No Man's Land

Traversing the rough terrain between a father's expectations and a son's aspirations

According to family lore, on the day I was born my father changed the name of his lawn-mower repair company to P.B. Robson & Son. In 1953 a son in the Robson family merited a new shingle in big block letters. Three years earlier, much to the disappointment of my father's parents, my mother and father had a baby girl. One of my earliest memories is a ritual my mother would enact when she put me to bed as a toddler, mimicking my dad's reaction to my birth. "A boy!" she'd say, her face exploding with glee as I giggled joyfully at the happiness I'd caused and sank deeper into my pillows, ready for sweet dreams, while my older sister listened silently from the top bunk.

There was never any doubt that my father would name me Paul Britton Robson Junior. All his life he has cherished and championed his family legacy. He venerated his parents, especially my grandfather, a gardener who managed a greenhouse and the surrounding grounds of a spacious estate in the Boston suburb of Brookline. My dad was born, the second of two sons, in 1926, in the gardener's cottage on the estate. Aside from a brief period when he dropped out of high school and joined the navy near the end of the Second World War, he lived as close as possible to his parents from the time he was born until the days they died.

My first home was approximately 200 yards up the driveway from the cottage, where my parents, my two sisters, and I were wedged into a small apartment above the estate's six-car garage. Despite these modest circumstances, my status as the only son in a patriarchal family made me feel as if I was born into a place of honor. A dominant trait in Robson males, a high, square forehead that sets off our facial features, invariably prompted people to comment on how much I resembled my father.

On weekends I frequently stayed down at the cottage with my adoring grandparents. Many weekday nights, when my mother was working as a waitress or going to school to learn how to keep the books for my father's business, my younger sister and I would nestle on my dad's lap as he watched our little black-and-white television set, or we'd pester him to play games with us. We'd walk up his body and do backward somersaults with him holding on, or clutch tightly to his wrists as he bent down and pretended to pick us up by our ears.

Best of all was the "roughhousing" that my father reserved just for me, a toughening ritual that simultaneously flooded me with exhilaration and exasperation. Crouched in the middle of the living-room floor, he'd whip out an arm and upend me, then pull me beneath him and rub his stubble against my cheeks like sandpaper, then push me away and curl into a ball, taunting and laughing as I pummeled him with my hands, arms, and knees. At the end of one particularly torturous bout, my mother announced that it was my bedtime. I was still in a rage as my dad came up on his knees to hug me goodnight, and I punched him as hard as I could in the eye. Whether his reaction was reflexive or punitive, I was suddenly halfway across the room, literally seeing stars. Aside from the time I became enamored of the word fuck and was spanked for the impertinence, it was the only occasion when my father laid a hand on me in anger.

Although the family didn't have much money, there was always a trove of gifts under the tree on Christmas morning. The year I was eight, after everything had been unwrapped, my father led me down to the garage. There, gleaming with a fresh coat of blue paint, was a roadster specifically built to my size, powered by an old lawn-mower engine and complete with an ignition key and a black button that would kill the power should I ever steer into danger. After strapping on my helmet and whizzing up and down the estate's winding, quarter-mile driveway a few times, I emerged from the vehicle intoxicated by childlike greed and a desire that the holiday bounty never end. "Are there any other presents?" I asked. The word crestfallen was invented for the way my dad looked. It was not the last time I would cause him to feel that way.


A few months later, in the spring of '61, my parents and grandparents pooled their resources and bought a 14-room house--an old stagecoach stop built in the 1800s, complete with a barn and three acres of land--in Norfolk, about 35 miles southeast of Boston, in the Massachusetts countryside. Strapping down our belongings in the back of a pickup truck, my father bristled with purposeful energy. Before we had finished unpacking, he was propping up sagging walls and painting over the nursery-rhyme murals that were holdovers from the period when the house had been converted into a school.

Room by room, the place was reconfigured and remodeled. As my mother handled the wallpapering, linoleum, and upholstery, my father (initially in comically bickering tandem with my grandfather) did the paneling and other carpentry, along with the drywalling, masonry, electricity, and plumbing.

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