lulled by thefragrance from the fields of newly mown hay. Ever since, I’ve wonderedif all living creatures exist at varying positions within a cone ofvital energy, made visible only through extraordinary events or by theapproach of death.

Chance brings so many miracles and so much tragedy into all of ourlives that it is remarkable that humans can affirm—as James does—thatindividual will is equally a determining factor. And yet personal memorymakes me agree with James; Americans in general also do. But of coursemost Americans, whatever our adversities, historically have been luckierthan many others, and the luckiest of us include the most ferventsupporters of the belief that success or failure depends wholly on theindividual.

Though nothing about human nature is exempt from argumentation, itstrikes me that personal will surely exists in our response to thecircumstances that fate thrusts upon us. Circumstance, for example,required Jean and me to respond, however faulty our judgments, to therat in Jimmy’s arms. In Oedipus Rex, though, the protagonist’saction in response to circumstance is equally the working out of fate,and the last words of that tragedy come from the chorus: “Call no manhappy until he carries his happiness down to the grave in peace.”

Now that I’m 86, I find that my mind flits back and forth between amyriad of specific memories and abstract questions devoid of clearanswers.

One suchquestion—perhaps related, but more circumscribed than anything raised bySophocles’ play—often occurs to people like Jean and me long after it’stoo late to matter: Could we have been better parents? Though sometimesit comes from the behavior of their adolescent children, that kind ofquestion often follows parental inability to foresee accidents waitingto befall their offspring. After my father’s death, my mother, then 90,came to live with us. Very early on a July morning in 1975, I wasawakened by a phone call from an airline representative who told me thatmy brother, an airline captain, had been killed in the crash of thelimousine taking him and his crew to Chicago’s O’Hare airport. The mostpainful task I’ve ever undertaken was to tell my mother after she awokeat sunrise (I now wake at that time, too, if not earlier) that her olderson was dead. To do that, I lay next to her on her bed. She couldn’tcomprehend the dreadful news, asking me to repeat over and over all theinformation I’d been given. Finally she said, “Jackie,” the name she hadcalled him as an infant, and then told me details that must have madeher feel guilty over the decades: ever since he had learned to walk,she’d had to keep constant watch over him. Once, while she was givinghim a bath, he had slithered out of her grasp to run, naked, out thedoor and down the street. Another time she had tied him to a ropeattached to a tree in the front yard so she would have time to wash hisdiapers. These were the things she first remembered upon learning of hisdeath.

Larry, our oldest son, resembles Jack in physical dexterity,technical expertise, and general enthusiasms, such as piloting. As atwo-year-old, he required the same kind of watching. Once, he managed toescape our fenced-in yard and run down the driveway into the middle ofthe major highway serving the small Kentucky town where we had boughtour first house. Jean ran after him, afraid that if she called his namehe’d veer from the center stripe and be hit, for cars and trucks werewhizzing past in both directions, the drivers seemingly oblivious toboth mother and child. She rescued him that time; but later, as afirst-grader coming home for lunch, he was struck by a car at the markedcrosswalk on the street in front of the elementary school. No guard waspresent, and a car was illegally parked at the crosswalk, preventingour son from seeing any oncoming traffic. Larry was knocked unconsciousbut, fortunately, was not run over. I was leading a discussion on anovel in an adjoining building (the elementary school had once been atraining facility for college students preparing for public schoolcareers) when I was interrupted by a secretary who told me my son hadbeen hit and was lying in the street. In the short time it took me toreach the crosswalk, Larry had been taken to the office of a localdoctor who told us—Jean had already arrived there—that our child hadsuffered a minor concussion and that he’d be fine if we made sure hestayed awake for the rest of the day.

Like all parents, Jean and I will never be able to forget events likethese. Though I wasn’t even home when Jean ran after Larry on a busyhighway, I sometimes still relive it, feeling both irresponsible andhelpless.

That first sonwas followed three years later by Cris—an abbreviation of Crispin, hismiddle name; Jim was born seven years after Cris. When Larry was ateenager, a social worker and longtime friend—her husband was acolleague of mine—told Jean that we put an unusual burden on our sons byexpecting them to live up to an unstated code of behavior, perhaps onesimilar to the relationship she had observed between Jean and me. Weseemed, that is, to assume some kind of equality among the members ofour family, permitting our children to call us by our first names andnever imposing specific rules upon their conduct. Her observations werenot accusatory in nature; they may have been partially intended to showus how little we had in common with the dysfunctional familyrelationships of her clients. And yet they seemed to imply—especially inthat phrase “an unusual burden”—a difference between her own family andours.

