Several years ago I taught my son how to ride a bike on a wide trail that runs through the woods near our home. Over and over I sprinted behind him down the path with my hand on the small of his back as he pedaled and coasted and wobbled and dipped. It was awkward, because I was both slightly pushing him forward and trying to hold him up — to both keep him going and keep him from falling, pushing him away, yet holding on to him. I kept yelling out instructions to prevent a fall, but he didn't hear them. Finally he yelled back at me, something I had once yelled at my Dad: "Let go. Let go."
Most parents live in this paradox: We are trying to hold on to our children even while letting them go. Yet we are still children ourselves, who still hear our parents' voices (often within our own). These themes are artfully addressed in a new memoir and a new poetry collection about the joys and struggles of fatherhood.
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Poet Todd Davis wrote "In the Kingdom of the Ditch" in the shadow of his own father's death from cancer, so readers can feel the darkness of loss. Yet Davis also writes from the soft light of his two sons' adolescence, as they grow into adulthood. Somehow this in-between point of view works well, as it leads the reader deeper into the difficult gifts of being a father.
In a poem titled "What I Told My Sons after My Father Died" Davis writes:
My father taught me the names for trees,
which in turn I've taught my sons.
That's what it was like after he stopped breathing.
A bee disappears down the flower's mouth.
Although we can't see it, the bee's still there.
Since Davis also is a naturalist who knows well the Pennsylvania landscape where he lives, his poetry also often addresses the human animal's role in nature. As readers encounter the ordinary miracles that Davis reveals as both father and son within "the kingdom of the ditch," they also are reminded that the human is not apart from nature but a part of it. In these poems death is not only separation, or "the end," but also marks the human species' inherent relatedness to the whole of creation.
"The cord that binds us to this world frays and unravels," Davis writes. All things die and fall apart, but the parts go on. Death is also a kind of beginning. He mines this theme in this excerpt from his poem "Consciousness: An Assay"
We move toward absence: sound of wind
in leafless trees, the last dragonfly sliding
around our heads. To the left a pileated
woodpecker knocks on the door of a sassafras.
Whether we enter or stay doesn't matter:
doomsayers will continue their chant
about final things.
Water continues to run
at the south end of the pond endlessly
remade, a stream that falls away into the hollow,
persisting in its course before losing itself
in yet another stream.
Though we may "move toward absence," as Davis writes, these poems somehow preserve the presence of a father, and the fragile but essential continuity of a family.
John T. Price's new memoir, "Daddy Long Legs: The Natural Education of a Father," is a nice complement to Davis' poetry. With his Midwestern humility and humor, Price also explores the joys and trials of fatherhood. And like Davis, he also is a nature writer who is deeply rooted on home ground, which in this case is Iowa, "the most ecologically decimated state in the union." Once certain he would flee the state when he finished college, he and his wife instead grew to love it and to raise a family there. They have three young boys, who figure prominently in the book.
Like many people, Price is overwhelmed with work, a shortage of money and the responsibilities that come with being a parent and a spouse. But after he suffers a heart attack scare, his wife encourages him to rethink his priorities, to let go of his drivenness and cynicism, and to live with more gratitude — for his marriage, his family and his friends. This is easier said than done, yet the reason the book is so engaging is that Price, like the rest of us, never quite gets it right. He's honest and funny. Here is a typical chapter opening: "There comes a time in a man's life when he doesn't want to open the door to his car and find a pile of mouse turds in the driver's seat."
Price later finds out that his wife and sons had live-trapped two mice in the house, and while they were taking them elsewhere in the car, the mice had escaped. But Price's family forgot to tell dad that two mice now were living in his car.
Such stories are common, as this is an animal- and insect-loving family. The boys have a pet brown recluse spider (i.e., very poisonous) and have declared their house and yard a "No Kill Zone," meaning no insects or animals may be killed. This "law" gives rise to all kinds of humorous moral dilemmas.
Against these stories of his immediate family Price also explores the larger context of his own childhood and familial roots in Iowa. His parents still live in his hometown, Fort Dodge, and he often brings his sons to visit.
It is there, at book's end, when Price's grandmother dies, that childhood and parenthood converge. In that moment of death and loss, the same "move toward absence" that Davis describes, Price brilliantly depicts the gift of letting go, of continuity, by revealing the resilient presence of his own family/childhood. He watches his sons sitting around the same huge maple tree where he sat as a boy and remembers a time when he "had yet to appreciate the gap between aspiration and reality" and "had not yet relinquished courage and hope." This memory is a great comfort. It seems to both sustain him — to hold him up — and to push him forward into the future perils of fatherhood.
Tom Montgomery Fate is a professor of English at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. He is the author of "Cabin Fever: A Suburban Father's Search for the Wild."
Daddy Long Legs
By John T. Price, Trumpeter Books, 224 pages, $14.95 paperback
In the Kingdom of the Ditch
By Todd Davis, Michigan State University Press, 112 pages, $19.95 paperbackCopyright © 2015, CT Now