My father’s death a month ago overshadowed the calendar: overshadowed politics, Christmas, the work on my desk. Though long-expected, his dying was startling and awe-inspiring, as awful and absorbing as seeing a ship sink or a comet flicker out. Will the final disappearance of someone so constant and strong bring on other mysterious changes, too?
Writing about it feels strange: words, like shovels, make his demise and burial more definite, undeniable. Besides, when I write, I put on my ‘thinking cap,’ which amounts to a return to habit, the resumption of a normal routine. I doubt my father would have it any other way. The deaths of his parents were followed by silence, their funerals unadorned with eulogies, the family sitting together at home after a noisy funeral luncheon, each mourner quietly nursing a whiskey. The next day it was back to work, with nary a tear or outward trace of loss.
This much tribute, though, must be paid: without my father I would not have the intellect I have today. Not only was he the model of a thoughtful and curious being, but he encouraged these attributes in his children and respected our gifts. He was happy to have daughters with musical or mathematical abilities, who had political opinions, or were good at problem-solving. Not surprisingly in high school I was a math nerd, a National Merit Scholar along with 5 boys and my friend Wendy. In college, when my literary interests flourished, I found gifts like Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature and Edmund Wilson’s collected letters under the Christmas tree–reads that defined my earliest intellectual goals.
In a way that my formal education did not, my father stood for an active engagement with society. He was someone who understood every physical feature of a landscape: its plants, institutions, machinery, and buildings. Besides being a businessman and industrialist, he was a worshipper and a forward-looking inquirer. He looked out. He was interested in our futures, in the direction of society. He traveled widely for work, bringing back gifts and stories; otherwise he remained in motion, always busy with projects that would bring new beauty or marvels home. His view of us and of other people was profoundly egalitarian and mercifully free of social-science thinking. Despite his practical, scientific bent, my father’s worldview left plenty of room for the ideal and the miraculous.
I’m fortunate to have had such a wonderful father. He left me an heiress of sorts. Some such is my song as I put my thinking cap on.
Image: ‘Toward El Morro,’
© 2017 Susan Barsy