Essays - Spring 2008

What Kind of Father Am I?

Print

Looking back at a lifetime of parenting sons and being parented by them

By James McConkey


 

One evening—not long after my family moved to the old country farmhouse where my wife and I have lived for 45 years—our youngest son (my namesake, Jim, then three-year-old Jimmy) came into the woodshed, while I was there putting away some tools. “Look,” he said proudly, cradling in his arms the largest rat I had ever seen.

Instinctively, in what no doubt would be a genetic response of any parent, I tried to grab the rat from his arms before it bit him; but, as I reached toward it, the rat tightened its body, menacing me with its sharp teeth. At once, I stepped back: that, too, was an instinctive response, though rational thought immediately followed it. Was the rat rabid? Whether that was so or not, it was clear that the rat trusted Jimmy but not me, and yet it might bite both of us if I threatened it further.

“Where did you find it?” I asked my son.

“In the barn.”

“Which barn? The one with all the hay?”

“Yes.”

“It was just lying there, on the hay?”

“Yes, and he likes me.”

“I can see that it does.”

With the possible exception of the difference in our use of pronouns (which just now came to me without conscious intent; could it have risen from some submerged level of my memory?), that little dialogue isn’t an exact transcription—not only because it happened decades ago, but because while I was talking, my mind was elsewhere. I was looking at the garden tools I’d just returned to the wall behind Jimmy, thinking I might ask him to put the rat on the floor so that I could kill it with a whack of a shovel or some other implement. But my son trusted me, just as the rat apparently trusted him; and what kind of traumatic shock would I be visiting upon Jimmy if I smashed the skull of an animal he considered his friend?

The woodshed is in a wing of the house connected to the kitchen, where my wife, Jean, had been preparing dinner. She surprised me by coming quietly to my side; apparently she had overheard our conversation through the screen door and now was offering a solution to the dilemma. She said, “We need to find something to put your pet in, Jimmy.”

“A box,” I said. “Just keep holding it while I find one.” For I remembered at that moment a stout box I had seen while rummaging among all the agricultural items that had collected over the years in the carriage barn across the road—items that fell into disuse after the fields had been cleared, the house and barns constructed, and finally after tractors and cars had replaced horses. Amid the jumble of old harnesses, horse-drawn plow parts, scythes, and two-man saws was a small oblong box that might have contained dynamite fuses or explosives for removing stumps. It had been sawed and sanded from a plank about two inches thick. Like the house itself, it was made of wood far more durable than anything available since the virgin forests were harvested, and all of its edges were covered in metal. Though I felt guilty for leaving Jimmy and Jean with the rat, I was glad to have remembered the box I had admired for its craftsmanship, and I ran in search of it. For the longest time, I couldn’t find it and thought (as I often did later, whenever I found myself unable to resolve a crisis besetting one of our adolescent sons), What kind of father am I? I was close to panic before I finally found the box, more valuable to me at that moment than our recently purchased Greek-revival farmhouse—the kind of family home I’d long dreamed of owning.

A film of these events still runs through my mind, but I will summarize the rest of it here. Jimmy was initially the director of this movie, with Jean and me the actors obedient to his command: that is to say, he obstinately refused to put the rat into the box until a suitable bed was made for it—old rags wouldn’t do, for it had to be as soft as his favorite blanket. The rat gave him his authority, for it trusted Jean no more than it trusted me; it remained unperturbed in his embrace for a few minutes more, while Jean searched for and then cut several sections from a tattered blanket. Our son was satisfied with that bed, and the rat—whose trust in a three-year-old seemed infinite—seemed equally pleased, permitting Jimmy to place it on the soft strips. As soon as we put the lid on the box, I called the county health department, only to be told that the office had closed; I was to take in the rat first thing in the morning so that its brain could be dissected.

In response to Jean’s immediate question, “Did the rat bite you?” Jimmy said, “No, he kissed me.” Could any parent have believed an answer like that? My response was simply to put the box outside. Before giving our son a bath, we scrutinized every part of his body, finding no scratches anywhere on it. During the night the rat gnawed a hole through the wood, and by dawn it had disappeared.

