Like any middle-aged man or woman I find myself puzzling over the mysteries of my late father. He was a scholar and his subject was the Cold War seen through the lens of Finnish realpolitik. Later in life he became a college president. He died 12 years ago and he remains an enigma to me because he was jovial with strangers but silent inside his own house. This morning I wrote a short poem or a draft of a poem about his nordic solitude:
Winter, you committed me to loving my father
and though he was cruel, he knew the snow of night.
When lights came on and windows blazed,
his radio roused from obscure physics
and played Mahler–what a thing!
I argued with force for news of the day
but your hour had come,
the penitent notes were yours.
How do you say something like: he was weeping on the inside? That his thoughts remained fixed on points in the past? He was not a man of nostalgia. He was more a practical refugee. The refugee knows that the past is not prologue, its too dark for that. The past is the perilous front of a lost battle.
These days we would say he was depressed but I don’t think this is true. My father lived by a manifesto of bitter fragments. His childhood as an immigrant kid during the great depression had been hard. His parents were unloving people–his father was a lutheran minister in the deeply conservative Finnish laboring communities in Minnesota and later in Massachusetts. Fun, the having of it, was out of the question when he was growing up. Then what? He went straight into WW II. Then he went to Harvard and got his Ph.D.
Some people have no talent for happiness which is why they live vicariously in the music of silence. That is the story of my father. There might be more to the story but he left no record.
My father was a man of deep winter. I think in his silence he was also a man of humble discoveries. That’s what surviving is about. I will never know enough about his secret animals.