My father paid us a visit last week. This would not be news except that my father, who is 70 years old and a certifiable homebody, had not visited us since we were married 6 1/2 years ago and had given no indication that he would ever do so. Then, quite from out of the blue, he called to announce his impending arrival, and suddenly he was parking his shiny little car in front of our house. Now that he has gone, we still cannot figure out what caused him to make the trip after so many years of adamant refusal; but what is certain is that his visit taught me more about myself than I ever could have expected.
For the first 3 1/2 years of our marriage, we had no reasonable hope of luring him to our house. We were living in Miami, a city he detests; attending our wedding in that place was a grand gesture, and clearly one not expected to be repeated. But Baltimore, where we have lived since December 1978, is another matter altogether. Baltimore is where my father began as a boy and ended as a man; he lived there from 1913, when he was two years old, until 1934, when he was graduated from the Johns Hopkins University. Among my earliest memories are his stories of life in old Balamer, stories always told with affection and pleasure.
Actually, when my father says he grew up in Baltimore, he stretches, as he is apt to do, a point. He grew up in a little town called Catonsville, just outside the city's southwestern border. His father, Thomas Henry Yardley, was an Episcopal minister who brought his family south from Massachusetts in 1913; he had been called, or whatever the term is that we Episcopalians employ, to St. Timothy's Church in Catonsville. Baltimore was half an hour away by trolley; my father made the trip often, especially after he enrolled in the Boys Latin School, north of downtown near the old B&O railway station.
Catonsville now is just another of Baltimore's countless small suburbs, scarcely distinguishable from Arbutus or Essex or Cockeysville. Yet St. Timothy's is still there, and so, too, is the house in which my father was raised. Like his own sons and daughters, he grew up in a house owned by an institution: he in the St. Tim's rectory, the four of us in the rectory of an Episcopal school for girls in Virginia. Yet walking into the room where you slept as a child, especially if you have not done so for many years, is a powerful experience no matter who owned the house; it always is for me, and it clearly was on this occasion for my father.
It must have been a wonderful house to grow up in. Built perhaps a century and a quarter ago, it is a rambling frame house with large rooms (though my father kept grumbling, "It seems small to me now"), high ceilings, tall windows and a big yard filled with trees to climb and spaces for games. The public elementary school that my father attended is right down the yard and across the street; my father said it then seemed to him a long and venturesome trek. The Patapsco River is not too far away; my father told me that he used to go fishing there -- a piece of utterly astonishing information, since my father is the least sporting of men.
I had never before seen the house or the church or the yard, and it was a revelation. Looking at the third-floor window from which my father looked out onto the world, I connected him with myself, with the boy who gazed out of his own third-floor windows in suburban New York and then rural Virginia. Being in the exact place where my father had been as a boy, I realized how strikingly similar our childhoods had been and how strikingly similar we are as adults.
Most of my life I have been closer to my mother. My father and I have always loved each other and have always been friends, but we rarely have been intimate with each other. That is our nature; we are affectionate people, but we keep a certain distance. When I was a boy, my father correctly believed that his job was to be a father, not a "pal." Only rarely did we do together those things that sentimental American tradition says father and son are supposed to do. The only time my father took me to a baseball game was sheer agony for him, and he was foolish enough to make it a doubleheader; I was never a Cub Scout and he was never a Den Father, and thank God for that.
But I tend as a result not always to see the line of familial succession quite as clearly as I should -- to forget more often than I should that I am shaped in his image. This has been compounded by the physical distance that has been between us for most of my life; I was sent off to boarding school at the age of 11 and, save for summer vacations in the subsequent eight or nine years, was rarely around the house. Neither of us much likes to write letters, and my father's idea of a telephone conversation is to turn off his hearing aid and deliver a monologue about Richard Nixon or Gerald Ford or Ronald Reagan or whoever is his political be te noire of the moment. In other words, we aren't in touch all that much.
Yet I realized last week as we walked through the old house and drove through the new Baltimore that I am resolutely and everlastingly my father's son. This has something to do with looking alike and sounding alike and thinking alike, but that is only the beginning. The values that he acquired in that old house on Ingleside Avenue are my values; the prejudices that he acquired (and, as is his fashion, that he embellished) are my prejudices. The denomination he was raised in as a boy and ministers in as a man is mine in name only, yet its language and its convictions are my own; why else did I feel, as I walked down the aisle of St. Tim's, that I was in a safe and familiar place?
I do not live in Baltimore because my father did; I live there because the living is cheap and easy and because I love the city. But more and more I realize, especially after last week, how important its family connection is to me. I am sure that is why my father was so eager for me to see the old house and why I was so eager to go. Now more than ever, thanks to my father, I know that when I am in Baltimore, I am at home.