Lifes with Fathers

Lifes with Fathers

It is a simple, elegant and emotive concept: Have 40 people write about their fathers. Who was this man? After accomplishing this feat in a mere 350 words, the authors proceed in equally pithy prose to expound on how their fathers are living yet in their own lives, embedded in their very souls.

This latter task can be tougher for some, as evidenced by one son’s account: “My father was not a part of my adult life. He left when I was twelve. Through the years there was little to no communication and then we lost touch.” Or try this daughter’s assessment: “I never felt close to him and I don’t think he liked me much.” Another distant relationship is explained by “an early childhood event in which my father lost his patience.”

It seems to be the way with fathers, that dad is, like porridge, either too hot or too cold, rarely just right. It gives pause this Father’s Day: what our offspring would write about us, in 350 words or less.

Lurking amid the sadness and misunderstanding that abound in these cathartic canticles is hope, and almost always compassion. Life is not easy on fathers, who, after all, have fathers of their own to contend with. One son, the one with the impatient patriarch, becomes a novice in the order of Saint Dominic and gets his father back in a straightforward way: with an Abrazo, the liturgical kiss of peace: “Taken by surprise he stiffened in returning my embrace. On my next visit home, Dad greeted me at the door with a full Abrazo of love and peace.”

Chester resident Jess Maghan, a retired professor of criminal justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago, conceived and edited “40 fathers: The Search for Father in Oneself.” The black and white portraits of sons and daughters were taken by Sam Lindberg of Chester, Connecticut. Maghan also writes poignantly about his own father: “By the time he joined the parade of walkers and wheelchairs, we had opted for a feigned father-and-son relationship of rearranging the porch furniture and never entering the house at all. While delivering the eulogy at his funeral, I let out the primal cry of a lost sheep.”

Both Maghan and Lindberg, who also wrote about his father for the book, were interviewed.

Q. Why 40 fathers?
A. I’ve always had an interest in how other people viewed their fathers. I’m retired and have been reflecting back on my life. All of a sudden I started writing this essay, finding father. Whenever I go out and meet people I ask them to tell me about their fathers. And forty is a symbolic number. You find it in the annals of mythology, religion and mystic writing. You have the flood, Moses in the wilderness for 40 years, Jesus in the dessert for 40 days. I also like the way the title, “Forty Fathers,” sounded.

Q. How did you choose these 40 people?
A. It was a sifting process. Sam [Lindberg] and I were walking our dogs one morning and talking. I asked him about his father and this fountainhead spilled out, and we started talking about doing a book. He was one of the first to become part of the book. In some cases people sought me out when they heard what I was doing. Sam would guide people to me. I knew people.

Q. This question is for Sam Lindberg: how did you approach your role as photographer?
A. Normally I had a chance to read what people wrote and I would try to catch the mood or reflection from their writing in the photographs. Some were more receptive than others. The trick is to get people to relax, to not feel threatened in any way. I used an old camera with a wonderful zoom lens and I could take photos from quite far away.

Q. Did any of the authors experience epiphanies, coming to see their fathers in a new light from a process that compelled them to reflect deeply about the relationship?
A. I had people break down, crying. I had one woman call me back and said, “How can I thank you? For the first time in my life I am free of all kinds of flak, and I’m at home.” She had a lot of venom for her father, but she came to look at him outside his role as her father, as a human being, as a lonely man. She called this her redemption. Every single one of these stories ends with a line of redemption, for the writers, for forgiving fathers, and they go away enriched by it.

Q. You asked these writers to use a literary exercise called “compressed narrative.” What is that?
A. It’s compressing the volumes of what people wrote about their fathers into a narrative of 350 words. In my police days, when you wrote a memo you were told to write a paragraph because no one was going to read anything over that. One of my sifting techniques, one of the tasks I gave to prospective authors was to write about a regret that they had about their lives in 350 words. I wasn’t interested in the subject but how they packaged it. If they did that, I asked them to write about themselves when they were nine years old, where did they live. I’d even ask them to write about the doorknob on their house when they came home from school. One woman came in and said “my story is finished, here it is.” I said, “This is not Reader’s Digest.” Some people had to come back with their final piece twelve or fifteen times or more.

Q. In your piece you explain what shaped your father into “an emotionally distant, distant-man.” There is nature of his “tight-lipped” Irish Protestant tribe. There is nurture, too, or lack thereof: his 12 brothers and sisters and a world of chores to do way up yonder in frozen Minnesota. Does that absolve him?
A. No, that defines him. He came from the black ice of Minnesota. He didn’t know how to be intimate or childlike or emotional. On the job he had a police personality, Officer Friendly. Everyone loved him. On the beat, where he didn’t have a personal or intimate requirement, he was free to be whatever he was with people. Having written my dissertation on the police personality, I understand that. You can see the duality in the two pictures of him in the book, the one at home and the one in uniform. He looks like two different people.

Q. Your father was a policeman who walked a beat. You went into police work as well, serving as the director of training of the New York City Police and Corrections Departments, and later as a professor of criminal justice. How did you get your start in law enforcement?
A. I guess it was in rebellion against my father. He always said none of his sons would be police officers. I suppose it was buried in me and I wasn’t aware. I didn’t walk the beat; I came in at the administrative level. When I was sworn in by [New York City Mayor] Ed Koch, there were 2,500 recruits in Madison Square Garden. I brought my father to the ceremony. He was in his 80s. When I got up I said, “There’s a police officer here I’d like you to meet, a guy who walked the beat.” He stood up, and the men just roared. My father stood there like a little sparrow.

Q. What do you think your father would think about this book?
A. I think he would be pleased that it is written. It is full of the unsaid that hangs in a room, hangs in a house, hangs in a person. He would see what we were trapped in. There’s no blame in there.