“Your only child, I am now seven years older than you were the day you died. (I marvel at children who, through one mishap or another, never meet their fathers, lost as men are in war or removed by less calamitous engines of separation.) But I very much had a father, and was fathered.”—Elizabeth Boleman-Herring
By Way of Being
By Elizabeth Boleman-Herring
PETIT TRIANON Florida—(Weekly Hubris)—6/6/2016—It has been 44 years since we last spoke. On that day—December 7th, 1972—you were 57, and I was 21. Writing now, in Florida, the state where you came of age, as a lifeguard on the wild beaches, in the 1920s, I am 64.
Your only child, I am now seven years older than you were the day you died. (I marvel at children who, through one mishap or another, never even meet their fathers, lost as men are in war or removed by less calamitous engines of separation.)
But I very much had a father, and was fathered.
And, Daddy, I knew you. You allowed me to know you, in all weathers.
I knew you as a beloved child and a young woman stumbling into adulthood, and I knew you in your young manhood and in the prime of your life. (I regret, so, that I could not know you in old age, a country for which you left me no firsthand map nor compass.)
At this remove, you are much more complex a figure than you were the day after your sudden death by stroke in Columbia, South Carolina. Grief—and it lasts, as a tympanic echo—at first simplified you; time has complicated and deepened you.
I suppose, as I approached and then overtook your own 57 years on our planet, how you appear has depended more and more on where I stand.
You began as a grand monument on the landscape. You appear now still heroic, but a hero among many heroes.
One of my first memories is of riding your shoulders, as Mother walked, her hand in yours, along a California beach. A rogue wave crested over us, but you held me, and your wife, who could not swim, safe against it.
I remember, clearly, reaching my own 57th birthday, and thinking that, as you died at 57, and Mother died at 72, I was entering a time when I had better “get my affairs in order.” Not because I might also expire early, but because I had seen, in both my parents’ lives, the blossoming that can follow middle age.
The years between 50 and 70 were, I felt, the time of coming to grips. Not coming to grips with anything, per se, but of attending, of having one’s wits fully about one, of coming into one’s own.
I was brought up by adults, and I wanted, fully, to become an adult in my own room.
You were fully formed, fully conscious at 35, 40. All the years I knew you, you were “whole,” an integer. You knew what work you wanted to do in the world, and were doing it. You loved, and were loved. You taught, and were constantly teaching. And healing some of the wounded. I’ve always said you were a hard act to follow, but yours was no act.
When I was small, you and I wandered, again and again, the length of Ventura Beach on the California coast. We spent most week-ends we could there, at the beach house of a psychiatric social worker who was your colleague in LA: Mary Perry’s “Runaway Cottage,” on that then-empty stretch of beach, was our place of meetings and rich retreat.
Ventura was, in the 1950s, unsullied, a vast, long congeries of tide pools as described and pictured in my favorite childhood book, Pagoo, Holly Clancy Hollings’ account of the life cycle of the marine hermit crab (and, by extension, the lives of all the creatures among whom, and upon whom, Pagoo lives out his days).
Back then, you introduced me to all the inhabitants of Ventura’s tide pools. The sea anemones, tethered to rocks and often buried in sand, were stationary residents, while the hermit crabs, growing and outgrowing shells which they are compelled to abandon for larger and larger temporary shelters over the course of their lives, were free to wander.
Worried about the sea anemones stuck on their rocks, I felt compelled to “feed them” bits of muscle, and you never stopped me. Until the day I realized I was actually killing the mussels to feed the anemones, and the anemones would do very well without my help—as they had done since c. the Cambrian period of the Paleozoic Era (from 541 to 485.4 million years ago).
Now, Googling “sea anemones,” Daddy, I can take what I experienced, beneath your watchful, loving eye, even further, and in an instant. At six, I realized that the anemone could live without me. At 64, I have just learned that the anemone was here long, long, long before me, and will probably be here long, long, long after me . . . the anemone and the hermit crab, Climate Change permitting, but not me or mine.
As Father’s Day rolls around, I thought I’d write this letter to you, place it in a virtual bottle in the great virtual sea, and thank you for being my guide, my protector, and my . . . Daddy, for there is no word as sweet in English as that little form of address.
Thank you for those walks on the beach in our huge shared classroom, and those introductions to my fellow students, they of the tentacles and gills.
Thank you for living on, for the brief duration, in all the people whose lives you touched. You would have been 1010 this year, so those you and I both knew are now few. Still, we few remember, tethered to our rocks or outgrowing (yet) our shells. We remember you.
I was 49 when I met my husband so, of course, you never knew him, Daddy. And it was only after I’d met him—a jazz trumpet player—that I learned you’d played the cornet in your teens; the trumpet in Florida’s Deland Symphony Orchestra, in your early 20s.
You and Dean and I would have enjoyed one another, and so I like to picture us—all of us at all ages—walking the beach at Ventura as it was in my childhood. In memory—my memory—I unite us all, even those of us who never met, in that moment out of time when love makes everything possible.
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