Whether he's protector or pal, paterfamilias or just plain Pop, Dad stands tall in most of our lives.
In honor of Father's Day, four very different takes on fatherhood.
Combe Florey Revisited
Having an impressive father -- in this case, acerbic British novelist Evelyn Waugh -- can be both blessing and curse, as British journalist Auberon Waugh makes clear in Will This Do? An Autobiography (Carroll & Graf, $13.95). Consider this filial observation: "The most terrifying aspect of Evelyn Waugh as a parent was that he reserved the right not just to deny affection to his children but to advertise an acute and unqualified dislike of them. This was always conditional on their own behavior up to a point, and seldom entirely unjustified, but it was disconcerting, nonetheless, to be met by cool statements of total repudiation."
A chip off the old block, the younger Waugh did not crumple under paternal disapprobation. He sees his father's side of things: "Even at the time, I half-suspected that he was aware of the relief we felt when he was away, that his great act of disliking his children and shunning their company was at any rate in part an acknowledgment of his tragic inability to relax with them." Life at the various family enclaves -- Pixton, Piers Court, Combe Florey -- dealing with Evelyn's funks and whimsies was excellent training for the brutalities of English literary life. Auberon went on to distinguish himself as a journalist, critic and novelist; he edits London's Literary Review and is a staunch and lively regular in the pages of the Daily Telegraph.
He brings a remarkably tolerant sense of humor to his memories of his father and their early interactions: "My first holiday from All Hallows at Easter of 1946 was marked by the third major debacle (after the jam tarts episode and the zoo) in relations between myself and the august author of my being. This was the Great Lavery Scandal . . . It was represented to me at the time as something very akin to parricide."
Even a father as undemonstrative as Evelyn Waugh might wipe away a furtive tear at receiving this encomium from his oldest son: "He was a master of farcical invention; anything pompous or false would be turned on its head, magnified a thousand times and reduced to absurdity, usually by a process of exaggerated agreement. He would invent elaborate fantasies about the neighbours . . . He would train us to make `poop, poop' noises every time we passed by the house of a neighbour called Lady Tubb. But it is impossible to do justice to this fugitive art by quotation, as Boswell proves time and again, and I certainly will not try."
Humorist and essayist Calvin Trillin comes across as the paternal opposite of Evelyn Waugh: dotty about his offspring (two daughters, Abigail and Sarah) if not always sure what to do with them. "Although I have a hazy memory of what my kids were like when they were tiny, I can't for the life of me remember what I said to them," he writes in Family Man (Farrar Straus Giroux, $11). "That is particularly true of what are now commonly referred to as the vital first few months of life. At the time, I didn't realize that they were in the vital first few months of life. If I had, I would have taken notes."
Though his daughters are now grown, he still frets. He reads about the White House Conference on Early Childhood Development and its stress on stimulating brain development before the age of 3: "This business about synapses struck me as the sort of finding that could have been designed to add to the concerns of those older parents who already spend some uncomfortable time . . . thinking of ways that they may have shortchanged their children. . . . Now, as they toss and turn, they can envision their children trying to compete in a global economy with reduced brainpower."
Trillin finds small comfort in his memory of late-night diaper changes: "It was starting to come back to me. When trying to lull them back to sleep, I remembered, I hadn't recited The Canterbury Tales; I had sung an old World War II ditty called `If I Had It to Do All Over Again, I'd Do It All Over You.' It had seemed more appropriate at the time."
From synapse development to diaper-changing tables in men's rooms, from the family's annual Thanksgiving Chinatown feast to their summers in Nova Scotia, Trillin offers up wry musings on his experiences as husband and father, reminding readers not to take him too seriously. "Handing out advice on family matters is not my game. When I'm asked by new parents for tips on child rearing -- this happens regularly to anyone whose children have managed to grow up without doing any jail time -- I've usually said, `Try to get one that doesn't spit up. Otherwise you're on your own.' "
The General's Daughter
Forget diaper changing: Just by acknowledging her, Mary Rice Hayes Allen's father broke with the parenting conventions of his time. Gen. Jones was a former Confederate officer; Mary was his child by Malinda Rice, a young black woman who in the 1870s joined the general's household as his wife's maid. Freedom's Child: The Story of My Mother, a Confederate General's Black Daughter, by their granddaughter Carrie Allen McCray (Penguin, $12.95), tells the tale.
Carrie McCray learned about her grandfather from her mother's close friend Anne Spencer, a poet, whom McCray called Aun' Tannie. The general taught his daughter to read "and was proud of her quickness in learning. He also taught her to love poetry." But his most dramatic act as a parent was publicly acknowledging their kinship. Once, taking his daughter out for ice cream, "Mary's father heard a white man whisper, `That's his little [epithet] bastard,' so he went over and knocked the man off the ice-cream parlor stool. Aun' Tannie clearly enjoyed telling this story. But then in a more serious tone she described Mary's situation as `a mixed blessing.' She was sometimes called such names by Negroes as well as by whites, and Mary was troubled by the fact that her father never took her darker-skinned brother, Willie, whom Mary adored, with them. Aun' Tannie believed that was one of the reasons Mary staged her first protest when she was just twelve years old" -- a protest that would turn into an adult career as an activist.
The Power of One
Maybe One: A Case for Smaller Families, by Bill McKibben (Plume, $12.95), takes fatherhood -- both his own and humanity's in general -- very seriously indeed. For him the most basic question is, How many is enough? For McKibben and his wife, the answer was one. An environmental writer (among his books is The End of Nature), McKibben keenly felt "the physical facts of a planet with 6 billion people that may soon nearly double their numbers, a planet that grows hotter, stormier, and less stable by the day, a planet where huge swaths of God's creatures are being wiped out by the one species told to tend this particular garden."
Was childlessness the answer? The pull to procreate was too strong. Having one daughter, Sophie, answered both the biological urge and the need to feel connected to something outside themselves. "I have one child," McKibben writes, "she is the light of my life; she makes me care more about the future than I used to. And I have one child; so even after my work I have some time left, and some money left, and some energy left, to do other things. I get to work on Adirondack conservation issues, and assist those who are fighting global warming; I've helped my wife start a new school in our town . . . "
Not an attack on those who opt for larger families, not a plea for government regulation of family size, Maybe One just asks us to think about it. "All I'm saying is that we live at a watershed moment in our ecological history when we need at least to consider this question, a question that we almost never talk about. We have dozens of books about how to raise children, where to send them to college, even what to name them; this is no less practical a topic."
Though his unrelenting earnestness can be a little dreary, McKibben clearly means well, and he has some thought-provoking things to say. There's a personal as well as political concern at work here: a father's love for his daughter. "I wanted to make sure that growing up without brothers and sisters would not damage her spirit or her mind. That's why the first chapters of this book have nothing to do with the environment and everything to do with kids." Onlies (and their parents) will be happy to know that, contrary to popular opinion, they're not maladjusted, spoiled or socially disadvantaged at all, and "on most measures of achievement and personality, they score slightly better than other children." Thanks, Mom and Dad.
Jennifer Howard's e-mail address is email@example.com.