Forty-odd years ago, rabies vaccination involved a lengthy series of shots, each of them painful, and occasionally the process itself was fatal. Neither the health department nor our pediatrician would tell us what to do. Once again we searched Jimmy’s body for the slightest scratch and again found nothing; so we decided to withhold the vaccination—though Jean and I slept poorly for several nights. Long after it had become apparent that our son had not contracted a fatal disease, I kept thinking—as I again do, in remembering the event—of the errors I had made, of what I should have done instead, of how helpless I had felt following my discovery that the rat had escaped.


While reading a recent biography of William James by Robert D. Richardson Jr., I found myself recalling those suspenseful and seemingly never-ending hours. As Richardson demonstrates, James was aware of the extent that circumstance and random events (like the one that led my young son to a particular rat so long ago) can alter the course of history as well as the lives of individuals, making the future unpredictable. James, like my favorite writer, Chekhov, was trained as a medical doctor and became an author—though not of stories and plays (his younger brother Henry was the fiction writer) but of books and articles on philosophical, psychological, and spiritual matters. One of the founders of American pragmatism, James rejected European reliance on Platonic absolutes or on religious and philosophical doctrines that declared the historical necessity of certain future events. Despite his realization that much lies beyond our present and future control, James still believed in the independence of individual will, a view essential to the long-lasting but often precarious freedom underlying our democratic system.

Though my life strikes me as more stable than most—Jean and I have been married for 63 years, raising our children in a house now 176 years old—I’m aware that circumstances and forces exterior to us have played a dominant role in our lives. A party that Jean and I gave soon after my discharge from the Army at the conclusion of World War II brought us to this Finger Lakes farmhouse. I had entered graduate school in English on the GI bill at Western Reserve University in Cleveland; Jean, while taking some part-time graduate courses in chemistry there, was working as a chemist at the Standard Oil research lab at the edge of the campus. Without that party—which angered our landlady, who lived beneath our apartment—we might have remained indefinitely in Cleveland; instead, we began the various journeys that brought unexpected events and chance encounters with others, one of which resulted in my permanent appointment as a Cornell English literature professor.

For that matter, I never would have become an enlisted soldier in an infantry division fighting in France and Germany had it not been for the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941—as unexpected an attack as the destruction wrought by suicidal terrorists on September 11, 2001. I can see how much I was a pawn—often a lucky one—of history. Soon after my division landed in Normandy, I was transferred from an antitank squad to divisional headquarters—and the following day a land mine hidden in the road by the retreating Germans exploded under the truck carrying members of that squad, killing many of them.

So, instead of being a combat soldier, if I had survived that carnage, I became the editor of my division’s newspaper as we advanced through Europe. On a lovely April day, I was driving our Jeep in Germany in search of printing supplies for the next issue. With me were the public relations captain and the newspaper’s artist. We somehow got ahead of our troops—something we didn’t realize until we came upon a recently felled tree blocking the road and heard the bullets whistling past our ears from rifles on a nearby hill. I zigzagged the Jeep to safety and found another road. We were surprised even more when the new road took us into two towns, once again before our troops arrived. In each town, dozens of German soldiers raised their hands in surrender, even climbing like puppies onto the hood of the Jeep; but how could we take prisoners? As evening came, I was driving too fast to see another object—odder and much smaller than the felled tree—also desperately contrived to impede the American advance: the long barrel of an antique pistol, sharpened to a point at the end, its butt replacing a half-brick on the road. Positioned at an angle, it was designed to do precisely what it did: blow out two tires while flipping the Jeep over as it veered into a field. The two passengers fell out, unharmed, but I was trapped by the steering wheel. The Jeep ended up back on its wheels, leaving me conscious on the ground but unable to move.

I remember a circle of faces looking down at me—neighboring German civilians, all of them apparently sympathetic, as well as my two riders—the captain (who showed me that strange little booby trap) and the artist. A German woman asked me a question in English, and I answered in her language. But bad luck can sometimes be followed by fortunate circumstances. Apparently we had arrived at the border of the American advance, for a medical corps Jeep soon came, and I was transferred on a back-seat litter to a forward field hospital. In addition to a broken pelvis, various organs in my lower viscera had been punctured. That field hospital had but a single surgeon, who had been operating for several days on wounded soldiers under the wavering lights of a portable generator. As he shaved my pubic hair, I asked the surgeon if I’d be impotent; he smiled at such a conventional question and said I wouldn’t. I never learned the name of that doctor—only that he was a friend of one of my college teachers, an unexpected coincidence—but his skill permitted me to live and to be the father of three sons. After the operation, an infection took over my body, and I developed a high fever, accompanied by nightmares. Later, I realized I’d entered the process that leads to dying, for I was within a cone of pale light that kept vanishing toward a single point. Just before it reached that point, I would see a head—it must have belonged to a nurse, not to my hallucinations—and soon thereafter (or so I imagine, having then no sense of time) the shining point always grew back to its original cone. Luckily for me, that field hospital had received some of the first penicillin available for soldiers, and the series of injections and blood transfusions administered to me restored me to full consciousness and at last to the pain that accompanies the injured living.

