Arts : The things he carried

When I was a child my father could lift anything: a refrigerator, a tree stump, the front end of our Mazda. One summer I recall wrestling my brother on our front lawn in Sacramento. Apparently, the spectacle degraded my father’s sense of propriety, for suddenly Dad’s Nikes appeared on either side of my head. Then we were flying. My father had picked us up and tossed us apart with one hand each.

Herbert F. Freeman, Sr., the writer’s grandfather, who served as California’s comptroller under Governor Ronald Reagan.

Even into my teens, when I began to tower over my father, I found his strength frightening. He never hit us with a closed fist, but he was no stranger to a beating. Most of the time they made sense. Every now and then, though, they didn’t, and I would spend my night sulking until my mother came into my room to explain and win my forgiveness. He had a lot to worry about, my mother explained as she stroked my head. There was the usual dad stuff, like finances and work. My father was a chief executive and his job frequently followed him home. If I heard him talking to my mother about it I knew his mood would improve. But if my brothers and I encountered him first we’d get questions: Have you done your homework? Did you collect for the paper route yet?

Most of all, the thing my mother mentioned as being on my father’s my mind was his own father — which was understandable since my grandfather was an imposing figure. Born into poverty in San Francisco after the great earthquake, he had worked his way through UC Berkeley, earned a master’s during the Great Depression, and crawled up the bureaucratic ladder to be the comptroller of the state of California when Reagan was governor. This shadow fell hard on my father because Dad had been a screw-off as a teenager. While his father worked and his brother studied to be an Eagle Scout, Dad drank and partied. And yet he never got in trouble. His father just didn’t care enough to discipline him, Dad told us in ruminative moments. So he kept on playing football and driving his hot Ford V-8.

Then, upon entering adulthood, something happened to my father. He got serious. He graduated from Berkeley and went on to seminary, ultimately taking a Master’s in social work from Case Western, where he met my mother. In four years they had three kids, moving from Ohio to New York to Pennsylvania. I think my grandfather, who was traveling the world in retirement, visited us twice during this decade. Eventually a job brought our whole family back to Sacramento. Suddenly, we were living right under grandpa’s wing — and this shadowy figure came into sharper focus. I was surprised to find him a kind, chuckling old fellow who would show up at my track meets and give me Sage Advice. Save your money. Enjoy your studies. He was like a walking Poor Richard’s Almanack. But to my father he was a colossus, who three or four times a year would reduce himself to human size to squeeze into our living room. If my mother’s conversations didn’t impart this, my father’s commentary certainly did. He talked about how my grandfather never gave him the support he needed. How he was so aloof my father wondered why Grandpa had children in the first place.

I wasn’t surprised, then, when, after 10 years in California, my parents decided to relocate — again — to central New York. This was my mother’s part of the world, and that seemed to relax my father. Driving at dusk, we would crest a hill and suddenly there would be the whole Mohawk Valley, laid out before us. “Isn’t this just beautiful,” Dad would say, taking his foot off the gas so he could look at the surrounding dairy farms. It was, but the important thing was it wasn’t Sacramento.

I was beginning to think I, too, was from New York, until my grandfather died this March. He was 97. All of us assumed he would live to be 100, as if by force of will and careful organization of his body’s vigor he could reach the century mark. But he took a fall and never healed. I had just thought about sending him a postcard from the Middle East, where I was vacationing. But I held off — I didn’t have his address with me. Then my father called. My girlfriend and I flew out to San Francisco and drove in to Sacramento on I-5, passing over the tiny foothills that used to seem endless but now are covered with brand-new commuter towns. The service was short and starchy. The organs played hymns like “How Great Thou Art” and “Rock of Ages.” From the pastor, I learned the church we were in — the one I had attended growing up — had been designed and built by my grandfather. These were his pews, the audience his colleagues.

At last my father stood up to say a few words. My older brother and I turned to each other, thinking, Here we go. But as it turns out we had nothing to worry about, for grief had chiseled all the anger off my father, leaving not the best of him, but the best for this moment. He offered condolences to my grandfather’s third wife, thanked my uncle for caring for Grandpa until the end. He then proceeded to honor what my grandfather had accomplished by regarding him unblinkingly, as he knew him, without blaming Grandpa for being the father he tried so hard to be himself. Of all the things I have seen my father lift and carry, this was the feat of strength which impressed me the most. Here was his life’s burden aloft, over his head, for about 12-and a-half minutes. It might as well have been the world itself.

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