Maureen Dowd, taking off from an interview with Mike Nichols, has written an interesting column in the New York Times of March 25. The broad theme of her article is that sons rarely find their fathers supportive of their choices in life. For example, she quotes Nichols: “I know so many people — actors, directors, writers — who can’t get their father to even acknowledge their accomplishments..” . She mentions many more examples in her column.
In all the cases she mentions, the sons knew their fathers. However, my father and I never met each other, because he was overseas when I was born, and was killed when I was less than a year old. Nevertheless I had a relationship to him, of sorts, because my mother made a point of telling me about him, even though she herself had re-married and had given me a step-father, a kind and gentle man some 15 years older than herself.
My father was a very short man, only about five feet six, but he was very much a man’s man, having played half back for North Carolina State in the 1930s. He was known for going hunting with my mother’s brothers. He worked in my grandfather’s real estate office and met my mother there. They married when he was 26 and she was 19. My older sister was born two years later. Photographs of my father show him mostly stern – he rarely would smile for the camera. I never knew why. He was born in Lexington Kentucky and I have the feeling that he shared the racial prejudices of his milieu. Neither my step-father nor my mother had any of these prejudices, even though my mother’s father did. My mother spoke of living on a small income, especially after my father went on active duty in the Army. He was an officer in a glider infantry regiment. My mother and sister followed him from training camp to training camp before finally moving in with my father’s parents in Cincinnati. My mother showed me the photo reduced and censored letters he sent from North Africa and Europe (V-Mail, they called it.) I have also read some of the letters she wrote to him (returned to her after he was killed in Normandy). She would weep openly while reading these letters.
For a long time after learning these things, I had dreams about my father returning unexpectedly from the war. I never pictured the reaction of my mother to his arrival, nor even my own. I just saw him coming into the house. I realized in my dream what a problem that would have entailed!
I have since wondered whether he would have approved of me. I went out for football in high school, but I was very small, not very fast, and I lived far away so it was a long walk for me to get home from practice. The coach never put me in any games. So I dropped off the team after one season. When the Viet Nam war came, I had a student deferment. My mother and I talked about what would happen if I did not have the deferment and she was quite upset when I told her I would rather go to Canada than serve in Viet Nam. I can just imagine what my father would have thought of that! However, my mother’s father told me that the country owed me, not the other way ‘round. I did not agree with that exactly, but I thought, and still think, that the war was a tremendous mistake.
My father was born a Catholic, but my mother told me he got very angry at the Catholic Church because of the constant pressure on parishioners to contribute money. After his death, my mother reverted to her family’s Protestantism. My mother saw to the religious upbringing of my sister, my half-sister, and me. But my step-father almost never went to church, and my mother did not go very often. So probably my agnosticism would not have been inconsistent with my parents’ wishes.
I have many mementos of my father – his dress uniforms, his medals, some photographs. To this has been added a book, “Let’s Go!” by Wayne Pierce, which details the history of my father’s regiment during the war. My son learned about this book, because he met by chance a veteran of the Iraq war of 1990 who was a member of my father’s army division, the 82nd Airborne. He put my son in touch with a man who was actually present when my father was killed. Before that time, my mother never knew that he was hit by artillery fire, or even where it happened, near the now-famous village of Ste. Mère Église. A major, he was on duty, working with maps, trying to figure out how to get his company’s mission accomplished.
So I have to say Maureen’s column really rang a bell with me. My father and I never saw each other in person, but I suspect he would have provided a different upbringing than the one I actually got. And he probably would not have approved of the way I turned out, a wine – sipping academic, with a penchant for French language, culture and literature, a scientist teaching a course in evolution, and a Democrat.
Based on what Maureen Dowd has written, it seems that sons and fathers rarely see eye to eye. And I think I know the reason. Our genes have a lot to do not only with the way we look, but also with the way we behave. Identical twins, reared apart, often have similar hairstyles, similar choices of career, or similar senses of fashion, etc. And contrary to our intuition, children really are not genetically very similar to either of their parents. The process of meiosis shuffles all their parents’ genes at random before conception. Thus, each child gets a totally new deal. So I suspect that what Maureen says about fathers and sons in her column also applies in good measure to mothers and daughters. More generally, it is probably a mistake to think that we have a profound conscious influence on our children. It is probably greater than other peoples’ influence, but compared with the genetic endowment, it is not overwhelmingly important.