When Jean told me what the social worker had said, I found hercomments accurate enough to be troubling. During the years that ourchildren remained dependent upon us, I’d always felt a specialresponsibility, as the adult male, for providing security and guidanceto my family. Though Jean and I each had professional careers, weassumed, in a way typical of our generation, that mine should haveprecedence. But I had never wanted to be a patriarch, that conventionalfigure of male authority. Jean and I always came to major familydecisions through mutual consent; neither of us would do anything thatmight make the other unhappy—or our children, for that matter, afterthey were old enough to be consulted. The reason for such behavior,being self-serving, is nothing to be proud of: we knew we’d inflictmisery on ourselves by pursuing personal desires that broughtunhappiness to those we love.

Nobody can will that kind of love; one reason, I guess, is that itdepends on at least two people to share it. In the attempt to save theirfailing marriage, one of our sons and his former wife had a series oftalks with a marriage counselor. Ultimately, the counselor told our sonthat his marital problems were obviously caused by his parents.Successful marriages require the open expression of personal emotion; ifhis parents never argued and fought, the reason was that they hadrepressed their hostility, thus victimizing him to a repetition of theirfault.

Ever since Freud, repression has served some analysts as a convenientand irrefutable explanation for the problems of their patients. Forexample, the indignation with which I responded when our son asked me ifwhat the counselor had said was true might have been used by thecounselor as proof of the extent to which I would go to repress my otheremotions. As our choices of professions indicate, Jean and I havediffering aptitudes. But it seems to me that our relationship over thedecades reflects a mutual respect and trust that never has been corrodedby resentment. If free will has anything to do with that, itundoubtedly comes from the desire not to repeat the mistakes of ourparents.

The GreatDepression contributed to marital difficulties for both sets of ourparents: Jean’s father lost his job as an accountant, while my fatherfruitlessly kept hoping for a position commensurate with hispre-Depression expectations. Jean’s mother helped to support her familyas a door-to-door salesperson of women’s dresses and as a substitutepublic school teacher: in those days, married women weren’t allowed tobe full-time teachers. Her frustration—she was, as I know, a capable andunusually intelligent woman—probably explains her growing resentment ofher husband and the strict regulations she imposed on her twodaughters. Neither of my parents was a disciplinarian. My father, forthat matter, was rarely home, for he took position after position (Iattended 15 schools before I became a high school graduate), most ofwhich kept him in other cities.

It wasn’t until I read The Great Gatsby as an adult that Irealized how much my father resembled Fitzgerald’s title character,possessing the same “extraordinary gift for hope,” the same “romanticreadiness,” with the exception that my father’s “green light” was never awoman too idealized to be mortal, but rather an equally impossible“bracket,” a word he often used to describe the otherwise indefinablestatus he felt destined to attain. Like Gatsby, he sought spiritualgoals through material ends, but nothing—neither the well-payingpositions he still managed to secure nor his wife and children—came upto his dreams. During my adolescence, he asked my mother’s permissionfor a divorce, since he’d fallen in love with another woman. My mothergranted the request, however desolate it made her, and she reliedprimarily on me, as her younger son, for affection during the next threeyears.

That bond should have made me an ideal candidate for the complex thatFreud derived from the myth of Oedipus, but it didn’t. Though my lovefor my mother during those difficult years may have been far deeper, Inever lost my love for my father—in part, I suppose, because my mothernever did, either. That three-year period ended when financial problemscaused my mother, brother, and me to separate. My father was thenrunning a Packard dealership on Chicago’s South Side, living with hissecond wife in a high-rise apartment building a block or so from LakeMichigan. For about half a year, I stayed with them. That marriage, likethe Packard agency, was failing; though they had welcomed me, Irealized that my presence—for my unhappiness must have been obvious—onlyadded to the tension.

