Every boy wants to know what Dad does.
For me, the answer was: Dad sells business machines. (Later: fiber optic cable.) Firefighting or astronaut-ing it wasn’t. Alas.
But that’s not the story — not the real story.
Because what Dad does, Dad does in silence.
Some make their way in the world. Some bear the world on their shoulders. Some are a world unto themselves.
My father is a world. Wherever you put him, there he is.
All his life, Dad has been a salesman. He grew up in his father’s bicycle-and-ski shop in Denver. He met a woman from Wisconsin, just after college. They were engaged for six months, then married. After a few years, they moved to her hometown, which was literally Sheboygan.
He has lived in Wisconsin ever since. There he sold printing services, then typewriters, then high-tech wires. None of these products were central to his identity. He works to live.
Lately, he has been selling plots for a network of Catholic cemeteries. That led to this ditty, composed for his wedding anniversary last spring and sung to him by some of his eight children and 25 grandchildren:
Dad knows he is tired, worn and thin,
So he works in a graveyard grim.
If he goes, they’ll just toss him in.
Dad took it in the right spirit.
It should go without saying to sophisticated readers that Wisconsin is not a great global nexus. It is a glaciated crust of granite once peopled by Chippewa and Kickapoo and, from about 1850 and until recent years, awash in Germans, Dutch, Slavs and other huddled masses – as the Sephardi poet put it. Now that the West is nearly dead, there is also a temple of Ganesha. But even that is provincial to its Indus-basin world.
Don’t tell Dad. To him the shore of Lake Michigan is not a chilly fringe; it is warm, and it glitters. It is home to Homer’s heroes and Spenser’s faeries, as his familiar old bookshelf indicates. It is irradiated with milky light that blurs the edges of anything hard and real. It is an aviary for winged angels; a patty-cake in the hand of God. It hums with canticles.
Because Dad isn’t really a salesman. Dad is a poet: a poet who prays.
My father has produced hundreds of poems in his life, starting (I suppose) when he was still a student, at the end of the Sixties. He has collected these poems, all typed out neatly, and bound them together into a volume with a cover that one of his children painted. His publisher? The copy shop formerly known as Kinko’s.
He dates all his poems and has collated them chronologically, so the patient reader follows him from late adolescence to young fatherhood to stubborn middle age, stanza by couplet by line.
Some of the poems are interesting only to family. Some of the poems are good.
In the best ones, Dad zooms from the flat pavement of some worldly detail into the vault of his cosmos, which is coated with condensation and appurtenanced in gold.
Here he is in 1999, walking down the sidewalk in (I guess) Milwaukee:
It was in that part of town
Where the trees have time to grow
With sidewalks, terraces
And most importantly, children
A pleasant part of the older city –
Noticeable most of all were the streetlights:
The new lighting project
Was almost complete
Most of the quaint, rusted street lamps
Having just been replaced
Stainless steel posts put into place
With their shiny tinted bubbleglass lenses
Only one was left of the old black iron
More graceful, more human in design
By now, weathered and rusted
Having stood the better part of a century
Yet due to an undue sequence
Of electrical connection
Only that one poor rusted street lamp
The only one on the entire street
To be burning brightly, cheerfully
Ah, to be like that rusted street lamp
Just one lamp among so many others –
For when the darkness comes
It remains ever on
That one is called “The Rusted Street Lamp”. It’s not his most spectacular, but it is all Dad. I am baffled by his eccentric punctuation.
My father doesn’t cultivate a poety vibe. No bard’s cap or pheasant-feathers for him. All his clothes are conservative, and his entire wardrobe (including the very important ties) fits into a narrow closet in the front room alongside the vacuum cleaner.
These days, he looks like Central Casting’s idea of a WASP. And that is what he is, really, except for that final “P”.
But his poetic nature betrays him. In contrast to my mother, an industrious woman whom he nicknamed The White Tornado in reference to an ammoniated scouring powder of their youth, we could sometimes catch Dad staring out the window and doing nothing. Now I suppose he was meditating.
Here is my father, in 1980, in Sheboygan. It’s late and he is going to church. He is totally alone, yet not:
Tall towers create
Tall shadows against the sunset
A lighthouse of presence
A beacon of shape and span
Visible from cities of the inner sea –
Great stones, cut block, piled
Like structural lace to watch over us:
Here – the central door, an inviting hollow
Open in the darkness of night
To a central light
Enter this rock-structured universe
Of arch and apse: genuflect, then kneel
Before the yellow light shining
Trying to grasp in prayer
The Who it is who is present
This is part of the first canto of a longer work called The Great Secret. It’s marked “1. Holy Name Church”. I know that he is talking about a rather prosaic structure on Eighth and Superior, two blocks away from Vreeke’s Tavern. His readers might think he’d crossed over into the empyrean.
I wonder who those readers are; who they will be.
I never understood my father completely. I’m sure I still don’t. But I got a better grip on him when I met a Jewish type – a slightly-shopworn Jewish archetype, the Hasid.
The Maggid of Mezeritch, according to Shlomo of Lutsk, says that God permeates all realms. The Hasid should sniff out the divine energy in all things and, in all he does, return the divine sparks that have been imprisoned in the world to their original Source.
He doesn’t look the part. At all.
But I think Dad would go along with that.