Psychology Today, March-April 2005

    Four Fathers
    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


    The most vivid memory I have of my
    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.

    The fact that I never really witnessed
    this incident—I was already in bed—
    yet to this day can easily summon up
    a mental picture of it has always bewildered me. What kind of yearning compels a
    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
    30 years.



    "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
    patriarch.

    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
    mess.

    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
    breathless.

    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
    today?

    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.

    My reaction to the news was instant: I wanted
    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
    hold on.


brucekluger.com
The author (seated), age 8, with his brothers and father in 1965.
The author's father-in-law and first daughter.
The author in 2000, with daughters Bridgette (4) and
Audrey (7 months).