A Father for a Day + a Non-Prodigal Son
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Ward Cleaver was a TV character.
By Eugene S. Robinson
One lasting meditation on the single, most significant and elemental aspect of being a man: Shoulder your burdens without complaint. A sage bit of wisdom very possibly gleaned from either Clint Eastwood or some Sergio Leone flick. Sure, sure, as a kid of the ’60s, with all of the messaging around it being OK to cry? Yeah, got that. But whining? Not acceptable from others and intolerable from me.
So this piece/article/process is not about whining/complaining/score settling. This is about a memoirist’s interest in leaving no stone unturned. And so it happens that every Father’s Day, whether it’s my kids or, maybe more specifically, well-meaning others, there’s this question: “Did you call your father today?” The answer is as it has been since 1982, a few months before my 20th birthday: No. And honestly, outside of this annual crowd query, it’s just not something I think about much. More before I was a father, but after becoming a father, almost never. But let me explain.
My father, as described to me by his mother, was a product of what she said today would be called rape. My grandmother, 13 years old and working in the halfway house run by her mother, was impregnated by a lifelong organized career criminal who probably believed he was “seducing” her. In the parlance of the day, ex post facto, he “did the right thing” in acknowledging my father as his son. He died before I knew him. He’s a cipher to me. But what wasn’t? The fractious relationship between my father and his father.
On a football scholarship to Michigan State, my father got injured during the days when that meant the end of your scholarship until you could play again. Asking his father for the money, he got a response probably not so strange for the time among a certain type of man: No. It was backed with advice about getting a job or very possibly an offer to come work with him. My father instead joined the Air Force, where it was determined that he had a facility for languages, hence a quick two-step to Air Force intelligence, where at some point it was decided that, with four languages under his belt — Chinese, Japanese, Russian and German — it made sense for him to be a bass-playing spy in a jazz trio. Touring Cold War countries during the Cold War made sense. People were crazy for jazz and were used to Americans being monolingual. Who knew what you might hear, or overhear?
Somewhere in this process, he met my mother, married her and, by the age of roughly 23, had a son. As family lore had it, he missed my first birthday to go to D.C., where he hailed from, to hear Martin Luther King deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. The marriage? Largely uneventful. The problem? It was largely uneventful, and by 1967, when I was 5, my mother asked for and got a divorce. As explained to me, he had moved “to the city apartment.” My mother later claimed she had been bored. “You don’t take the most exciting woman in New York and do nothing with her,” she said, and I laughed every time I heard it as an adult.
He moved back to D.C., or Maryland, eventually, to get his PhD. He remarried. Fathered two more children, daughters, to match my mother’s remarriage and her two daughters. He made a movie that went to Cannes and won the CINE Golden Eagle Award in Germany. He got his PhD and started teaching at the University of Maryland in College Park. I’d see him for a month in the summer and he’d come up to visit me for an afternoon, usually the day before Christmas, visits that I dreaded as I sensed they were more about profiling for his ex-wife, my mother, and less about me.
In a 1977 letter to me during a rough patch of some sort that 15-year-old me had been enduring, he told me that slaves had found several ways to pull through hard times. And one of the more significant and useful ones? “Music.” Advice that, given my now-35-year involvement in music, might have seemed prescient but to a 15-year-old seemed like Travis Bickle’s response to Wizard’s pep talk in Taxi Driver: “That’s about the dumbest thing I ever heard.”
But by the time I was 15, summers were spent working, Christmas visits had stopped and while we kept in touch by mail, him advising me on universities and so on, things cruised along uneventfully until he told me he was getting divorced. When my stepfather told me he was getting divorced from my mother, my response was the heartfelt, if a little unkind: “GOOD.” They fought miserably. But my father getting divorced from his second wife was a surprise. She was mellow, cool, also spoke a gaggle of languages and they seemed to enjoy an easy familiarity. Apparently too easy. He had met a woman at one of the kids’ school events, got divorced and remarried and was coming to New York so I could meet the new wife.
TV-drama weirdness. I mean, I had never sanctioned my parents for anything they wanted to do. I had opinions, of course, but their doings seemed remote to me and of not such great interest unless it was going to hurt someone. But I was 18, already at Stanford and game. The meeting was uneventful and it didn’t get eventful until the next year, when, on the verge of my hard-core punk band’s first tour of the U.S., I called to say we’d be playing D.C. and were going to come out to stay with him after the show.
