The year of understanding
Many, many years ago a dear friend sent me a story in the mail. This was before the advent of email or text messages. It was old style, hard copy, stapled and folded and sent in an envelope. She worked in New York City at the Atlantic Monthly. My wife and I had moved to Orlando, so the gap was great, and where we had once carpooled together into work in Detroit, now we talked occasionally and saw one another less and less frequently. Today we are barely in touch at all, but for some reason I recently found the story in a pile of old writing materials and read it for the first time.
The story, by Ethan Canin, is called “The Year of Getting to Know Us,” and in the top right hand corner she wrote a note. “What a pleasure—love, Ani.” What a pleasure, I read, and so I plunged in, expecting a good read, and a pleasurable one, a gentle romance, a thoughtful memoir, a bittersweet coming of age story. What I got, instead, was a well-written, tough story about a father and son—a father who can’t love, who is obsessed with golf to the detriment of his family, who is having an affair and no longer loves his wife, finally abandoning her and his son, his only child. And now he is dying and his son is trying to make sense of things—who he is, what his father’s connection to him is, and why he can’t express his emotions, love in particular. When I was done I put the story down, turned to my wife, described it and asked, “Why did Ani say that was a pleasure? I’d call it many things, but pleasure isn’t one of them.”
I’ve sent her an email and asked her that question. But in the meantime I’ve asked it of myself. Was it a pleasure? What did I get out of it? And why was I so struck by her tiny, handwritten comment?
The easy answer is that I was taken aback, surprised by an outcome that didn’t meet my expectations. But that is superficial at best. The real answer, I think as I delve a little deeper, is that the short story was pleasurable, just in a way that I was unprepared for, because the pleasure I got out of it was born out of the pain of understanding who my parents and I really are.
Now I’m not going to go into details here. Those are best kept private, as some secrets and stories should be known only within closed family circles. What I will say is that it relates as much, if not more, to me than it does to either my mother or father, because one of the last building blocks of maturity finally comes when you start to see yourself as clearly as you see them—the warts, the failures, the flaws as well as the achievements and successes we so ardently express. I listen to the praise of my own children, their own inflated sense of who I am, how much I know and am capable of, and wonder what it will be like for them when, in their eyes, I fall back down to earth.
I know it has been a challenge for me, for in seeing my parents’ limitations I must admit my own. And as I write I look around and see drawings of me done by family and friends, their own interpretation of who I was, and I know I am all of those things and none of those things, dust and dreams and figments of the imagination, and they are gone from me, separated from me, lost to time and distance as I am left with who I am—someone who has tried to be successful, to do good, to live up to his personal goals and dreams, succeeding occasionally, failing as often as not.
Every year we are asked and expected to light yahrzeit candles for family who have passed away, to create light to remember them by. My father’s death, occurring as it did on my birthday, is now a time when I look at myself as well as remember him, and both pictures are filled with holes and cracks. And as I patch the holes and seal the cracks I think perhaps I understand a bit of what Ani meant, without meaning to, about the unspoken pleasure, painful as it is, of coming to terms with a deeper understanding.
And that’s the good word. The opinions expressed in this column are the writer’s, and not those of the Heritage or any other Jewish organization. Write the Heritage, or email your comments, critiques, and concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org