My father began to invite me to accompany him on various errands,which permitted his wife (I never thought of her as my stepmother) tohave the apartment to herself. Once he took me to a South Siderestaurant that had a walled-in balcony with slits overlooking thefloor. When I asked him the purpose of those slits, he told me in aquiet voice that they had been built for machine guns, but that therestaurant’s patrons were now safe from harm. I didn’t know that he(again, like Gatsby) consorted with gangsters until one day we weredriving through the Loop area. While we were waiting in traffic behind astreetcar, somebody, in what seemed a single action, entered thePackard through a back door, closing it as he threw himself on the floorbehind us. I never saw the man’s face, only heard his urgent whisperfor my father to drive around the streetcar on the wrong side, and thento turn on the first side street. The commands kept coming until I—andpresumably those pursuing the fugitive—was hopelessly lost. We were on adeserted street in a warehouse district when the man told my father tostop, and he slipped out of the car as quickly as he entered it. I knew,without my father telling me, that I should never mention to anybodythat encounter. Until this moment of writing about it, I haven’t; andnow, having done so, it seems more like an episode from an old GeorgeRaft gangster film than a commentary on a period in my father’s lifewhen his Depression-era desperation to capture what lay only in hisimagination led him into contact with underworld figures.

My father’ssecond marriage soon ended in divorce, probably a relief to both ofthem; he had exhausted much of the money his new wife had inherited. Inever discovered all the wild schemes my father dreamed up in thefollowing year, but I do know he spent some months in a penitentiary forissuing bad checks to pay for rooms in expensive hotels in a number ofcities. Petitions from my mother and from the more influential people myfather’s abilities had once impressed, including the president of anautomobile corporation and the head of a federal bureaucracy, won hisrelease, conditional on his ability to pay his debts in monthlyinstallments. A few weeks after he regained his freedom, I was the bestman at my parents’ second marriage.

They had always displayed affection for each other. Like Jean and me,they never quarreled. The only disagreement between them that I heardas a child was over the thousands of dollars my mother would be awardedif she won a contest for submitting, along with the proper box top, themost three-letter words to be made from the name and slogan of abreakfast cereal: she wanted to send some of the money to her sister,and save the rest for my brother and me; my father wanted it all for anew business venture. But that little dispute ended in an amiablecompromise: they would wait until my mother actually won the prizebefore making a decision.

Still, my father almost left my mother once again for another womanhe had met on his travels, and only an action of mine—by then, I was acollege sophomore—prevented it. I found his hotel address in Indiana,and convinced my mother to drive in my old Ford (a gift from my fatherafter the remarriage) to confront him there. During that long and rainymorning and nighttime journey, I felt more like her father than her son;but I suppose that most children, from their college days onward,consider themselves, rightly or not, better informed than their parents.Circumstances in some cases can result in decisions that in retrospectwe never regret: that particular decision—probably the foundation of mybelief in free will, limited as it may be by the very chance that allowsit—enabled my parents to live together in contentment far longer thanthey had before he left us. But domestic tranquility for my fathersupported, rather than ended, his restless and optimistic questing.Though he probably never admitted it to himself, it seems to me that theglamour my father found in women other than my mother had much to dowith the greater assistance they could give him in his pursuit of hisintangible goal.

In his mid-70s my father became ill for the first time in his adultlife. Cancer had spread from his pancreas to other organs, and a surgeonremoved his pancreas to lessen the symptoms. Yet he refused to admit hewas dying; while confined to bed or a nearby chair before a card tableafter a second operation, he made plans for a new business and evenvolunteered his services as part of a telephone network, offeringencouragement to young people trying to overcome drug addiction andother problems. In addition to my mother, Jean and I and one of myaunts—my father’s younger sister—were with him as he was dying. As bloodgushed from his mouth, Jean cradled an arm around his head, lifting himso he could breathe while she stemmed the flow with a towel. Even atthe end, his hope—he never owned a mansion, but in this more fundamentalway he outlasted Gatsby—never left him. His last words were anembattled but still triumphant cry, “I don’t have cancer!”

All of us then told him we loved him; I’ve wanted ever since tobelieve they were the final words he heard and not the astonished onesspoken by his sister at the moment of his death: “Why, how much like Dadhe looks!”

