When I look in the mirror, I can see my Dad staring back at me. It's only been this way for a couple of years, but nevertheless the image is unsettling. I don't really know my Dad. I should, but I don't. After all these years, we still talk to each other like polite strangers. We aren't strangers though. There are haunting similarities everywhere. The older we both get, the more we look alike. I can see myself in his facial structure, in his eyes, in his gradually thinning hair, even in the clothes he wears. I can hear my own voice when I talk to him on the phone. There are clues everywhere. I just can't put them all together. How could I? I don't even know myself.
Sometimes I feel like an archaeologist sifting though the stratified layers that have become my life. There really ought to be an easier way. There should be some sort of yardstick, so I can measure exactly how far I've traveled. I never had much of a plan in life however, so it's still difficult to tell if I have arrived at any self-determined destination. I keep thinking that maybe by looking back at what has been left behind, I can discover where I am today.
There are all kinds of clues for me to follow this evening. It is my Dad's eightieth birthday. I have flown back to Fayetteville, Arkansas, the small university town where I grew up, for the event. As I sit sipping a glass of wine on the flagstone hearth of a huge fireplace in the home of one of my Dad's friends and colleagues, I try to remember the last time I was here. There are people in the room I have known since childhood. If I close my eyes, the years melt away. These assembled retired professors and former graduate students are still openly liberal, generally optimistic and seemingly untainted by the cynicism and overt greed that would prevail in a similar group of urban business people.
Some of this must have rubbed off. I never realized it at the time, but I was brought up in an atmosphere where anything was possible. I always assumed as a child that I would grow up to be like the people in this room. In this environment, success was always assumed, but it was never directly connected with money and possessions. I never learned until much later in life that tenured professors at small state universities had their own very eclectic definition of the good life.
All of the people at my Dad's birthday party were living in rural Arkansas by choice, not chance. They were the beneficiaries of a university tenure system that, for the most part, ended with their generation. Most of them used their job security to build a world with broad and flexible horizons that provides them with a cornucopia of personal opportunities. They worked on pottery and potting plants and playing the piano in their abundant spare time. They didn't seem to have any use for the Internet and other forms of virtual companionship. Instead they went to each other's houses and drank wine and talked in front of crackling logs flickering in huge stone fireplaces. Amazingly, most of these people were still on their first marriage.
It would be easy to envy this life. None of the people toasting my Dad's first day as an octogenarian ever made a lot of money. You'd never know it though. They had all traveled the world. When engaged in conversation, they could easily switch gears between Brancusi, Bartók and the Chicago Bulls. Instead of a big screen TV in the corner of the living room, there was often a dusty, but serviceable grand piano. The houses of these professors were never expensive, but often spectacular. They were designed for a pittance by young faculty members at the nearby architectural school, serving as a test bed for ideas the same architects would later receive handsome fees for when their careers had matured.
I couldn't help but like these people. They were worldly, but not pretentious at all. This wasn't an art gallery crowd. It wasn't a "look how much I earn" crowd either. Nobody seemed to have anything to prove at all. Amazingly, after knowing each other for over forty years, they still seemed to genuinely enjoy each other's company. Listening to the multiple, animated conversations going on as the small crowd of well-wishers waited in the living room for dinner to be served, I realized that my own personal friendships seldom lasted more than three or four years. These people who had gathered together to celebrate my Dad's birthday had been friends for half a lifetime.
I certainly didn't see the big picture when I was a kid, but I'll have to admit I was influenced by it. My childhood friends lived in these cool houses in the woods designed by young architects who would become household words later in their careers. My Dad's graduate students would teach me to play chess when they came over for Thanksgiving dinners. I lived in a world where it was more exciting to win the school science fair than to score a touchdown on Friday night. This was way before it was cool to consider yourself a geek, mind you. We just didn't know any better. My friends and I grew up in houses listening to parents talk about Proust and Picasso. We learned to appreciate Mozart and we got telescopes as birthday gifts. It all just seemed like normal kid behavior to us. Whether to go to college or not wasn't even an issue to consider. We just assumed everyone in the world went to college. After all, our parents taught there.
The odd thing is that even though my Dad's birthday party seemed almost exactly like the convivial departmental faculty parties that burned themselves into my childhood memories, it is still hard to ascertain whether these memories are even real. I became immediately disoriented the morning after the birthday party, when I went to Dad's apartment in the retirement village to visit for a while before catching an afternoon flight back to Dallas. There were Tom Clancy novels piled up on the coffee table. A game show blared away on the television in the living room. There weren't any intellectual conversations about stochastic simulation or Schopenhauer. Instead, we talked about whether the food was good at the local Sizzler and wondered why Dad's miniature dachshund continued to bark at the UPS man. Eventually we started talking about the weather and my Dad fell asleep in front of the still blaring television.
