Fathers and Sons
A therapist explores his relationship to his son and father far away from home.
Posted Mar 17, 2014
My Dad rarely left home and never willingly ventured beyond the borders of the United States after he returned from Germany at the conclusion of World War II. One time, visiting me in California, I drove him across the border to Mexico. He never left the car.
Once I graduated college, I became a frequent flyer, leaving home at any conceivable opportunity. I have no memory of my father asking me about the journeys, which is especially odd in that my first European excursion, 20 years after the war, was to Germany. For my Dad the rule was: ‘Don’t ask. Don’t tell.’
When at home in my Dad’s house, we rarely talked, but comfortably shared daily rituals of greetings and farewells, of food and television. I always felt at home, though distant, when in his house. I felt more at home in his place of work, an anachronism of a men’s clothing shop on lower Broadway, now a bank of classrooms at NYU, where I have worked for more than 30 years. My home is 4 blocks away, and I pass by the ghost of The Place, as my Dad called it, nearly every day.
My Dad was my most important teacher on how to be a dad. I learned to be respectful, quiet, unobtrusive, distant, a touch fearful. And I also learned how to be loving, steady, a touch sentimental, and, in an unguarded moment, passionate.
The stories and songs my Dad told me as a young boy were horror stories. Although I was unable to discern clear meaning or motivation, I was riveted by the content of war trauma and, in the case of ‘The Ballad of Samuel Hall,’ of the rage of an unrepentant condemned man confronting his intimates from the top steps of the gallows.
The stories I told my son, Mackey, were about heroes, like the Greek king, Odysseus, who leaves home to go to war with the fierce Trojans. After a long, brutal but victorious campaign, he aches to return to son and wife and kingdom. And yet he does so very slowly, savoring each challenge with formidable obstacles.
More important than my verbal stories, my son watched me leave and return, experiencing my stories of journeys with each bag packed and unpacked. And because he had a front row seat to a challenging relationship between his parents, my son had all too often witnessed the narcotic of leaving and the ambivalence of the return home.
In my previous blog, ‘Destination: China,’ I tell the story about a visit to my son in China, where he teaches English. Toward the end, as my daughter and I are about to leave, Mackey says: ‘I am so happy that you both got to see me in China. It makes it real.’
I ask Mackey: ‘When are you coming home?’
He says: ‘It feels like home here.’
‘You mean the family?’ asks Georgie, his sister.
‘I guess. And our love of this culture,’ Mackey says, ‘The stories we live, the way we allow ourselves to be seen.’
In that moment, I realized that I never felt seen by my Dad and in many ways, did not know how to see my son. But now, many time zones away from home, in seeing Mackey so clearly, he felt seen.
After my visit, Mackey made a short film, called simply ‘Home.’ In it he narrates:
‘When you travel, the most significant thing you learn about is home, where you come from and who you are. I’m often in the spotlight simply because I’m foreign, which makes me more aware of my presence then ever before. So with my Dad and sister seeing my life in China, my home in Wenzhou, speaking to the students, meeting all my new friends, I felt the most at home. My American family meeting my new Chinese family, East meeting the West, normalness meeting the weirdness. Usually in China it’s easy to think about the cultural differences, the strangeness, but that day it all seemed so natural. So after they left, my Chinese life resumed and the thought of home stayed with me: What is home? Where is home? And Who is home? As an American, is China the answer to those questions? And with another four months to go, I think, why not?’
I can only imagine what my Dad would have seen if he visited me in Germany when I was 21, nearly the same age as my son in China. Probably he would have seen a young man frightened to be seen by his father. But what if he traveled for the primary purpose of seeing me, and what if in his presence, I summoned the courage to be seen by him?
As a theatre artist and drama therapist, I live most fully in the moments of playing out responses to the question: What if? My big question in visiting my son was, What if I could be for him what my father could not be for me? And ever paraphrasing Hamlet, I journeyed with the question: To see or not to see? Although I knew the optimal answer was to see and not to see, I opted for the simple answer: ‘To see,’ then added, ‘and to be seen.’
Even though I am more comfortable asking questions then answering them, I end by answering those of my son as if we are in a dialogue: What is home? Where is home? Who is home?
‘I think, Mackey, that home, like the theatre, is a place to be seen by a loving presence, like me, like you.’
‘I think, Mackey, home is wherever you and I discover relationships that are meaningful and binding, if only for a short time.’
‘And I think, Mackey, you are home for me and I am home for you.’
‘And one other thing I want to tell you—even though I did not know it at the time, my father was home to me, in The Place and on American soil, in his house and in my house. It’s not necessarily the distance that defines home.’
In this blog I include Mackey’s five-minute film, ‘Home,’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ORLlofEyGeQ),
a piece which speaks to me in a visual language Mackey knows I understood well. As a kind of coda to the film, the viewer sees several of Mackey’s students engaged in role-playing. As Georgie and I lead them through an exercise in drama and art therapy, they play figures who they admire and who they fear. Beyond their teachers’ expectations and warnings to us, they are eager to play and to act as-if. In the final sequence, edited carefully by my son, the filmmaker, one boy, in an authoritarian role, asks another:
‘Can you show me your ID card? Can you prove your identity?’
At first, the other boy is resistant to revealing his self. Then, with a stroke of spontaneity, aware at some level that one can exist very clearly in relationship, he throws his arm around the boy sitting next to him and says: ‘He is my son.’ The room erupts in laughter. The father finds the son and they are home. And I think: ‘Why not?’