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Parini: On Fathering

For more than thirty years, I’ve had a kid at home – the last one leaves for UVM this fall – and I am starting to wonder if I will, in fact, begin to ask myself what I’ve been doing all this time.

We get into fatherhood for obvious reasons, probably related to the nesting instinct. Every year I watch the swallows on our porch as they nest. They begin with a fury, bringing the bits and pieces of straw and mud to exactly the same spot where we’ve previously knocked out their nests after the birds flew away. We watch the babies hatch, see them go, and wonder how they all made out. Are they the same ones who return the next year with more straw and mud?

Are we, like them, condemned to repeat this cycle?

In my classes at Middlebury College, I often talk about the word generation. In his poem “Jerusalem,” William Blake, the great English poet, wrote: “O holy generation, image of regeneration.” He was thinking of generation in its root sense, traced back to Greek and Latin, where “gens” means people. Hence, genealogy, gender, genocide, progeny, and – of course -- genitals.

Probably Father’s Day and Mother’s Day should fall on the same day, as it’s hard to imagine one without the other. Generation requires a mix of genders, male and female, unless we ramp up our efforts to clone human beings, and I’m not seeing that as something near to hand, but who knows?

In the meantime, as I think about the work I’ve done as a father, I look for an example to the person nearest at hand, my own father, who died over a decades ago.

Leo Parini was born from Italian immigrants, one of five children: Nello, Leo, Antonio, Julio, and Geno: what in poetry we might call a rhyming quintet. Then again, in Italian, even the phone book rhymes.

Leo left school early, to help support the family. He eventually made his way through a succession of odd jobs – bean pickers, gas station attendant, roller skate repairman, and so forth – to become, in later life, a Baptist minister, leaving his Roman Catholic origins behind. He was a kind and gentle man: that word gentle has root-associations with the word gens as well.

One hopes, sometimes, that the good things follow the generations, and that gentleness survives – from grandfathers and fathers to children, on and on. I often think of some lines from the poem “April Inventory” by W.D. Snodgrass, about the passing of seasons and lives. In the last marvelous stanza, he writes: “Though trees turn bare and girls turn wives, / We shall afford our costly season; / There is a gentleness survives / That will outspeak and has its reasons.”

This year, that’s my only Father’s Day wish: that a gentleness survives, from generation to generation.

Jay Parini is a poet and novelist, and the D. E. Axinn Professor of English & Creative Writing at Middlebury College.
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