The Influence of My Father on My Son

Horse racing brings out a father's folly
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If my father could watch my son for a while, he might realize his own immortality. A glance would not suffice. My brown-eyed, brown-haired son does not look like my red-headed, blue-eyed father. Not a bit. And the immortality I speak of has not taken on the angelic form my good father expected. The child is more like his grandfather than that. My father would invite me sweetly to come and sit on a stool at his feet, and, as I let myself trustingly down, he would gently kick the seat from under me - and laugh. I should like to have had him see his little grandson plant his sled on the basement door mat and call me out to stumble over the trap -and laugh. In both cases the victim, the devilish spirit, and the laugh were the same. So I say that if my father had the time to give to the observation of my son he might realize, if not his immortality, then the partial continuity of his character, disposition, and certainly his influence upon his line, and be - not satisfied, perhaps, but convinced, surprised, and— let me guess—amused or embarrassed.

He would be amused to see Pete, a child of six, who did not know his grandfather, wave his hand in the identical gesture my father used to make to indicate that a questionable assertion of his was obvious or final and decisive. I was highly pleased myself when I first

noticed it and recognized my father. I called it an inheritance direct from him till my matter-of-fact wife showed me that I had the same wave and used it in saying I didn’t.

My son’s mother, by the way, spoils many of our most wonderful fancies, Pete’s and mine, and that’s why he and I have agreed upon a sentiment which we say in unison behind her back, and sometimes in her presence. We sing: ‘Pete and Papa are wonderful. Mama and Anna [the maid] are absurd.’

My father would be amused at that, anyhow. He would say, ‘S-s-s-h! Don’t say such things,’ but he would recognize in it himself and his son and his wife and my mother. He and I were often in cahoots against my mother, affectionately, on the side. Mothers do not always understand a fellow.

He would have been surprised and he might have been embarrassed when I did not rebuke my son, as he would have rebuked his son, for tripping his father over that sled. This I’ll call indirect inheritance. My father, the practical joker, did not care for practical jokes on himself; he did not encourage the practice in me. I saw and I have reacted against this inconsistency with my son. I tease, too; I don’t approve of it, but my father and my grandfather in me make me play tricks on my boy, so I have to let him have some fun with me. But my son inherits the benefit of at least one half of my father’s fault.

My father required me to honor my father and my mother too much to put up games on them. I did on occasion. (That’s how I know that my son can’t help it.) I let my father mount my pony one afternoon in time to ride past the neighboring brewery just as the engineer let off steam, and my father was pitched off; and I laughed behind a tree, where, however, my father found me and - Well, I don’t do to my little boy what he did to his little boy. I feel my father in me want to, but I remember him and my feelings, and I laugh. The family laugh at the family trait.

My son ‘honors’ his mother, as I did mine. He would not plant a sled for his mother, as I would not for mine. On the other hand, if my son breaks something, he will run to tell me about it first, and then, when his mother discovers the wreck, he backs into my arms and bids her not to speak of it.

‘Daddy minded that,’ he says.

I asked him once why it was that he respected his mother and had no fear of me.

‘Oh,’ he said, ‘you are a funny man. You can get mad, like Mama, but you laugh. And-and anybody that laughs can’t - can’t do - what Mama does.’

My father would have been surprised to hear this, as I was. My father was slower but he was severer than my mother, who was quick but light and irregular in discipline. It is just so in my son’s family. My mother would thump me sharply on the head with a thimble or a spoon if 1 became too noisy with the whistle when I was playing I was a steamboat captain. She had no sense of the dignity of command. My father seemed always to know not only what I was doing, but what I was being. He had too much respect for a steamboat captain to humiliate me before my crew. If I committed a crime, he would not break into the scene and spoil it; he would say quietly, as between him and me, ‘I’ll see you to-morrow morning right after breakfast about this.’ Now I find that I preferred my father’s way and I take it with his grandson, who likewise prefers it. His mother will call suddenly: ‘Pete! It’s bedtime,’ when she thinks of it, and off he must go, regardless of his occupation. I look first, to see that he is busy with, say, an important building operation, and I would no more interrupt him than I would a crooked contractor. If it’s late, I join my builder, we finish the job, and then he goes satisfied to bed, the day’s work done. -

One improvement I have learned from my childhood experience with my father; I do not threaten punishment in the morning. That was awful. Late into the night I would lie awake tossing and wondering what he was going to do to me. Usually he did nothing. A quiet, impressive ‘talking to’ was all I got. And no doubt his idea was that the postponement of penalty—to save himself from acting in anger—would set me to thinking and be punishment enough, but my father did not visualize the anxiety, the agony of my sleepless hours of anticipation. Hence it is that I do visualize a bad night, and so we go to bed in Pete’s house with a clean slate and a happy morrow to wake up to. No hang-overs for us, and I am pretty sure Pete feels this benefit he has from my correction of my father’s error. At the end of a ‘serious talk’ the boy and I had one day, he rested a moment, then got up and said: ‘Well, that’s all over, is n ‘t. it?’ and I assured him it was. ‘We’ll forget it now, Pete, and never mention it again.’

Dealing with my son makes me recall my father so clearly that I think now that I could state his policy with me and his philosophy, if he had one. Of the philosophy I am not sure. His acts and his sayings to me were all in the direction of freedom and independence. I let my boy go and do and say pretty much as he likes, as, and perhaps because, my father kept no string on me. I could roam as a child far afield; he gave me my pony to widen my range; and I am sure that I went where my parents did not know I went. My mother would ask where I had been, rarely my father, and he backed me up if I did not want to tell at the time.

‘No, don’t ask him that now,’ he would say to my mother. ‘He will tell us if he goes anywhere he shouldn’t.’ And later, sometime when the pressure was off, I would tell him that, say, I had gone down to the dangerous one of our two rivers. That was forbidden. I was afraid myself of that river; it looked cruel, snarling, grasping, but my mother’s fear-was excited and unreasonable. I could not tell her where I had been. My father, when I told him, would become very quiet, thoughtful, till, looking up inquiringly, he would say:—

‘You have been told not to go to that river?’

‘Yes.’

A pause. ‘You don’t often disobey us, do you?’

‘No.’

‘You must have wanted very much to go there if you disregarded our command that way. What was it that made you do it?’

I gave him my boy’s reason, straight: A man had been drowned and I wanted to see them drag for the body.

‘Did you?’ he asked, interested.

‘Yes, we saw them drag, but they didn’t get the body.’ And, because he was so keen, I described all that we boys saw, and did, and said, just as I would to ‘another fellow.’ We had a long, casual talk about the day’s work on the river and I had forgotten all about my disobedience when my father said:—

‘I should have liked to see that myself. I wish you had come by my office and taken me with you. Do that next time. Give me a chance. And say, I wouldn’t again disobey directly like that any of the few rules we lay down for you.’ That was all, except that at the next meal my father told my mother before me the story of my day without any reference to the disobedience part. He told it well, too; to my satisfaction, but not to my mother’s. She kept saying, ‘But—but—,

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