In a way, saying that you cannot understand any man, unless you more or less are him, is silly. No one understands anybody. Fine. Now what?
There is a shared thread to our lives, no matter how disparate the people and cultures on this green earth are. We can know other men — a little.
If there was ever a person a man should be able to ken, it would be his Father. Why do I not know mine? I am the most like him, if appearance is any guide. I don’t know him at all. Maybe that just means I don’t know myself. I don’t know that, either.
He is very old and frail. His job is to make it through the day, now. I bring him to his doctor from time to time. I am always in a rush to return to work. He likes to get a donut and coffee when it is done, and we linger for a long moment before I return him to his home. We speak of everything and nothing.
I asked him about my Grandfather, about whom I know an extra portion of nothing — although my youngest son carries his name. My Father answered in an off-hand way:
His middle name was Joseph. He was in the army for World War One, but in what capacity he did not know. He used to go to Hot Springs, Georgia, to play minor league ball. My father thinks that is where he got his love of baseball, as my grandfather would never miss an opportunity to listen to the baseball game on the radio with him. Like many of his brethren, he was both kind and tough. My Father would go to the American Legion meetings with him as a child, and they would clean the hall when it was over to make a few pennies. They were very poor, and my father had six sisters and a brother. There were two stepbrothers, too.
He worked for the City of Boston, in a parking garage for all the city vehicles. My father remembered the exact address, although it has been 69 years since he was there. He said he would visit him there, and my Father could remember the fine soot, tainted with lead from the gasoline, settled in little drifts and riming the windows like some black frost from the underworld.
When my father was about sixteen years old, he heard his mother shriek, and ran to help her. His father was there, dead in his chair in his bedroom, clutching his chest where the heart attack had done its work. It was 1937. In 1938, Boston began giving insurance pensions to the families of city workers who died. After 1938.
My father sold newspapers on the corner, and gave the money to his mother. He said he sort of looked for his Father in every man he ever met after that. He never appeared.
My Father needed to put his hand in mine yesterday, and I helped him to walk to our destination. He’s barely a shadow now, though his mind is not dimmed. He said I was a comfort to him, though in my heart of hearts I know I have always been a poor son.
I don’t know him.