The Complicated Joy Of Fatherhood

The author and his father.
The author and his father.

The other day while mowing the lawn I stopped to wipe the sweat from my forehead and assess my progress. I am forever tinkering with my technique; an up-and-back pattern, a series of ever-shrinking squares, or even, on a rare day, just going with the flow. Deep in thought, I happened to notice, out of the corner of my eye, my 5-year-old son dressed in a flowing green cape, pirate hat and a pair of flippers. He was lurking near the shed and watching me. I pretended not to notice, not wanting to pop the bubble of his imagination, and restarted the mower.

Very soon I was transported back in time, to my own days in a young boy’s body, when I would secretly watch my father go about his household chores. My father enjoyed mowing the lawn, along with the mending, taming and building that a yard and house require. Playing a game of Whiffle Ball or engrossed in a book, slumped low in a chair, only the top of my head visible, I would watch him.

My son is my guide to the person I once was.

I wish I could remember exactly what I thought during those moments, to take me back to my own time as a young boy. The complicated joy of being a father, especially to a son, is traveling two roads every moment, both looking forward as I watch him grow up while glancing backward at the boy I once was. It is as if I am given a bonus of two stories with each bend in the road, one clear and unfolding, the other foggy and nearly out of reach. My son is my guide to the person I once was.

During the summer in the early mornings, my father would take me with him to play golf. We would rise, the two of us, in the predawn light to be the first ones at the course. Only the morning dew preceded us. We shared a bag, my father carrying it, while I used a five-iron to steadily make my way up the fairway. I try, but cannot remember what I thought during those outings, much as I do not know what my son thinks while watching me, but I do remember the details. The front of my sneakers soggy with the dew and speckled with newly mown grass. My father’s head bent in quiet concentration over his ball. And the sound of his voice, as it rose above the treetops it seemed, with a shout of “Atta boy” whenever I hit a clean shot.

In the evenings we played tennis. There were morning games too, but those included the entire family. The evening games were reserved for the two of us. Our points lasted a long time, the ball coming in fast but somehow always within reach. I did not question this astounding fact then, but now I understand my father was, of course, keeping me in the game. I can also recall the feel of my sweat drying on my body as the evening chill took over, the sun finally setting beneath the trees, and my father and I driving home in the dark, very late for dinner but somehow, not hungry at all.

My writing is interrupted by my son. He has woken early and come into the room where I work. But I am not worried that I will lose my train of thought. We have a routine, the two of us. He waves to me and I wave back. Then he gets out his Legos and begins to build. But this morning I find myself watching him and I notice how, from time to time, he looks up at me. And suddenly it occurs to me. I do know what I thought as a young boy while I watched my father. That he was there, all the time, like a planet I joyfully orbited.

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Bill Eville Cognoscenti contributor
Bill Eville is the author of "Washed Ashore: Family, Fatherhood and Finding Home on Martha’s Vineyard," published in May by Godine.



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