brucekluger.com

    USA Today, June 18, 2009

    A story the son must finish
    For most, this Sunday will be a day to toast the old man and celebrate
    Father's Day as Hallmark intended. But for others—millions of us—the day  
    is a painful walk down a pocked road. It’s about writing the ending to an
    unfinished story.

    By Bruce Kluger


    If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s
    unfinished stories.

    I never bail in the middle of a book; I
    listen to songs all the way through; I’ve
    even sat through entire Adam Sandler
    movies. That’s hard.

    And so it is especially frustrating to me
    every June when I think of my father on
    Father’s Day, and once again confront
    the great unfinished story that was our
    relationship.

    For most dads, the third Sunday in June is a time to celebrate bad neckties and
    good fortune. But for others it is a day of reflection, a quiet moment to assess the
    complex consequences of our own back-stories. For me, this is never easy.

    My dad died 14 years ago this month, four days before Father’s Day and ten days
    after the birth of my first child. Those two events, simultaneous and seismic, were
    like jumbo jets soaring past one another in the night sky. By then my father and I
    were nearly estranged; and so consuming was the journey on which I’d just
    embarked, that I barely had a moment to look back over my shoulder for a final
    glimpse of Dad. But he’d already receded from view.

    That he’d never gotten to hold my new baby broke my heart. That my daughters will
    never get to meet their grandpa breaks it daily.

    My parents divorced when I was small, so I grew up amid fractured portraits of my
    father—a blurry memory here, a family legend there. It seems I’ve spent my entire
    life struggling to pull Dad into focus, as if flipping through channel after channel of
    snow.

    I remember the funny man with the scratchy face and gravelly voice and thick, dark-
    rimmed glasses. He owned a toy store in Baltimore, and every Friday night he
    brought home a boxload of inventory for his four small boys—trains and teddy
    bears and little silver robots with red lightbulb eyes. I was only three when I learned
    the word “surplus,” and I liked hearing it.

    I remember the angry man who fought loudly with Mommy, then moved away to New
    York City. The house grew quieter, which I didn’t mind, and lonelier, which I did.
    Over the next decade, visits with Dad grew more infrequent and less satisfying. In
    1964, my brothers and I joined him and his new wife for an exciting trip to the
    World's Fair. In 1974, my mom was my only parent to attend my high school
    graduation.

    And, of course, I remember the broken man who’d amassed a fortune as a
    stockbroker, only to watch it evaporate at the hands of a shady client. By then I was
    living in Manhattan, a college graduate eager to show my father I could be more to
    him than simply a sad reminder of his failed first marriage. My longing to forge a
    bond with him was my constant companion, yet our occasional dinners at his
    favorite east side steakhouse were always tortured affairs.

    “Let’s get into the trenches,” he’d say, announcing once again his need to talk
    about his divorce from my mother and his heartbreaking bitterness about it all. I
    always left those dinners feeling empty.

    So, yes, by the time Dad died, I felt a burden lift. And I convinced myself that if I
    poured everything I’d ever wanted my father to be for me, into everything I wanted
    to be for my own children, I’d somehow write that closing chapter to Dad’s and my
    story.

    I wasn’t foolish enough to expect a happily ever after, but I thought I could conjure
    something that resembled hope.

    So I doted on my girls, and taught myself to enjoy Barbie dolls and Golden Books
    and playing dress-up on Saturday afternoons.

    I looked forward to arraying our dining table with watercolors and art pads and
    bowls of fruit, if only to hear my daughters’ joyful screams—“Still life!—when they
    barreled in the front door and quickly took their seats at the table.

    And I learned to grapple with the crippling self-doubt each time I failed my kids,
    convincing myself it was okay to have punished them, or missed a school event or,
    worst of all, made them cry. The first time one of my daughters, red-faced and
    furious, screamed “I hate you, Daddy!” it was like a knife to the heart. But some
    deep inner-wisdom—or, more likely, survival mechanism—told me that in the
    turbulent, beautiful, complicated universe of parenting, those words somehow
    meant she loved me.

    My daughters are now 10 and 14. Bridgette is heading off to high school, armed
    with her mom’s grace and equanimity, and a dose of her dad’s mischievousness.
    Audrey, like any youngest child, has a piece of all of us in her—Mommy’s love of
    books, Daddy’s love of music, Bridgey’s love of life.

    But both girls have their grandpa’s soul—his temper, his humor, his passion. Those
    are the same gifts he gave to me. And though I’ll probably never succeed in finding
    that elusive end to Dad’s and my story, I take comfort in knowing that my children,
    each and every day, are writing it for me.


    (Illustration by Alejandro Gonzalez, USA TODAY)