FATHERS


This weekend we honor our fathers. As in the case of mothers, it is a shame to remember our progenitors only one day a year. For good or bad, our memories of parents obviously vary from person to person. Do we ever get what we want or deserve in a single person? I don’t think so. Nobody is perfect, and it would be a strange world if they were. We all have our little quirks and foibles like it or not.

This is an excerpt from Steve Martin’s book “Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life”. Steve Martin happens to be a favorite of mine, so it was a pleasure to read a little of his story.

Steve Martin
Steve Martin

“My father,—died in 1997 at age eighty-three, and afterward his friends told me how much they loved him. They told me how enjoyable he was, how outgoing he was, how funny and caring he was. I was surprised by these descriptions, because the number of funny or caring words that had passed between my father and me was few. — When I was seven or eight years old, he suggested we play catch in the front yard. This offer to spend time together was so rare that I was confused about what I was supposed to do. We tossed the ball back and forth with cheerless formality.

My father was not impressed with my comedy act. After my first appearance on Saturday Night Live, he wrote a bad review of me in his newsletter for the Newport Beach Association of Realtors, of which he was president. “His performance did nothing to further his career.’ I believe my father didn’t like what I was doing in my work, and was embarrassed by it. Perhaps he thought his friends were embarrassed by it, too, and the review was to indicate that he was not sanctioning this new comedy. Later, he gave an interview in a newspaper in which he said, ‘I think Saturday Night Live is the most horrible thing on television.’ But as my career progressed, I noticed that my father remained uncomplimentary toward my comedy, and what I did about it still makes sense to me. I never discussed my work with him.

Years later, just before my father’s death, I was alone with him in his bedroom; his mind was alert but his body was failing. He said, almost buoyantly, ‘I’m ready now.’ I sat on the edge of the bed, and a silence fell over us. Then he said, ‘I wish I could cry, I wish I could cry.’

At first, I took this as a comment on his condition, but am forever thankful that I pushed on. ‘What do you want to cry about?’ I said.

“For all the love I received but couldn’t return.’

I felt a chill of familiarity.

There was another lengthy silence as we looked into each other’s eyes. At last, he said, ‘You did everything I wanted to do.’

‘I did it for you,’ I said. Then we wept for the lost years. I was glad I didn’t say the more complicated truth; ‘I did it because of you.’

ON SUNDAYS


rice paddy

ON SUNDAYS

On Sundays students who can afford to,
take English lessons to work

for parents who work
in English because English

is where the money is. But
she doesn’t teach English, Sundays

she walks two miles deeper
from the building, where she lives

with other teachers, to find
students weaving bamboo baskets

while watching younger siblings, then
walks between rice fields to

rice fields to find their parents.
And waits. At break or lunch

under a tree, she listens to them
say, the words don’t feed

the stomach. Yet she comes
so that by evening, when they arrive

home, they find her in the yard
drawing words on the dirt

while students work and watch
and say. Then they eat dinner.

Over rice and yam, boiled water
cress and salted radish, they find

other things that feed the stomach:
the height she’s gained with mud

sticking to her thongs; or, as the children
say it, their heads thrown back

in open-mouth laugh, the bamboo snapped
at her weaving; or the way “l”

is tall and skinny, and then “b”
is “l” with their father’s stomach. Soon

her students come to class
because the teacher is nice

and parents don’t want her
to walk so far on Sundays.

(Poem by Nhan Trinh)