Some years ago, I remembered that cone of light while experiencing an actual phenomenon much like it. Unable to sleep, I had left the bed I shared with Jean to work at my desk. Long after midnight, I went outdoors in my pajamas to look at the stars and found myself near the end of a narrow shaft of pale light that seemed to expand as it rose above me. Our son Larry and his wife were visiting us, and I woke them as well as Jean to share what I had just seen. Still half-asleep, they stumbled outdoors. “My God!” Larry cried, for that eerie radiance bathed all of us and the house and rose into the heavens. Since a phenomenon like that requires an explanation, we decided—rightly or not—that it was caused by the tail of a distant comet, surprisingly not reported; and we stayed outdoors until all of us became drowsy, lulled by the fragrance from the fields of newly mown hay. Ever since, I’ve wondered if all living creatures exist at varying positions within a cone of vital energy, made visible only through extraordinary events or by the approach of death.

Chance brings so many miracles and so much tragedy into all of our lives that it is remarkable that humans can affirm—as James does—that individual will is equally a determining factor. And yet personal memory makes me agree with James; Americans in general also do. But of course most Americans, whatever our adversities, historically have been luckier than many others, and the luckiest of us include the most fervent supporters of the belief that success or failure depends wholly on the individual.

Though nothing about human nature is exempt from argumentation, it strikes me that personal will surely exists in our response to the circumstances that fate thrusts upon us. Circumstance, for example, required Jean and me to respond, however faulty our judgments, to the rat in Jimmy’s arms. In Oedipus Rex, though, the protagonist’s action in response to circumstance is equally the working out of fate, and the last words of that tragedy come from the chorus: “Call no man happy until he carries his happiness down to the grave in peace.”

Now that I’m 86, I find that my mind flits back and forth between a myriad of specific memories and abstract questions devoid of clear answers.


One such question—perhaps related, but more circumscribed than anything raised by Sophocles’ play—often occurs to people like Jean and me long after it’s too late to matter: Could we have been better parents? Though sometimes it comes from the behavior of their adolescent children, that kind of question often follows parental inability to foresee accidents waiting to befall their offspring. After my father’s death, my mother, then 90, came to live with us. Very early on a July morning in 1975, I was awakened by a phone call from an airline representative who told me that my brother, an airline captain, had been killed in the crash of the limousine taking him and his crew to Chicago’s O’Hare airport. The most painful task I’ve ever undertaken was to tell my mother after she awoke at sunrise (I now wake at that time, too, if not earlier) that her older son was dead. To do that, I lay next to her on her bed. She couldn’t comprehend the dreadful news, asking me to repeat over and over all the information I’d been given. Finally she said, “Jackie,” the name she had called him as an infant, and then told me details that must have made her feel guilty over the decades: ever since he had learned to walk, she’d had to keep constant watch over him. Once, while she was giving him a bath, he had slithered out of her grasp to run, naked, out the door and down the street. Another time she had tied him to a rope attached to a tree in the front yard so she would have time to wash his diapers. These were the things she first remembered upon learning of his death.

Larry, our oldest son, resembles Jack in physical dexterity, technical expertise, and general enthusiasms, such as piloting. As a two-year-old, he required the same kind of watching. Once, he managed to escape our fenced-in yard and run down the driveway into the middle of the major highway serving the small Kentucky town where we had bought our first house. Jean ran after him, afraid that if she called his name he’d veer from the center stripe and be hit, for cars and trucks were whizzing past in both directions, the drivers seemingly oblivious to both mother and child. She rescued him that time; but later, as a first-grader coming home for lunch, he was struck by a car at the marked crosswalk on the street in front of the elementary school. No guard was present, and a car was illegally parked at the crosswalk, preventing our son from seeing any oncoming traffic. Larry was knocked unconscious but, fortunately, was not run over. I was leading a discussion on a novel in an adjoining building (the elementary school had once been a training facility for college students preparing for public school careers) when I was interrupted by a secretary who told me my son had been hit and was lying in the street. In the short time it took me to reach the crosswalk, Larry had been taken to the office of a local doctor who told us—Jean had already arrived there—that our child had suffered a minor concussion and that he’d be fine if we made sure he stayed awake for the rest of the day.