I have sometimeswondered if the struggle of sons against their fathers reverberatesonward from the dawn of history, though we have only myths to suggestthat it might. But I do know that for decades my father’s father—thesingle living grandparent I ever had—either lived with, or was supportedby, my parents or the family of my father’s older sister. During thelong period of my grandfather’s final illness, he lived with my parents,nursed by my mother and that sister. My father never told me anythingabout my grandfather’s past; I slowly came to know about it from myfather’s two sisters. Having inherited a handsome amount of money, mygrandfather established a tobacco shop in Cleveland; it failed when hispartner stole all the stock and the money kept in the store andvanished. Then he opened a downtown Cleveland loan agency. “Oh, how heloved to hand out money!” one of my aunts told me. “Without getting anysecurity, he handed out money until he had nothing left.” That debacleended his own questing; his remaining pride—my aunt said he stillconsidered himself a businessman, a person of considerable status—kepthim from seeking factory employment, though from then on he dependedupon his children, his wife having long since died. All three of mygrandfather’s children felt compassion for him, that gentle butineffectual dreamer who gave up too soon.

My brother’s facecarried a genetic resemblance to that of my mother and her mother,while mine continues to carry the eyes and bone structure of my fatherand grandfather. But it has taken me years to realize that the bondbetween my father and me came from our genetic heritage and from ourjoint struggles to deny it. Most parents don’t want their children tosuffer the kind of grief inflicted on them by their own parents. Bysaving them from that, though, they may inflict upon their childrendifficulties of another kind. I’ve often worried—always to myself—if theburden Jean and I placed on our children proceeds less from our lack ofspecific rules on their conduct than from a marital relationship thatfor a variety of social and economic reasons later generations havefound difficult to obtain, its drama and surprises not a result ofmisunderstandings and reconciliations after quarrels but in thediscovery each day—with a poignancy that only increases with age—of howglad we are to be with each other.

It’s folly to worry that this may be a burden on one’s sons. Beforeluckily finally finding their own enduring marriages, two of our sonssuffered the emotional disturbances of marital or premaritalrelationships that never worked out; our other son has never married.One of those early young women, who still occasionally visits us, agreeswith Jean’s remark that children take credit for their own successesbut blame their failures on their parents.

I lack the desire—perhaps because I also lack the talent—to write a contemporary version of Oedipus Rex.But if I could write such a tragedy, the son wouldn’t kill his fatherbecause of sexual rivalry over the wife and mother—an absurdity, atleast from my personal experience—but rather because of self-hatred, hismotive hard to distinguish from suicide. As for me, I’ll never forgetthe long-ago moment I saw my father’s face in the mirror while I wasshaving: despite my growing admiration for him in the years after theremarriage, it was the first time that I had fully accepted thelikeness, and I realized that I had also accepted myself, whatever myshortcomings. That double acceptance involved more than the geneticconnection: I was entering middle age, and the hair at my temples wasturning gray, my skin losing its youthful tautness and beginning to sagbelow the cheeks. That is to say, my father and I were mortal and wouldshare the fate common to all living creatures. I was living then with mywife and children in Paris; our apartment was a niche in a modern andimpersonal housing complex. Maybe one has to be far from home to gainawareness like that. After all, visiting foreign countries is said to bea broadening experience.

Crucial moments of that sort probably can be found in the lives ofall humans. Novelists, though, usually avoid them, for such moments havenothing to do with suspenseful plots and (like an enduring love) arebeyond personal will. From middle age on, I’ve experienced several suchlife-changing moments; like the effect of father on son, one probablyhelps to determine the next. Such revelatory moments have no source thatI know of; nothing in our personal lives completely accounts for them,including the particular circumstances of their happening. They make meaware that every human is unknowable and that fate, including death,contributes to the mystery. Nobody realizes this better than those who,like me, have spent much of their lives in pursuit of themselves throughthe resources of personal memory.

Nearly every bookI’ve read by present-day neuroscientists expresses an indebtedness toWilliam James for his prescient insights about a century ago intoconsciousness and memory—particularly those insights in his Principles of Psychologythat have been validated by the greater information and moresophisticated research tools now available to scientists of our humanminds. As James realized, memory works by similarity of associationbetween the past and the future. Long before it became a recognizablemode of fiction, James used the phrase “stream of consciousness” todefine our ongoing apprehension of ourselves and the world around us andconsidered the ephemeral present to be a specious part of time.

