Psychology Today, March-April 2005
Bruce Kluger learns from the examples of those who came before him, and
examines the good, the bad and the complex in father-child relationships.
By Bruce Kluger
father is of his fist, punching through a
door to gain entry into our house. But I
never actually saw this. It was 1961, I'd
just turned 5, and my parents were in
the first stormy throes of their divorce.
Earlier in the day, my oldest brother
had accidentally broken one of the
glass panes in our kitchen door, which
my mother had temporarily patched
with a flap from a cardboard box. That
night my father came to the house to
serve my mother legal papers.
Discovering he was locked out, he
socked through the makeshift
windowpane, let himself into the
kitchen, then charged up the stairs
and into my mom's room. Their
ensuing confrontation was heated and
behind closed doors.
this incident—I was already in bed—
yet to this day can easily summon up
little boy, and then a man, to conjure images of domestic havoc he was lucky to
escape in the first place? Why not leave well enough alone?
Perhaps it's because traditional mementos of childhood tend to be empty.
Scrapbooks selectively browse through the past, cherry-picking its proudest
moments. Home movies teem with vacant smiles. By comparison, my invented
memory of that night in the kitchen is exciting and disturbing and passionate. It's
something worth hanging onto.
I suppose the other reason I cling to the picture of my father's late-night break-in is
because it's one of the few memories in which I don't have to share him. Within two
years, my parents would be divorced, and Dad would sulk off to another city to
begin a new family, one that my brothers and I were forbidden to meet for the next
"That and ten cents will get you on the subway."
According to family lore, these were the words that my father's father, David, spoke
to him on the day he graduated from business school in 1954. My grandfather, a
self-made tycoon who had once enjoyed a bit of fame for loaning Israel a million
dollars, had just liquidated the family business—this at the very moment that my
father, diploma in hand, was expecting to join it. Although my grandfather's decision
probably made some sort of business sense, it stunned my dad, shattering any
dreams he may have harbored about someday succeeding his father as the family
In my more charitable moments, I can forgive my grandfather his selfishness. His
awkward chilliness toward his son was not uncommon in an era in which men
concentrated on commanding households as opposed to living in them. Yet other
times I can't help but wonder how my own life would have been different had this
man been as creative a grandfather as he was a businessman.
For example, the only thing I remember my grandfather giving me as a child was a
reel-to-reel Wollensak tape recorder for my Bar Mitzvah. I loved it, of course, and
used it for years. But it wasn't until I was a father myself that I became aware of the
other gifts my grandfather could have bestowed.
His cavernous apartment, for instance, overlooked the Macy's Thanksgiving Day
parade route. Imagine the raw adoration and wonder he could have engendered in
four small boys—ages 5, 6, 7 and 9—by hoisting them onto a window seat to watch
a giant Mighty Mouse float by. Wouldn't I still be replaying those memories today?
But we were never invited into my grandfather's home. He was worried we'd make a
I never liked my "Poppa" David, but I don't want to forget him. As an adult, I remain
mindful of his example, just as a driver keeps the side of the road in his peripheral
vision—conscious of its presence, careful to steer clear.
David died in 1989. I don't remember what happened to the Wollensak.
It was one of those moments I actually caught on film.
Walking into the apartment to meet my wife's and my new baby girl—his first
grandchild—in 1995, my father-in-law, Terry, headed straight for the cradle.
Lifting Bridgette out and holding her up in front of him,
like an art curator inspecting a precious vase, Terry
smiled wistfully. I quickly snapped a photo of this first
encounter, but it wasn't until the film came back that
I noticed the softness in his eyes. I had never seen
this type of gentleness on a man's face, and it left me
As he does with his own three daughters, Terry
expresses real interest in almost everything about
me—from my work to my passion for baseball. And
yet I have always had trouble accepting his kindness.
Having never experienced this sort of affection from
a man, I reflexively distrust it, convinced it will
evaporate if I reach out to it. My relationship with my
own father, after all, had always been one of longing,
not love. All of this was new to me.
I'll never forget the vacation to the Outer Banks I once took with my in-laws. I broke
my leg in a jet-ski accident, and shortly afterward Terry sank into a funk. Worried, I
asked my wife if he was angry with me. "No," said Alene, "he's mad at himself for not
protecting you." I didn't understand. Such a concept—fatherly love without a price—
simply didn't register.
All of which left me wondering: How common were men like Terry when I was a
child? Moreover, would my own father be a different kind of dad if he were my age
This, I suppose, is the practical joke of contemporary parenting for many of us. We
try to give to our own children that which we were never given in the first place. We
hold fast to our commitment to be better dads than our own. Yet all too often, we
feel our grip slip beneath the tug of self-doubt.
I often like to say that while my father taught me what kind of dad I didn't want to be,
my father-in-law has shown me what is truly possible. But I continue to worry. Like a
music critic who can recognize a brilliant melody but is unable to play an instrument
himself, I question whether I'll ever be able to match Terry's virtuosity as a father.
Ten days after Bridgette was born, my wife awakened me early in the morning to tell
me that my dad had died.
to hold our infant daughter.
My father had never met Bridgette, and yet I
felt compelled to have her close to me—
pressing my lips against her hair and feeling
the rise and fall of her small chest as Alene
explained the details of Dad's passing.
Why did I need to cradle my daughter in my
arms as another chapter of my family story
drew to a close? What was it about those
images of the three fathers who preceded
me—a clenched fist, a cold shoulder, a com-
passionate gaze—that led me to select this
particular tableau as my own self-portrait?
The answer would come four years later, as I
again held Bridgette close, this time as we
gazed at the sky on a warm summer night.
"See that star?" said Bridgette, pointing to
the brightest pinpoint of light. "That's
Grandpa. I can find him every time."
Apparently my daughter had picked up the one magic trick I'd learned from my own
childhood: the ability to close the distance between what we have and what we wish
for. By finding the grandfather she had never met, shining brightly in the dark sky,
Bridgette reminded me that it's okay to reach beyond reality for a glimmer of hope.
That mistakes aren't the worst thing that can happen. That, no matter the era,
parenting will always be a bumpy journey. And the best any of us can do is simply