Like all parents, Jean and I will never be able to forget events like these. Though I wasn’t even home when Jean ran after Larry on a busy highway, I sometimes still relive it, feeling both irresponsible and helpless.


That first son was followed three years later by Cris—an abbreviation of Crispin, his middle name; Jim was born seven years after Cris. When Larry was a teenager, a social worker and longtime friend—her husband was a colleague of mine—told Jean that we put an unusual burden on our sons by expecting them to live up to an unstated code of behavior, perhaps one similar to the relationship she had observed between Jean and me. We seemed, that is, to assume some kind of equality among the members of our family, permitting our children to call us by our first names and never imposing specific rules upon their conduct. Her observations were not accusatory in nature; they may have been partially intended to show us how little we had in common with the dysfunctional family relationships of her clients. And yet they seemed to imply—especially in that phrase “an unusual burden”—a difference between her own family and ours.

When Jean told me what the social worker had said, I found her comments accurate enough to be troubling. During the years that our children remained dependent upon us, I’d always felt a special responsibility, as the adult male, for providing security and guidance to my family. Though Jean and I each had professional careers, we assumed, in a way typical of our generation, that mine should have precedence. But I had never wanted to be a patriarch, that conventional figure of male authority. Jean and I always came to major family decisions through mutual consent; neither of us would do anything that might make the other unhappy—or our children, for that matter, after they were old enough to be consulted. The reason for such behavior, being self-serving, is nothing to be proud of: we knew we’d inflict misery on ourselves by pursuing personal desires that brought unhappiness to those we love.

Nobody can will that kind of love; one reason, I guess, is that it depends on at least two people to share it. In the attempt to save their failing marriage, one of our sons and his former wife had a series of talks with a marriage counselor. Ultimately, the counselor told our son that his marital problems were obviously caused by his parents. Successful marriages require the open expression of personal emotion; if his parents never argued and fought, the reason was that they had repressed their hostility, thus victimizing him to a repetition of their fault.

Ever since Freud, repression has served some analysts as a convenient and irrefutable explanation for the problems of their patients. For example, the indignation with which I responded when our son asked me if what the counselor had said was true might have been used by the counselor as proof of the extent to which I would go to repress my other emotions. As our choices of professions indicate, Jean and I have differing aptitudes. But it seems to me that our relationship over the decades reflects a mutual respect and trust that never has been corroded by resentment. If free will has anything to do with that, it undoubtedly comes from the desire not to repeat the mistakes of our parents.


The Great Depression contributed to marital difficulties for both sets of our parents: Jean’s father lost his job as an accountant, while my father fruitlessly kept hoping for a position commensurate with his pre-Depression expectations. Jean’s mother helped to support her family as a door-to-door salesperson of women’s dresses and as a substitute public school teacher: in those days, married women weren’t allowed to be full-time teachers. Her frustration—she was, as I know, a capable and unusually intelligent woman—probably explains her growing resentment of her husband and the strict regulations she imposed on her two daughters. Neither of my parents was a disciplinarian. My father, for that matter, was rarely home, for he took position after position (I attended 15 schools before I became a high school graduate), most of which kept him in other cities.

It wasn’t until I read The Great Gatsby as an adult that I realized how much my father resembled Fitzgerald’s title character, possessing the same “extraordinary gift for hope,” the same “romantic readiness,” with the exception that my father’s “green light” was never a woman too idealized to be mortal, but rather an equally impossible “bracket,” a word he often used to describe the otherwise indefinable status he felt destined to attain. Like Gatsby, he sought spiritual goals through material ends, but nothing—neither the well-paying positions he still managed to secure nor his wife and children—came up to his dreams. During my adolescence, he asked my mother’s permission for a divorce, since he’d fallen in love with another woman. My mother granted the request, however desolate it made her, and she relied primarily on me, as her younger son, for affection during the next three years.

