Fathers and Sons

BY Scott Casleton |

My dad is wearing his Beercat shorts today. He is 68, retired, and very fond of recalling his college days when his touch football team,The Beercats, would stomp up and down the midwest playing in tournaments. I have heard these stories many times, but this is the first time in about five years that I have seen my dad strut around the house in his shorts. He has just finished a two-mile run. His legs look powerful. He has a towel thrown over his shoulder and he sips from a sweating glass of water. This image of vitality makes aging seem less threatening to me. 

I observe him from the couch, looking up from my book—Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev. Having spent most of this past year alone, contemplating my receding hairline and my aching knees, I am newly attentive to the marks of age. I moved back in with my parents three months ago. Now, I no longer contemplate only my own movement through time. Whatever dread I felt six months ago, I am now convinced, was less a product of my aging as it was a side effect of aging in isolation. Now, the signs of advancing years have taken on a certain sweetness. Sitting at the dinner table, carving up a pork chop, I notice my dad’s hands have come to resemble my late grandpa’s. The wrinkles have deepened and the skin seems slightly waxen. 

We share our meals—me, my dad, and my stepmom—more regularly now than ever before. They are retired, I am working remotely. We have breakfast, lunch, and dinner together, one day after another. There is never any rush. It is in this idle, homely routine that I have begun to wonder at the normalities of our family life. Why is a baked ham the delicacy of choice in our household? Are you supposed to make a ham during a certain time of year, like a turkey at Thanksgiving? And who taught my stepmom to bake a ham in such terrific fashion, anyhow? 

I have never devoted much thought to my relationship with my parents, in part because our life always appeared preeminently normal. It was only in college when, in a philosophy class, the professor asked us to consider why we owe our parents gratitude, or support, given that we never agreed to accept benefits from them in the first place. The question struck me with such force because it had become a live question for me: Why should I devote time and energy to my family when I could make off like a bandit, diploma in hand?

Unsurprisingly, these thoughts would crowd in on me most pressingly when preparing for a trip home. I felt, at times, an outsized sense of conflict between who I had been and who I was becoming. Now, I am home unexpectedly and for a much longer period of time than ever before. This time, I am glad to lay on the couch for a bit and listen to Pro Football Talk on the television. 

But I cannot think about pro football for an entire day, let alone months. Inevitably, my mind wanders. Having come home, I think about coming home. It is one thing to come home after a daring voyage, like Ulysses, but it is quite another to return home after you have, ostensibly, moved out for good. Given enough time, the body adjusts to inhabiting old spaces, like childhood rooms. But the mind has a much more difficult time fitting itself into the cramped passageways of its past. 

I am sure this is not a novel thought. In fact, I know I have encountered this problem before, in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, which I finally hunted down only after visiting four suburban book stores. I had lost my college copy, but I felt compelled to read it again while at home. The book tells the story of two Russian university graduates who return to the countryside, and to their families, after completing their degrees. Arkady, the wistful and pensive protagonist, invites his brilliant but domineering chum, Bazarov, to meet his parents before returning to his own home. 

What I notice now, re-reading Turgenev supine on my parents’ couch, is the absence of any plan or purpose for these young men’s trip home. It is as if they had just been born anew: thrust into the world with no set goal, or at least none yet discerned. This, at least, is how their situation appears to the reader. The narrative structure slowly reveals the different significance that homecoming  carries for each of the two young students. At the start of the novel, Arkady and Bazarov appear equally indifferent to returning home, merely willing to satisfy their parents’ desires to see them in the flesh. But this indifference cannot remain completely intact, not once it is confronted by cloying relatives and tantalizing lovers. For Arkady, indifference softens into affection, and for Bazarov, it hardens into cynicism. 

At the outset, at least, Bazarov’s indifference is at bottom indifference toward his doting parents. In his eyes, the concentrated affection of parents for children is merely an excessively strong emotion, one that impedes the industrious and scientific man; indulging it may please the parents, but it does nothing to promote the progress of humankind, the destruction of outmoded social institutions. This philosophy – or pose, as it sometimes seems – leads Bazarov to disregard his parents’ interests for his own plans. As far as he is concerned, parents are just an arbitrary set of humans, and humans are just animals, and animals are just objects for detached study. Bazarov is as emotionally detached from his parents as he is from the frogs he dissects.

Arkady attempts to follow Bazarov as a disciple follows a teacher, but it becomes clear in short order that Arkady still harbors affection for people and places that Bazarov is determined to despise. We witness Arkady attempting to hide his appreciation for the beauty of the Russian countryside, since beauty is, like a parent’s love, just a distraction from more serious intellectual affairs. But a quarrel finally erupts between the two men after Bazarov offhandedly remarks that everything but mathematics is nonsense. Arkady gazes into the distance, looking upon the fields shimmering in the “beautiful light of the sun,” and asks his friend:

“And is nature a load of nonsense?”

