Feb. 16, 2006
Poem: "Photograph/1936" by David Bengtson from What Calls Us. © David Bengtson. Reprinted with permission.
They face each other, my father in a white jacket,
rented for the day, my grandfather
in a dark suit, tie too short, a light felt
dress hat with a dark band, the shadow
of the brim covering his eyes.
Graduation is over. They've just
come home from the high school. There'll be
a little party. Before everyone goes inside,
someone, one of your brothers, says, "Wait,
we need a photo of Gilbert and Pa.
How about over there by the tree? Gilbert,
stand in front of the bench. Pa, you stand,
next to him. Okay, look at each other. That's good.
Gilbert, don't hide your diploma." So
you hold the roll of paper a bit higher.
Dad, that bench is so close, right behind you,
if you backed up at all, you'd have to
sit down. Go ahead. Sit with your dad.
There's enough room for the two of you,
and smile. He'll reach his arm around you and
tell you how proud he is.
Now, the tall pine is gone, slashed in a storm.
The large yard, now covered by the house built
by one of your brothers, then shared
with his son and his son's wife
until last year when your brother
came home one night to find them
inside, refusing to open the doors.
There he stood, on his own front steps, 89,
locked out, forever.
I would like to stand in the space
between you and your dad, and say,
"Let's sit together on this bench. Let's talk
about the things that frighten us,"
and we'd talk about boilers that explode,
long trips on rough seas to small islands,
why a son, given everything,
would turn on his father, his family,
the love of family.
Literary and Historical Notes:
It's the birthday of historian Henry Adams, born in Boston, Massachusetts (1838). He was the great-grandson of John Adams, the second president of the United States, and the grandson of John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States. But growing up, he felt that his family's illustrious history was a burden on him. He had no interest in politics.
Adams worked as a secretary for his diplomat father, which got him out of serving in the military during the Civil War, but after that he quickly moved into freelance journalism. He once wrote a 2,700-page book called History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison, and the way he saw it, things had only gone downhill from there. He said, "The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant was alone evidence to upset Darwin."
But we remember him today for writing one of the first modern American memoirs, The Education of Henry Adams. It was privately printed in 1907 and few people read it. But when it was republished in 1918 after Adams's death it won the Pulitzer Prize for literature.
At the time, memoirs were generally written by great men to recount their great, public lives. But The Education of Henry Adams isn't the story of great deeds. It's the story of Henry Adams's growing sense of his own personality, his own individual ideas about America and about history. And he even admits in the book that his own ideas are often a mess. He writes of himself in third person, "The pursuit of ignorance ... had, by this time, led the weary pilgrim into such mountains of ignorance that he could no longer see any path whatever, and could not even understand a signpost."
It was one of the first times in American literature that an American had written such a subjective book about his own experiences and his own ideas.
It's the birthday of novelist Richard Ford, born in Jackson, Mississippi (1944). He's best known as the author of the novels The Sportswriter (1985) and Independence Day (1995). Ford has spent most of his adult life moving from city to city with his wife. He's lived in fourteen states, as well as France and Mexico. At one point he divided his time between a townhouse on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, a house in Montana, and a plantation house in Mississippi. He said, "The really central thing is that, no matter where I move, I always write and I'm married to the same girl. All that other stuff is just filigree."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®