That bond should have made me an ideal candidate for the complex that Freud derived from the myth of Oedipus, but it didn’t. Though my love for my mother during those difficult years may have been far deeper, I never lost my love for my father—in part, I suppose, because my mother never did, either. That three-year period ended when financial problems caused my mother, brother, and me to separate. My father was then running a Packard dealership on Chicago’s South Side, living with his second wife in a high-rise apartment building a block or so from Lake Michigan. For about half a year, I stayed with them. That marriage, like the Packard agency, was failing; though they had welcomed me, I realized that my presence—for my unhappiness must have been obvious—only added to the tension.

My father began to invite me to accompany him on various errands, which permitted his wife (I never thought of her as my stepmother) to have the apartment to herself. Once he took me to a South Side restaurant that had a walled-in balcony with slits overlooking the floor. When I asked him the purpose of those slits, he told me in a quiet voice that they had been built for machine guns, but that the restaurant’s patrons were now safe from harm. I didn’t know that he (again, like Gatsby) consorted with gangsters until one day we were driving through the Loop area. While we were waiting in traffic behind a streetcar, somebody, in what seemed a single action, entered the Packard through a back door, closing it as he threw himself on the floor behind us. I never saw the man’s face, only heard his urgent whisper for my father to drive around the streetcar on the wrong side, and then to turn on the first side street. The commands kept coming until I—and presumably those pursuing the fugitive—was hopelessly lost. We were on a deserted street in a warehouse district when the man told my father to stop, and he slipped out of the car as quickly as he entered it. I knew, without my father telling me, that I should never mention to anybody that encounter. Until this moment of writing about it, I haven’t; and now, having done so, it seems more like an episode from an old George Raft gangster film than a commentary on a period in my father’s life when his Depression-era desperation to capture what lay only in his imagination led him into contact with underworld figures.


My father’s second marriage soon ended in divorce, probably a relief to both of them; he had exhausted much of the money his new wife had inherited. I never discovered all the wild schemes my father dreamed up in the following year, but I do know he spent some months in a penitentiary for issuing bad checks to pay for rooms in expensive hotels in a number of cities. Petitions from my mother and from the more influential people my father’s abilities had once impressed, including the president of an automobile corporation and the head of a federal bureaucracy, won his release, conditional on his ability to pay his debts in monthly installments. A few weeks after he regained his freedom, I was the best man at my parents’ second marriage.

They had always displayed affection for each other. Like Jean and me, they never quarreled. The only disagreement between them that I heard as a child was over the thousands of dollars my mother would be awarded if she won a contest for submitting, along with the proper box top, the most three-letter words to be made from the name and slogan of a breakfast cereal: she wanted to send some of the money to her sister, and save the rest for my brother and me; my father wanted it all for a new business venture. But that little dispute ended in an amiable compromise: they would wait until my mother actually won the prize before making a decision.

Still, my father almost left my mother once again for another woman he had met on his travels, and only an action of mine—by then, I was a college sophomore—prevented it. I found his hotel address in Indiana, and convinced my mother to drive in my old Ford (a gift from my father after the remarriage) to confront him there. During that long and rainy morning and nighttime journey, I felt more like her father than her son; but I suppose that most children, from their college days onward, consider themselves, rightly or not, better informed than their parents. Circumstances in some cases can result in decisions that in retrospect we never regret: that particular decision—probably the foundation of my belief in free will, limited as it may be by the very chance that allows it—enabled my parents to live together in contentment far longer than they had before he left us. But domestic tranquility for my father supported, rather than ended, his restless and optimistic questing. Though he probably never admitted it to himself, it seems to me that the glamour my father found in women other than my mother had much to do with the greater assistance they could give him in his pursuit of his intangible goal.

In his mid-70s my father became ill for the first time in his adult life. Cancer had spread from his pancreas to other organs, and a surgeon removed his pancreas to lessen the symptoms. Yet he refused to admit he was dying; while confined to bed or a nearby chair before a card table after a second operation, he made plans for a new business and even volunteered his services as part of a telephone network, offering encouragement to young people trying to overcome drug addiction and other problems. In addition to my mother, Jean and I and one of my aunts—my father’s younger sister—were with him as he was dying. As blood gushed from his mouth, Jean cradled an arm around his head, lifting him so he could breathe while she stemmed the flow with a towel. Even at the end, his hope—he never owned a mansion, but in this more fundamental way he outlasted Gatsby—never left him. His last words were an embattled but still triumphant cry, “I don’t have cancer!”

