Dec 03, 13
Read from June 08 to 15, 2010
My 4 year old son is going to die...sometime in the future, like me--wishfully long after me--and we'll have no more time to talk. We should hopefully grow old together, but we'll grow old together as men. Yes, we'll always be father and son, but for the most part when we talk and share, he will be a man. What should I tell him now, as a boy? He's too young to remember, but I have so many things I want to say, to teach, to protect... There are things I want to tell him that are important now, that are things he will need to know when he becomes a man.
What if I die unexpectedly, and soon. What will I tell my son then? Nothing. He'll only have short, gauzy, incomplete memories of me doing something random with him. Teaching him to brush his teeth, buckling his car seat, throwing him into the air, comforting him when the thunder cracks; a dreamlike sequence of me passing through his thoughts, being present during an action, laughing at something he's done, somewhere. That's not enough. If that had happened with my father, I would have the slimmest perception of who he was and from what human stock I was beget. I wouldn't know my father.
It's like this with my maternal grandfather. He and I were never men together. I was a boy, he was a man, and then he died. My memories of him are far too narrow--Christmas vacation in out-county Kentucky, a family reunion in a church basement, him sitting with unknown relatives under a tree drinking lemonade during a summer so humid I remember perspiration under his arms and old man breasts and him calling black people 'the colored.' Whenever he left the house he wore a wool hat, respectable, perfunctory, polished, like men in the 1950s, and a cane was hooked over his knee when he sat under that shade tree calling people 'the colored.' I so desperately want to know that man, my grandfather.
I still have my father. I knew him when I was young; I knew him as my superhero father; I know him as a man. Thank God. I hope it pans out this way with my son. But, again, if it doesn't, then what do I tell him, now, that will guide and foster him into adulthood?
The answer is a journal. Capture my thoughts now, so that he can read them as a man, whenever he's ready. Pass my wisdom to him now, my thoughts, my lessons, my umbrage. Exactly that is the story of Gilead.
The father is in his mid-70s in poor health, nearing the end. His son is 7. The father is a minister like his father and grandfather before. The time is 1956 Kansas. The entire book is a journal entry for his son, not to be read until he grows up and becomes a man, and maybe not even then if the son decides against reading it. That's his prerogative. But, at least the father makes it available to the son. The entire book is a beautiful confessional of short thoughts on life, entries almost like one of his thousands of hand-written sermons bundled up with twine in the attic. He uses the written space to reveal family history, personal passions, his philosophy, his love, the guiding influences of his life. The book starts:
"I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you said, I don't think you're old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren't very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you've had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life...It seems ridiculous to suppose the dead miss anything. If you're a grown man when you read this--it is my intention for this letter that you will read it then--I'll have been gone a long time. I'll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I'll probably keep it to myself."(p. 3)
What a beautiful idea. Thoughtful, responsible, loving, timeless. My son will be a man longer than he will be a child. Childhood and adolescence are critical for human development and building basic personality traits, but reason, judgment, and wisdom wait to arrive until adulthood. That's when I need to talk to my son. So, unless I can promise my son I'll always be there, I need to sit down, collect my thoughts, and start writing a long letter to him. It will tell him how I grew up and learned about myself; it will tell him my joys and my strengths and my fears; it will tell him how I would do it all over again exactly the same way, and not to be so hard on himself; I'll tell him how I met his mother, and how our lives turned out so differently from the plans we made, but still so wonderfully; I'll tell him how I watched him grow up and rolled his ghostly thin and white belly skin between my fingers; I'll tell him how carefully he tottered over uneven ground; tell him how he always woke up with the same crazy bed hair, no matter the season or the length of hair or where he slept--always splayed out in the back and ruffled on the left; I'll tell him how I loved him in so many ways and know he'll be a great man and brother and father; I'll tell him people are mean, but not always; I'll tell him I loved rain to any other kind of weather; tell him to read more often; tell him to write to his kids. And when I write my journal, I'll have moments like this, I'm sure:
"I have been looking through these pages, and I realize that for some time I have mainly been worrying to myself, when my intention from the beginning was to speak to you. I meant to leave you a reasonably candid testament to my better self, and it seems to me now that what you must see here is just an old man struggling with the difficulty of understanding what it is he's struggling with." (p. 202)
Gilead is unique because of the subtle power of its narrative. It's a short book with simple writing, yet the father wrestles with the complexities of his faith, the enormity of life, and the profundity of culture and social values. Hidden beneath the plangent chords of his testimonial are approaches to deep chambers of religious philosophy and human nature. Marilynne Robinson achieves an awkward--but successful--balance in the book between, on one hand, a laser-focus on spirituality and, on the other, a broad, comprehensive account of one family's history and nature. It works, and it won the Pulitzer.
However, for me, the book would have been better if the father wasn't a minister, and instead something more general like a farmer, entrepreneur, or laborer. Why? Because a minister lives his profession, always, unable to filter his thoughts and experiences through any other than a spiritual sieve. Everything a minister does is guided by religious precedent, biblical law and morality, and Godly intent. This minister--the father--was a good Christian, so there was only minor human infraction to reveal, and never scandal or salaciousness to confess. Instead, that kind of debauch was revealed in the confessions of a few members of his congregation. The minister led a life that was both very human but also very sterile. Compassionate but not very intriguing. Every man sins, yet there was very little confession from the minister. When I write to my son, I will reveal from my life the embarrassments, the pejoratives, the vice, and the shortcomings that make me whole. I think that's more realistic.
Another great comment:
"Why do I love the thought of you old? That first twinge of arthritis in your knee is a thing I imagine with all the tenderness I felt when you showed my your loose tooth. Be diligent in your prayers, old man. I hope you will have seen more of the world than I ever got around to seeing--only myself to blame. And I hope you will have read some of my books. And God bless your eyes, and your hearing also, and of course your heart. I wish I could help you carry the weight of many years. But the Lord will have that fatherly satisfaction." (p. 210)
And so, 4 year old son of mine, if this review happens to be one of the written items you use to piece together a picture of your father, let me tell you this: I love you. I love your smell when you cry, the color on your cheeks in the summer, your early sense of humor, the spitting laugh you hold back when I tickle you, and the lines on the bottoms of your soft, pink feet. You don't necessarily have to be religious, but I think the secret to the world is to is to love one another. Be nice. Always take care of your siblings--even if they take a wrong turn here or there. That happens. Take your time, find the right spouse, and please have kids. Your dad gave Gilead 4 stars; give it a try. Maybe therein you'll see something of me.
New words: susurrus, lour, fungo, mutatis mutandis, irrefragable, swain, miscegenation,