I wandered around the apartment while Dad napped, looking at old pictures on the walls. Most of the pictures were of my youngest sister, who seems to have this theory that her inheritance is determined by some sort of formula involving the number of pictures of her hanging on relative's walls. There were only a few pictures of me. All were perplexing. One picture showed me with long hair and dark sunglasses, standing next to an old girlfriend's thoroughbred. What was I thinking of. It cost more to board that horse every month than I paid for my first apartment after college. Another even older picture showed me looking unusually happy and wearing a rather heavy odd looking brown leather coat. My Dad never knew it, but I was stoned when that picture was taken. Catherine, my ex, had designed and sewed the coat herself on an old sewing machine in the living room that broke needles about every ten stitches. There was another picture of me wearing a huge parka looking like I had just discovered the North Pole. All these memories added up to exactly nothing. There were no discernible patterns and little I could use to determine where I was headed next. I continued to look for clues among the Tom Clancy novels, old Scientific American magazines, bottles of prescription medicine and old newspapers that could possibly explain why I am still in Dallas writing brochures for modem manufactures instead of making independent films from a mountain hideaway in Utah. At one point, I discover a long, yellowing list stuck on the side of my Dad's refrigerator with the names of every magazine and journal he was ever published in. The magazines listed are so obscure that I have never heard of any of them. The need for such a list makes me smile though. Like father like son.
I am starting to look like my Dad. I wonder if he wasted years making the same mistakes I did. Why did he became a zoologist? He was always an artist to me. His imaginative soapstone and cyprus wood carvings of animals still overflow from cupboards and cabinets throughout the house. He never followed this path though. Maybe he never wanted to. Neither of us talk about dreams and goals. Neither of us admit mistakes. Maybe it's pride. Maybe it's just that we aren't even aware of what others see so plainly.
I grew up wishing my parents would get a divorce. They never seemed right for each other. As a kid, my Mom and Dad seemed stiff and serious about everything. There was an aura of Christian fundamentalism that clung like cigarette smoke to the entire house. I can hardly ever recall my Dad laughing. That's all changed now though. Four years after my Mom's death, Dad delights in telling the latest dirty jokes he's heard from the other old codgers he shares meals with at the retirement village. He's taken up playing the harmonica. I wonder if there's a connection. You spend an entire life doing the things you think are expected of you and then finally, when the sun is almost on the horizon, you start doing the things you actually wanted to do all along. I hope I don't wait that long. I remember that my Dad always wanted to go to Africa. He talked about it for years. When he retired and finally had both the time and the money, he discovered he had colon cancer and Parkinson's disease. The trip to Africa never materialized and now he watches tapes about African wildlife on the VCR in his living room.
Life goes by so quickly. And does it add up to anything at all? It's sad in a way that my Dad and I still search for answers like archaeologists, looking for clues long after the moment has passed. He'll ask me about the car I'm currently driving and I'll ask him about the latest movies he's seen. These are not the real subjects of our curiosity though. I'd like to know why a bunch of smart people like us could wind up as a totally dysfunctional family. He wonders why I'm not still married to Catherine.
I'm sure we still sell each other short. It's easy to do. My Dad probably still remembers the humiliation of having to bail me out of jail years ago. I still remember all the disparaging things my Mom said about him in moments of anger. It was all a long time ago, however. Maybe the pieces to this jigsaw puzzle still exist, but it's hard to find a reason to continue trying to put them together. It's so much easier to keep talking about the weather.
The curiosity remains, but it is a quiet, very subdued kind of curiosity. The line in the sand that was drawn between us years ago has become blurred by time. When I used to sift through the memory-filled drawers and shelves at my parents house, I would find nothing but differences. Now I look at the same objects and find similarities that I never noticed before. Maybe the mirror doesn't lie. Maybe my Dad and I aren't all that different after all. Twenty years ago this thought would have seemed blasphemous to me. Now it seems almost inevitable.
I look at my Dad and see a man who worked hard at a job that probably didn't matter much. I see an artist who let his art erode into a hobby. I see a man whose sense of loyalty overpowered his need for personal satisfaction. I see a man who married the right woman for all the wrong reasons. I see a man who ocassionally wonders if the entire effort was just a waste of years. Maybe I'm seeing things that aren't there at all. I look again. The face in the mirror says otherwise.