All of us then told him we loved him; I’ve wanted ever since to believe they were the final words he heard and not the astonished ones spoken by his sister at the moment of his death: “Why, how much like Dad he looks!”


I have sometimes wondered if the struggle of sons against their fathers reverberates onward from the dawn of history, though we have only myths to suggest that it might. But I do know that for decades my father’s father—the single living grandparent I ever had—either lived with, or was supported by, my parents or the family of my father’s older sister. During the long period of my grandfather’s final illness, he lived with my parents, nursed by my mother and that sister. My father never told me anything about my grandfather’s past; I slowly came to know about it from my father’s two sisters. Having inherited a handsome amount of money, my grandfather established a tobacco shop in Cleveland; it failed when his partner stole all the stock and the money kept in the store and vanished. Then he opened a downtown Cleveland loan agency. “Oh, how he loved to hand out money!” one of my aunts told me. “Without getting any security, he handed out money until he had nothing left.” That debacle ended his own questing; his remaining pride—my aunt said he still considered himself a businessman, a person of considerable status—kept him from seeking factory employment, though from then on he depended upon his children, his wife having long since died. All three of my grandfather’s children felt compassion for him, that gentle but ineffectual dreamer who gave up too soon.


My brother’s face carried a genetic resemblance to that of my mother and her mother, while mine continues to carry the eyes and bone structure of my father and grandfather. But it has taken me years to realize that the bond between my father and me came from our genetic heritage and from our joint struggles to deny it. Most parents don’t want their children to suffer the kind of grief inflicted on them by their own parents. By saving them from that, though, they may inflict upon their children difficulties of another kind. I’ve often worried—always to myself—if the burden Jean and I placed on our children proceeds less from our lack of specific rules on their conduct than from a marital relationship that for a variety of social and economic reasons later generations have found difficult to obtain, its drama and surprises not a result of misunderstandings and reconciliations after quarrels but in the discovery each day—with a poignancy that only increases with age—of how glad we are to be with each other.

It’s folly to worry that this may be a burden on one’s sons. Before luckily finally finding their own enduring marriages, two of our sons suffered the emotional disturbances of marital or premarital relationships that never worked out; our other son has never married. One of those early young women, who still occasionally visits us, agrees with Jean’s remark that children take credit for their own successes but blame their failures on their parents.

I lack the desire—perhaps because I also lack the talent—to write a contemporary version of Oedipus Rex. But if I could write such a tragedy, the son wouldn’t kill his father because of sexual rivalry over the wife and mother—an absurdity, at least from my personal experience—but rather because of self-hatred, his motive hard to distinguish from suicide. As for me, I’ll never forget the long-ago moment I saw my father’s face in the mirror while I was shaving: despite my growing admiration for him in the years after the remarriage, it was the first time that I had fully accepted the likeness, and I realized that I had also accepted myself, whatever my shortcomings. That double acceptance involved more than the genetic connection: I was entering middle age, and the hair at my temples was turning gray, my skin losing its youthful tautness and beginning to sag below the cheeks. That is to say, my father and I were mortal and would share the fate common to all living creatures. I was living then with my wife and children in Paris; our apartment was a niche in a modern and impersonal housing complex. Maybe one has to be far from home to gain awareness like that. After all, visiting foreign countries is said to be a broadening experience.

Crucial moments of that sort probably can be found in the lives of all humans. Novelists, though, usually avoid them, for such moments have nothing to do with suspenseful plots and (like an enduring love) are beyond personal will. From middle age on, I’ve experienced several such life-changing moments; like the effect of father on son, one probably helps to determine the next. Such revelatory moments have no source that I know of; nothing in our personal lives completely accounts for them, including the particular circumstances of their happening. They make me aware that every human is unknowable and that fate, including death, contributes to the mystery. Nobody realizes this better than those who, like me, have spent much of their lives in pursuit of themselves through the resources of personal memory.


Nearly every book I’ve read by present-day neuroscientists expresses an indebtedness to William James for his prescient insights about a century ago into consciousness and memory—particularly those insights in his Principles of Psychology that have been validated by the greater information and more sophisticated research tools now available to scientists of our human minds. As James realized, memory works by similarity of association between the past and the future. Long before it became a recognizable mode of fiction, James used the phrase “stream of consciousness” to define our ongoing apprehension of ourselves and the world around us and considered the ephemeral present to be a specious part of time.