In its ability to find likenesses among seemingly disparate andsometimes antithetical mental images, my own memory seems a spiritualfaculty in search of unity as well as a purely practical faculty forunderstanding as best I can the world within which I exist today.(James’s interest in this spiritual dimension resulted in his Varieties of Religious Experienceand even led to his attendance at séances, one trance medium inparticular winning his respect.) Consciousness, for me, is memory’spractical application, forever taking these different images andseparating them into segments useful to us in our quest forself-preservation and for discovery; essential to thought, consciousnessprovides me the abstraction I’m now making—the division of my memoryinto two parts, only one of which is analytical, the other always inquest of a synthesis beyond its reach. Some inaccessible part ofmemory—the part that remains a mystery—apparently gives me a premonitionof this ultimate unity. Physicists like Einstein must have sensed it,too, hoping to unveil it through the elegance of a theory based onmathematical equations. Consciousness—that mark of life, a miracle initself—prevents us from achieving that unity, our yearning for itpossibly underlying all our desires for freedom, including the one for awill of our own.

Ever since as a young soldier I saw that pale cone of energyvanishing toward the point that would bring the end of consciousness,I’ve had no fear of dying: those last moments of life seem to comeeasily, without worry or physical pain, as we slip back to our source ina natural world indifferent to distinctions and oblivious to time.

About 20 yearsago, I sat on a mossy boulder near the Saranac River in the Adirondacks.A small creek disappeared under that boulder, emerging on the otherside to trickle through small stones on its way to the river. Jean andCris, the son who hasn’t married, were on separate paths—deer or beartrails—that wandered through our fern-filled glen. Cris, who has learnedto identify mushrooms, was searching for them, interested in the shapeand colors of both the edible and poisonous kinds; Jean was simplytaking pleasure in everything around her. From the boulder, I could seethem both as well as our beached canoe. Dappled by the foliage of thetrees above us, sunlight gave a soft illumination to that little glen.My sense of well-being and happiness was so extraordinary that I’vewanted to recapture it ever since.

Happiness like that is beyond my understanding. I don’t think I wouldhave felt it without a sense of companionship—without the affection Ihad for my wife and son. Did it possibly come from something carried inmy genetic memory from distant ancestors who might have had a similarfeeling of well-being in some hidden spot, knowing that they and theirfamilies were safe from predators?

The appeal of a natural environment brought Jean and me to our oldhouse at a rural crossroads in the Finger Lakes, and then to our annualtrips to the wilder regions of the Adirondacks, where we paddled acanoe—a surprise gift from Jean to me on a birthday at least 40 yearsago—to campsites near rivers or on islands in ponds and lakes. Foryears, those trips included only our youngest son. After my namesakegrew up and moved away, Cris—who had returned home simply because we hadpasture for the herd of goats he had just bought—joined us. In one ofour barns, three canoes and a kayak are now gathering dust and swallowdroppings, a testimony to the increasing number of family members whoonce accompanied us, sons and spouses or companions.

Difficult though it was for all three of our sons to adjust theirwork schedules to join us, they occasionally managed over the years todo that, Larry and Jim accompanied by wives or present companions. Sixyears ago, during one of our last weeklong family outings, I becameseparated from the others and found myself lost in a vast Adirondackforest, wandering on a strange trail until darkness obscured even thatpath: the stars and even a crescent moon might have been shining, but ina forest like that, blackness seems absolute. When our sons wereyounger, I sometimes felt helpless, as I’ve recounted, to protect themfrom some unexpected danger; now, as an octogenarian, I was helpless toprotect myself.

Frightened as I was, I didn’t panic. I sat down where I was, knowing Imight never be found if I left the trail. It was wholly my own faultthat, in not returning with the others on the trail we’d originallyfollowed, I’d not paid much attention to it then. As elderly parents,though, Jean and I no longer were in charge: in a sense, our three adultsons were now acting as our parents, much as I once had felt myself tobe my mother’s father. What I remember best from our extensive trek intothe forest and up a small mountain for the sake of its vista was simplystopping with Jean to watch a squirrel that had found a mushroom. Itsniffed the fleshy part before peering under it, as if checking thegills for edibility. Only then did it snip the mushroom from its stemand scamper away with that delicacy in its mouth. Never before had weobserved a squirrel behaving like a mycologist.

But now I was blind and beginning to shiver in the damp coolness ofthe night. In my hand was a stout stick I had picked up to assist meover stones and up steep slopes; every time I heard a nearby rustle,whether imagined or not, I raised it as a cudgel to ward off, say, ahungry bear or a pack of coyotes. Under such conditions, any solitaryperson probably becomes the primitive creature still lurking in thehuman genetic makeup.

