Come Father: Arms Around My Neck

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Brookline, Massachusetts. -- With two young sons and a child on the way, my father quit his government job to found his company -- in the basement of his mother-in-law's house. I have no direct memories of his machine shop. My older brother tells me that he would return from school each day to find our father bent over a lathe with mounds of steel shavings at his feet.

My recollections begin later when our not-so-old man, having enjoyed some success, moved his business to the manufacturing plant where workers assembled his machines. That entrepreneurs in Lisbon could use an idea hatched by a man in Baltimore taught me something about the power of ideas. That my father's first machine, sold the year I was born, still logs 40 hours a week has taught me something about standards of excellence.

To build and build well, my father paid a price. He was not home much, and I accepted his schedule as a fact of nature with its own tidal rhythms: gone at 8, home at 7, paperwork till 12. He had no time for swinging a bat or shooting hoops -- arts my brothers taught me. He had no time for watching my teams play; nor do I remember going to a movie or to a lunch or to a park with him. But I do recall the way he embraced my mother every night when he arrived, always late, from work. I wondered even then at the trade-off they managed so successfully -- she making a home, he building things, the two of them flying into each other's arms at night as if, married 20 years already, they had through separate and unlikely stratagems survived a war and discovered, miraculously, that the other was alive.

He is 80. I am nearly 40. I have never known him not to work. He can afford retirement but this is impossible, both because he loves the challenges of business and because he was poor as a child. Recently I learned that he bought parts for his first bicycle -- one rusty part at a time, as he could afford it -- from the local junkyard. Then one triumphant day he assembled the device, which must have had a strange, stitched-together look. But that bicycle worked, and ever since (this would have been about 1921) my father's been building things.

I've given up asking when he'll stop, since he has no choice but to build -- as if to do anything other than lay brick upon brick, fasten nut to bolt, is to court death. So he builds and all the while has carried my mother, brothers and me on his shoulders, high above the privations of his own early life. He carried me for so long, and so well, that it came as a shock to discover that I had hoisted him onto my shoulders. I don't know just when I took him aboard, but I do know the instant I realized it.

Periodically, my wife and I discuss moving from Boston to Baltimore, where our parents live. They are there, aging and content, never once suggesting what is plainly in their hearts and what we plainly dread to hear: "Won't you come back?" But our parents dare not ask because we'd say no, which is a curious answer in that as long as they don't ask, we entertain the idea seriously.

In Boston, we are happy but frantic in our professional lives -- with kids, a house, getting more dug in with each passing year. Still, we wonder: might we not be happy and frantic in Baltimore? We never quite resolve the issue, and on our latest go-round I unexpectedly recalled an image from Virgil's Aeneid: of Aeneas, mythic founder of Rome, hoisting his aged father, Anchises, onto his back and leaving a ruined Troy. I hadn't read the story in 20 years, yet here is what I said to my wife: "We live at home with our parents or we leave. In either case we carry them on our backs and found cities of our own."

Who talks this way? I don't, usually, so I returned to the poem, wanting to know why an image long forgotten would come ghosting across the years. As I read, Virgil once again transported me: Greek soldiers breach the walls of Troy. The great city burns. Aeneas stands to fight, but through the divine agency of his mother, Venus, he is spirited from the battle and returned to his father's house. "I'll follow you," the old man says. "Where you conduct me, there I'll be." Aeneas replies:

Then come, dear father. Arms around my neck:

I'll take you on my shoulders, no great weight.

Whatever happens, both will face one danger,

Find one safety. . . .

Twenty years ago, feeling immortal and not the least bit confused about the proper separation between parents and children (the further the better), I did not appreciate the Aeneid as a metaphor. Still, something subterranean was at work in that first reading, and I had to become a father myself to appreciate what it might be. The poem, after all, is a tale of manly love: the tale of a man, his father and his son; of how fathers instruct sons and sons honor fathers; of how once-dependent sons must one day provide materially or emotionally for their fathers, without patronizing them; of how fathers ever want their sons to do greater things than they. No force, not even death, can break the sacred relation.

Sometime after my 20th birthday I hoisted my old man onto my back and have yet to let him go. For years, without realizing it, I shouldered my father's standard of excellence, his nearly Puritan soberness of spirit, and his conviction that meaning comes through work. Under the weight of these I have stumbled as well as covered ground, though mostly covered ground.

And I have carried the example of his love for my mother, a weight that doomed my early relationships -- though now with the right woman this no longer seems a burden. Less lightly borne, however, has been the memory that he was working when I needed him, In response, I swore that I'd be the sort of father who would teach his kids how to swing a bat. Watch:

when it comes time for my sons to rebel, they'll say: "Oh Dad! Don't be so involved."

A few years ago, my father began pitching whiffle balls to his grand-children. The sight made me laugh and ache and bless him all at once. Perhaps, at the end of days, he has rethought his emphasis on work and has done something I'm not sure he ever did as a younger man: asked himself, "Beyond providing for these children, what is my relation to them?" In small matters, to which I give too much importance, he is probably a better grandfather than he was a father. But so it goes for many men of his generation, and so goes the lament of many men in mine.

In large matters, though, in the example of a philosophy lived and of burdens carried without complaint, my old man has done better than anyone I know. Once on a canoe trip he said this as we broke camp: "Let me carry my own weight." He was saying three things, at least:

My pack should be no lighter than yours.

I've never not carried my own weight.

Don't patronize me, kid.

Sixty at the time, he managed well. But age will eventually claim this proud man, and he'll need someone's help. Unknown to any of us, least of all me, I've been practicing for that moment -- and who better as a coach than Virgil? When the time comes I may not move my family to Baltimore, but I will embrace my father just as Aeneas embraced his. Bending over him, I'll say: "Come, arms around my neck." After a lifetime of counting on no one but himself, he may refuse.

* * *

In the final moments of Virgil's story, Aeneas prepares to meet his arch-rival, Turnus, on a field in single combat. In full battle gear our captain stands, weapons and armor forged by Vulcan himself. The enemy has sent dozens of Trojans to bitter death, and we know that Aeneas will kill or be killed. We watch as he embraces his son, perhaps for the last time. We watch as through his visor he kisses Ascanius and says: "Learn fortitude and toil from me, my son,/Ache of true toil. Good fortune learn from others."

It is the lesson that Rome, torn by civil wars, needed from Virgil. It is the lesson my father taught me. It is a lesson I hope to teach my sons, along with this: There comes a time not to toil if only we can be wise enough to recognize it. While rereading Virgil I developed a wish so strong that it has the force of prayer. I wish for a strength that one day will let me, unlike my father, give up building so that I might sit quietly and enjoy the world without needing to leave an imprint on it.

I have my doubts, though, inasmuch as I am my father's son. Like him, I must build my Rome or court death; and I will likely build until I stumble. Imagining that day, I see what strong, gentle men my boys will become and I weep with pride. I will be old when they bend over me with their song. When I think of the future, I sometimes pray: Let me live long enough to see my sons build cities of their own. And when the time comes, give me the strength to let them carry me.

Leonard Rosen is a free-lance writer.

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