In its ability to find likenesses among seemingly disparate and sometimes antithetical mental images, my own memory seems a spiritual faculty in search of unity as well as a purely practical faculty for understanding as best I can the world within which I exist today. (James’s interest in this spiritual dimension resulted in his Varieties of Religious Experience and even led to his attendance at séances, one trance medium in particular winning his respect.) Consciousness, for me, is memory’s practical application, forever taking these different images and separating them into segments useful to us in our quest for self-preservation and for discovery; essential to thought, consciousness provides me the abstraction I’m now making—the division of my memory into two parts, only one of which is analytical, the other always in quest of a synthesis beyond its reach. Some inaccessible part of memory—the part that remains a mystery—apparently gives me a premonition of this ultimate unity. Physicists like Einstein must have sensed it, too, hoping to unveil it through the elegance of a theory based on mathematical equations. Consciousness—that mark of life, a miracle in itself—prevents us from achieving that unity, our yearning for it possibly underlying all our desires for freedom, including the one for a will of our own.

Ever since as a young soldier I saw that pale cone of energy vanishing toward the point that would bring the end of consciousness, I’ve had no fear of dying: those last moments of life seem to come easily, without worry or physical pain, as we slip back to our source in a natural world indifferent to distinctions and oblivious to time.


About 20 years ago, I sat on a mossy boulder near the Saranac River in the Adirondacks. A small creek disappeared under that boulder, emerging on the other side to trickle through small stones on its way to the river. Jean and Cris, the son who hasn’t married, were on separate paths—deer or bear trails—that wandered through our fern-filled glen. Cris, who has learned to identify mushrooms, was searching for them, interested in the shape and colors of both the edible and poisonous kinds; Jean was simply taking pleasure in everything around her. From the boulder, I could see them both as well as our beached canoe. Dappled by the foliage of the trees above us, sunlight gave a soft illumination to that little glen. My sense of well-being and happiness was so extraordinary that I’ve wanted to recapture it ever since.

Happiness like that is beyond my understanding. I don’t think I would have felt it without a sense of companionship—without the affection I had for my wife and son. Did it possibly come from something carried in my genetic memory from distant ancestors who might have had a similar feeling of well-being in some hidden spot, knowing that they and their families were safe from predators?

The appeal of a natural environment brought Jean and me to our old house at a rural crossroads in the Finger Lakes, and then to our annual trips to the wilder regions of the Adirondacks, where we paddled a canoe—a surprise gift from Jean to me on a birthday at least 40 years ago—to campsites near rivers or on islands in ponds and lakes. For years, those trips included only our youngest son. After my namesake grew up and moved away, Cris—who had returned home simply because we had pasture for the herd of goats he had just bought—joined us. In one of our barns, three canoes and a kayak are now gathering dust and swallow droppings, a testimony to the increasing number of family members who once accompanied us, sons and spouses or companions.

Difficult though it was for all three of our sons to adjust their work schedules to join us, they occasionally managed over the years to do that, Larry and Jim accompanied by wives or present companions. Six years ago, during one of our last weeklong family outings, I became separated from the others and found myself lost in a vast Adirondack forest, wandering on a strange trail until darkness obscured even that path: the stars and even a crescent moon might have been shining, but in a forest like that, blackness seems absolute. When our sons were younger, I sometimes felt helpless, as I’ve recounted, to protect them from some unexpected danger; now, as an octogenarian, I was helpless to protect myself.

Frightened as I was, I didn’t panic. I sat down where I was, knowing I might never be found if I left the trail. It was wholly my own fault that, in not returning with the others on the trail we’d originally followed, I’d not paid much attention to it then. As elderly parents, though, Jean and I no longer were in charge: in a sense, our three adult sons were now acting as our parents, much as I once had felt myself to be my mother’s father. What I remember best from our extensive trek into the forest and up a small mountain for the sake of its vista was simply stopping with Jean to watch a squirrel that had found a mushroom. It sniffed the fleshy part before peering under it, as if checking the gills for edibility. Only then did it snip the mushroom from its stem and scamper away with that delicacy in its mouth. Never before had we observed a squirrel behaving like a mycologist.

But now I was blind and beginning to shiver in the damp coolness of the night. In my hand was a stout stick I had picked up to assist me over stones and up steep slopes; every time I heard a nearby rustle, whether imagined or not, I raised it as a cudgel to ward off, say, a hungry bear or a pack of coyotes. Under such conditions, any solitary person probably becomes the primitive creature still lurking in the human genetic makeup.