Improbable though it was at such a late hour, a group of other lostpeople permitted all of us to save ourselves. I saw a flickering lightin the distance and left the trail to grope my way toward it. That faintlight led me to six young men and women who apparently had never foundthe trail in the first place. Burdened with an excessive amount ofbaggage—tents and sleeping bags, an ice chest, paper sacks of groceries,blankets, and coats intended for a winter in the Montreal they had comefrom—they were bewildered pilgrims in search of the campground they’dbeen told was near the road. Actually, it was at the end of the longtrail I had taken by mistake. With the aid of one of their flashlights, Iwas able to find the trail again. Flashlights made all the differencefrom then on; but it was midnight before we reached the campground, thetrail now littered by all the objects my new companions had been tooexhausted to carry any farther.

Near the campground was a ranger’s station, its windows lit by alantern. I went there to report that I was no longer missing; but theranger had left to search for me in the woods. However, two of mysons—Cris and Jim—were there, in case I showed up; the rest of our partyhad returned to our van, hoping I might eventually find it. It’s odd toreturn from hours of mainly solitude in the dark to be reunited withtwo sons. In the glow of the lantern, I was self-conscious, embarrassedthat my errors had caused so many problems, but also acutely aware ofthe effect my sudden reappearance had on my sons. Jean and I and Crishave lived so long together that each knows the foibles as well as theabilities of the others. Cris seemed to expect that I’d eventually turnup. His eyes and gestures reflected his pleasure that I had, but heimmediately became shy, as if participating in my embarrassment atdemonstrating that I might no longer be a dependable parent.

Unlike Cris, our oldest and youngest sons had seen us in recent yearsonly on these Adirondack vacations and during brief visits. WheneverJean and I had left from similar visits to my elderly parents, I worriedthat one or the other of them might not be alive for another reunion; Iimagine that Larry and Jim feel that way upon leaving us. Here Imomentarily digress: On the white frame of the opening between ourdining room and kitchen are faded dates in pencil that mark the heightsof Jean and me and, over the years, those of our children as theyapproached and then far surpassed first her and then me. Born so muchlater than the others, Jim’s height starts out at the lowest marking,but the final one shows him inches above his brothers. He has alsobecome the most muscular of our sons.

But when this husky adult saw me, he began to cry. He threw his armsaround me, saying, “I love you so much!” Like my father’s dreams, myideal self is nothing but a desire; for better or worse, I’m unlike himin knowing my limitations. I don’t remember ever being in competitionwith anybody else, for my resolve comes from competition with the limitsI’ve discovered in myself and would blame, if I could, on genes I’veinherited. So my son’s response was the kind of blessing I’d neverexpected—certainly not here, not yet.

As my father was dying, I was part of a chorus that told him we lovedhim: though the words are customary at such a crucial moment, in mostcases they are truly felt, the grief reinforced by each mourner’sawareness of her or his own inevitable end. To my youngest son, though,it must have seemed that I had returned from the death he had imaginedduring the long hours of my absence.

In thisexploration of my past for whatever understanding it can give me of mypresent self—probably my final attempt, though I’ve believed thatbefore—I’ve touched upon questions beyond my competence to answer. Butthe issues of chance, genetic inheritance, the relation between fathersand sons, and the debate between determinism and free will, important tohuman meaning as they are, fade into insignificance before the mostencompassing paradox that I know: death, that great opponent of life andultimate victor over it, is also responsible for all the values of lifethat we struggle to rescue from it. Without mortality—that is, if welived forever, uncaring of the ticking of clocks—would we have need ofreligion, of families with children for a new generation, of dreams for abetter future? Wouldn’t scientists lose their urgency to discover,artists to create? Without my ever-keener awareness of Jean’s and mymortality, I certainly wouldn’t be writing this account in my 87th year.And what about love? As lyrical expressions, sonnets typicallyrepresent the poet’s personal emotions. One sonnet in particular, byShakespeare, moves both Jean and me; I liked it as a graduate student,but not in the way I do today. The first-person narrator acknowledgesthat life, like a fire, is consumed by the source nourishing it, andtells his beloved in the concluding couplet, “This thou perceiv’st,which makes thy love more strong, / To love that well which thou mustleave ere long.”

That’s the best summation I’m capable of making.


James McConkey is Goldwin Smith Professor of English Literature Emeritus at Cornell. His books include The Telescope in the Parlor, Court of Memory, and To a Distant Land.

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