No Man's Land

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

The next two weeks were an emotional train wreck, a spectacular internal collision between my childhood role as the family golden boy and my self-styled persona as a Kerouacian vagabond. Arriving at my parents' home, I was immediately enmeshed in helping my father build one of his contraptions: Fifty-gallon barrels were sawed in half and welded together to make a long grill for a bed of coals, over which spits of meat would be rotated by a gear system hooked up to a lawn-mower engine.

Amid the tumult of odd jobs, old friends and relatives, and the ceremonial aspects of my dual role as best man and brother of the bride, Anita walked in, a little nervous about meeting my parents and looking to me for support. Unfortunately, I was still naive enough in the ways of romance to blur the distinction between infatuation and love. When I didn't immediately feel that familiar sexual frisson toward her (quite understandable, given the circumstances), doubt bordering on panic set in. As I was trying to talk myself down, my mother let it drop that Anita and my father, who had picked her up at the train station while I was on another errand, hadn't hit it off on the ride home. Specifically, my father found her to be "funny"--as in a little bit strange. The morning after the wedding, I told my horrified lover that I couldn't bear to have her around right then, and put her on a bus back to Cincinnati.

It would be an overstatement to say that my father's ambivalence toward Anita prompted my immature reaction. But it's undeniable that my panic was caught up in family dynamics, and that an inevitable reckoning was at hand. After the wedding, my father was in high family fettle. For the past few years he had exercised admirable restraint in response to what I'm sure he felt were my pointless shenanigans. But now he perceived an opportunity to simultaneously rescue me from my obvious agony and realize his desire to have me live nearby. The next few days were a veritable marathon of Robson talks. In the course of his testimonials to family pride and loyalty, my father advised me to get into sales or marketing, promising to help in any way he could.

One day we drove two and half hours up to York, Maine, and stopped along a side road on a ridge overlooking a beautiful vista, where herons stood watch in the cranberry bog below. This was where my parents were planning to move in order to escape the high taxes of Massachusetts. Pointing out the stakes that demarcated his lot, my father said, "Isn't this a great place to build a home? Can you imagine it?" I nodded, remembering that before I was born, he and my grandfather had built a house together in Massachusetts.

Two nights before I was scheduled to return to Seattle, I found my dad asleep in a chair after one of our long conversations. After I'd helped him upstairs, he stood in his bedroom doorway and gave me a long hug. "You know, Sonny, you don't have to go," he said. "There's so much we can do together."

 

But I did go. After stewing in Seattle for three months, I went to Cincinnati and moved in with Anita. (Although the relationship lasted four years, we would never completely heal the damage I'd wrought the weekend of the wedding.) My father never again broached the possibility that I might come home to live with him. As is his wont, any hurt he felt from my leaving he kept to himself. I will always be grateful for that.

After a series of jobs at construction sites and nursing homes, I began to find my niche writing for magazines and sent the clippings home for my parents to read. During my hitchhiking days, I had published poetry, prose, and music reviews, which proved to be just enough grist for arguments with my father about the viability of the endeavor. Still, for my 28th birthday, my parents sent me a reverse dictionary, a thesauruslike tome designed to supplement a writer's vocabulary. Beneath my mother's inscription inside the jacket, my dad had written, "You're getting there. Prove me wrong! I love it!"

A few months later, my mother called to inform me that she had cancer. After a year's worth of chemotherapy treatments, she eradicated the disease. Because they couldn't disassociate the house in York from dreadful memories of the ordeal, my parents sold it and moved into what originally had been their summer cottage, in the woods of Gray, Maine. Over the years my father had already added a master bedroom, bathroom, and sewing room to the place. Once it became their primary residence, he went to work constructing a huge garage--he called it a barn--as a combination workshop and storage space. If such a thing was possible, my mother's illness strengthened the bond between them. "That cancer, Jesus Christ that's nasty stuff," my father would say. After the chemo, he took to calling her Nails--as in "tough as nails."

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