Improbable though it was at such a late hour, a group of other lost people permitted all of us to save ourselves. I saw a flickering light in the distance and left the trail to grope my way toward it. That faint light led me to six young men and women who apparently had never found the trail in the first place. Burdened with an excessive amount of baggage—tents and sleeping bags, an ice chest, paper sacks of groceries, blankets, and coats intended for a winter in the Montreal they had come from—they were bewildered pilgrims in search of the campground they’d been told was near the road. Actually, it was at the end of the long trail I had taken by mistake. With the aid of one of their flashlights, I was able to find the trail again. Flashlights made all the difference from then on; but it was midnight before we reached the campground, the trail now littered by all the objects my new companions had been too exhausted to carry any farther.

Near the campground was a ranger’s station, its windows lit by a lantern. I went there to report that I was no longer missing; but the ranger had left to search for me in the woods. However, two of my sons—Cris and Jim—were there, in case I showed up; the rest of our party had returned to our van, hoping I might eventually find it. It’s odd to return from hours of mainly solitude in the dark to be reunited with two sons. In the glow of the lantern, I was self-conscious, embarrassed that my errors had caused so many problems, but also acutely aware of the effect my sudden reappearance had on my sons. Jean and I and Cris have lived so long together that each knows the foibles as well as the abilities of the others. Cris seemed to expect that I’d eventually turn up. His eyes and gestures reflected his pleasure that I had, but he immediately became shy, as if participating in my embarrassment at demonstrating that I might no longer be a dependable parent.

Unlike Cris, our oldest and youngest sons had seen us in recent years only on these Adirondack vacations and during brief visits. Whenever Jean and I had left from similar visits to my elderly parents, I worried that one or the other of them might not be alive for another reunion; I imagine that Larry and Jim feel that way upon leaving us. Here I momentarily digress: On the white frame of the opening between our dining room and kitchen are faded dates in pencil that mark the heights of Jean and me and, over the years, those of our children as they approached and then far surpassed first her and then me. Born so much later than the others, Jim’s height starts out at the lowest marking, but the final one shows him inches above his brothers. He has also become the most muscular of our sons.

But when this husky adult saw me, he began to cry. He threw his arms around me, saying, “I love you so much!” Like my father’s dreams, my ideal self is nothing but a desire; for better or worse, I’m unlike him in knowing my limitations. I don’t remember ever being in competition with anybody else, for my resolve comes from competition with the limits I’ve discovered in myself and would blame, if I could, on genes I’ve inherited. So my son’s response was the kind of blessing I’d never expected—certainly not here, not yet.

As my father was dying, I was part of a chorus that told him we loved him: though the words are customary at such a crucial moment, in most cases they are truly felt, the grief reinforced by each mourner’s awareness of her or his own inevitable end. To my youngest son, though, it must have seemed that I had returned from the death he had imagined during the long hours of my absence.


In this exploration of my past for whatever understanding it can give me of my present self—probably my final attempt, though I’ve believed that before—I’ve touched upon questions beyond my competence to answer. But the issues of chance, genetic inheritance, the relation between fathers and sons, and the debate between determinism and free will, important to human meaning as they are, fade into insignificance before the most encompassing paradox that I know: death, that great opponent of life and ultimate victor over it, is also responsible for all the values of life that we struggle to rescue from it. Without mortality—that is, if we lived forever, uncaring of the ticking of clocks—would we have need of religion, of families with children for a new generation, of dreams for a better future? Wouldn’t scientists lose their urgency to discover, artists to create? Without my ever-keener awareness of Jean’s and my mortality, I certainly wouldn’t be writing this account in my 87th year. And what about love? As lyrical expressions, sonnets typically represent the poet’s personal emotions. One sonnet in particular, by Shakespeare, moves both Jean and me; I liked it as a graduate student, but not in the way I do today. The first-person narrator acknowledges that life, like a fire, is consumed by the source nourishing it, and tells his beloved in the concluding couplet, “This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong, / To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”

That’s the best summation I’m capable of making.

James McConkey is Goldwin Smith Professor of English Literature Emeritus at Cornell. His books include The Telescope in the Parlor, Court of Memory, and To a Distant Land. His next book, The Complete Court of Memory, is forthcoming.


Donate To The Scholar Today

Comments are closed for this post.