“Nature too is nonsense” replies Bazarov, “in your meaning of the word nature. Nature isn’t a temple but a workshop, and man is a workman in it.” 

Arkady cannot live long under the tutelage of a teacher with such pulverizing attitudes. He drifts from his friend, and this drift sets him off looking within himself for direction. Is this trip home merely a diversion from the serious business of life, or might the countryside offer the possibility of continuity with family and tradition? Thankfully, Arkady is not guided by Bazarov’s calculating standard of what service each person and activity must render to the progress of humankind. He is, instead, guided by his personal sympathies and love of the natural world.

Arkady’s love for naturalistic beauty unites him with his father. Arkady’s father finds comfort in the natural world in the way another Russian might be comforted by the mysteries of the Orthodox Church. I myself feel similarly moved by nature, living at home during the greening of spring. Neither my dad nor I have been to church in a while, but we have sat out on the patio in the silence of a late spring afternoon and watched the birds visit the feeders. When a particularly pleasing birdsong chimes in the distance, my dad will identify the bird, helping me out of my wordless inability to know it in its beauty. It is not the Russian countryside, but our suburban side yard offers its own gifts of peace. 

My trouble is I am not always at peace in our Arcadian side yard. I know that Freud and Plato theorized a mind, or soul, of three parts, but two is plenty for me: I have an Arkady part of my mind, and a Bazarov as well. They have both come home together. 

They would both like to have their say about the local customs and landscape of the sprawling midwestern expanse that stretches out from Chicago into the surrounding farmlands. Where I am, there are tiny, presentable lawns tended by quiet, dependable people who, when they are not spreading mulch or mowing the grass, seem to hide inside their homes. It is certainly dull. What is worse, it can all seem extremely superficial, as if appearances are only kept up for appearance’s sake. 

I know this is not true, though—at least not for everyone. Summers growing up, usually as a service to raise money for church, I would stick a pitch fork into some stinking pile of mulch, heave it into a wheelbarrow, and dispense it first here and then there, until the homeowner directing me was satisfied. I was lending a hand in the yearly yard upkeep, something satisfying for its own sake, whatever the neighbors might think. Now I take my daily pandemic get-out-of-the-house walks, the suburbs emerging from the grip of winter, and I see the bright mulch appearing and spreading as if by some unseen hand. I could just as well have been spreading it for them, ten years ago. 

I return from one of these walks, thinking about the bright red mulch a few houses down, and my dad is in the side yard talking to my step mom. They are talking about some low quality mulch that’s been spread by the neighbors—it’s not going to last long, and then they will have to put more on top of it, and then it will start to form an ugly moundish shape under the trees. Evidently, this is because of the kind of wood the mulch has been made from, explains my dad, although I am sure my stepmom does not need this explained to her. My first thought upon learning this fact about mulch quality is: Good god, there are so many things I do not know. 

But I cannot waste time lamenting my ignorance, as my dad quickly recruits me to help him move a young tree from one side of the yard to the other, near the street where an old tree is dying. He has the young tree mostly dug up and needs help lifting it into a wheelbarrow, taking care not to break up the dirt clumped around its roots. As I grab a shovel to scoop under the tree’s roots, I am informed about this tree, what kind it is and where it is from. I do not remember any of this information because I am thinking instead about the red color of the wheelbarrow and the blue of my dad’s windbreaker and the devotion he is showing this yard project. 

I am determined to remember this moment in time, even if it means letting some arboreal facts escape me. It seems to me unthinkable that this year could have turned out in any other way, as if I were meant to be here. I know this is absurd, though, my coming home to help in the yard being the product of the largest series of mistakes and calamities I will (probably) see in my lifetime. And yet this cannot put off my feeling, standing here in the sun with my healthy dad of almost 70, that somehow a horizon is opening up in front of me that seemed just a few months ago dark and clouded over. 

When we wheel the tree near the street, he points to yellow lines spray painted on the grass, extending about fifty yards. I had wondered about those. Turns out, he had called the utilities company to mark the gas line, so as to avoid, I suppose, digging in the wrong spot and blowing us all to smithereens. I filed this away with the things I would never have thought of, with the low quality mulch. For this new tree, my dad has prepared a hole of about eighteen inches across and maybe eight inches deep. We lift the tree and set it in, together. 

The transfer is clean, with the dirt staying clumped at the roots, and the entire thing fitting neatly into the hole. “Look at that!” My dad says. “Now, just one more thing.” 

He kneels down and grabs some handfuls of dirt from the wheelbarrow to pack under the tree. He asks me to toss in a couple extra shovelfuls as well. “It is important to make sure you don’t plant it too deep,” he says. This is news to me. I ask why. 

“It won’t grow as well if it’s too deep. The roots won’t grow right if it’s too deep.” 

I look at him and I am glad that I am here and that he has taught me this. 

Scott Casleton, Ph.D. student, Philosophy, southwest suburbs of Chicago, IL.