“Wait. Let me ask Carroll.” It had never dawned on me that this is something you’d have to ask, blood being blood. And then he began to relay her messages.
“No drugs. No crazy shit.”
“Who do you think you’re talking to?” I said, half joking, New York aggrieved. “Is this something you seriously need to say to me?”
“OK, we’ll see you then.” In literary terms? Foreshadowing.
We arrived at his home. My drummer at the time, an African-American-German military brat who had grown up in Augsburg, had been leaned on to speak German to my father. My father spoke to him in German, uncomfortably. But we were there, the show had been great and I was excited to see him and my sisters. Carroll had two sons from her earlier marriage. One of the sons was into heavy metal and was into the whole “There’s a band at my house” deal. Interestingly enough, both sons slept upstairs, where the bedrooms were. My sisters, whom my father had custody of, did not. This was suspicious for the time, but my father explained it to me along the lines of, “Well, she [their mother] wanted them to be hairdressers.” So they slept downstairs. Cinderella style.
During dinner we chatted, he and I, my sisters, Carroll’s sons, my band. My conversation with Carroll had been nice and polite, but as it would be for a person you didn’t know. After dinner, while we all sat around chatting, Carroll interrupted.
“Clean your plates up.” My mother ran a tight ship and not only would we have cleaned up the table but we would have washed the dishes as well. But later.
And a few minutes later, again: “Don’t forget, clean your plates up.”
“Don’t worry, we will.”
More chatter and within minutes, “Hey, you guys, when you finish, I want you to clean your plates up.”
“How about I take all of the plates out to the patio and smash them into a thousand pieces,” I said, laughing heartily, like we would have done in Brooklyn at my house, with the unspoken suffix “basta on the whole plate thing!”
That I would say this was not a shock. That my father would look scared, no other word to describe it, was. If I had known more about life, I’d have foreseen what happened later. I called him a few weeks later and he was chilly. I later discovered that Carroll had told him I had dropped out of Stanford. While I took off the spring quarter to put together the tour, my education, not paid for by him outside of an $85 monthly stipend he had stopped sending months before, was important and I had already reenrolled for the fall session.
I didn’t hear from him again until I was 32, when, at the behest of my fiancée at the time, who thought this would give me some kind of closure, he called. Then he flew out. He explained to me that he thought I had dropped out of school. That didn’t nearly explain the silence, but then again I had not violated the silence either. We resolved to try to resume. I sent him an invitation to my upcoming wedding, addressed to “Eugene S. Robinson + Wife.” I couldn’t remember how she had spelled Carroll and am not even sure today (in editing this article, I went through Carol and Carole before being hepped by my sister: Carroll). It seemed better than getting it wrong.
My sister called up, voice heavy with resignation. “He’s very upset. He thinks you’ve insulted Carroll. You invite people, you bring luggage. He wants an apology.”
I laughed. “He’s a crybaby and a coward.” And I neither apologized nor heard from him again. When I had my own children, what had been mild pique turned into a very special kind of contempt because, if he felt a fraction of what I feel for my kids, none of this would have happened and none of it should have happened.
His students, who are sometimes music fans, sometimes contact me. We have the same name even if, according to my grandmother, his real name is not Eugene S. Robinson but Stanley E. Robinson. I have occasionally asked, “Is he a good professor?” And their responses have always been along the lines of “Tough but fair.”
My sisters, who had for a time been estranged from me, thinking an allegiance to him was necessary, eventually broke the embargo with a single-sentenced email at some point: “You were right about our father.” Outside of assorted bits of info — he had taught himself sign language and was on the board at Gallaudet University as well, he had tons of cats and dogs, none of which he is a fan of, they caught him once running out of a donut store (Carroll had put him on a diet) and he had disowned them as well — there was nothing else and I asked nothing else.
People will sometimes advise me to, in full-on ABC Family Channel–style, effect a rapprochement, “before it’s too late.” I guess they’re referring to the irretrievable loss signaled by death. I’m 53 now and he, I believe, is almost 77. My response has always been, um, musical, as no one said it better than Muddy Waters: “You can’t lose what you ain’t got.”
And yeah, I can live with that.