Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Coming Home

You know about baby Emperor Penguins, right? While they are still in the egg, their dads tuck them into a pouch between their feet to protect them from the howling cold while mom goes hunting. Not some quick dip in the ocean, but a terrible trek over sixty miles of ice to get to the sea. By the time she returns, months have passed. Poor old dad has had nothing to eat. The baby has been born, and he’s hungry too. Mom takes over, feeding the chick and tucking him into her pouch, while dad goes out for fish and chips. If he makes it back alive, he and mom work together for months more to protect and feed their baby.

After all that, what does junior do? As soon as he is able, he ditches his parents to hang with his homies. Ungrateful? Maybe. But by then his folks are probably relieved to have a little time to themselves. As Mark Twain (I think) said:  By the time a boy reaches eighteen and goes off to college, his parents are ready for him to go.

Here’s my question: Do you think that penguin son ever comes back home? Does he see his parents again? When he grows up, does he know them? Do they know him?

Are we the only species in which children return home when their parents are old and dying to hold their hands and ask for (and offer) forgiveness? Why do we do that? Is it for the other that we make that emotional journey, or for ourselves?

And what about the time in between? After we get over our fierce need for independence, and the pushing away of parents as young adults that so often goes with that, how does one be a grown-up son? Or a father to a grown-up daughter?

My own father died when I was twenty-eight. One of my great regrets (besides sadness for him) is that I didn’t get to know him as an adult. Our relationship had just started to change, to mature, and then he was gone. I don’t know how I would have seen him as I got older, or how he would have seen me. I don't know what we would have said to one another. Some days I think I might write a novel about an imagined adult relationship with him.

My daughter, Ashley, came up from Los Angeles to visit Meg and me in Santa Barbara recently. Ashley is a grown woman now. She and her older brothers are all older than I think of myself as being. I have Chris and Nick, who are still in college, to offer me the illusion that I am still a young man, no older than my own father was when I went off to college. I know how to relate to kids in college. When they get past twenty-eight, I’m making it up as I go.

The pool shark and me
During her visit, Ash and I played pool. She’s good. She gets on hot streaks and runs six or eight balls in a row. Then, spurred on, I might get lucky and do the same. We compete without competing, in that way I have always played games with my children. A little friendly trash talk, but no blood.

After pool, we scrapped paint off window glass. Meg and I had just had some touch-up painting done, and the painters had gotten paint on the glass of the French doors. Ashley and I share a little obsessive streak; to us messy paint is a festering wound that demands attention. She got out a razor blade and started scraping. For variety, she went around the house and spotted places where the new paint did not blend well into the old and I feathered it in.

It made me think about the things we share with our children as they grow up. We know each other well, of course, our habits and eccentricities; we can still annoy the heck out of one another with little conscious effort. But there is a comfort in being around someone who is so like you, who is literally part of you. Shared experiences and shared genes. For better or worse, there is no one more like you.

The windows came out looking great, naturally. Like her dad, Ashley is a perfectionist, an opportunist of sorts, stopping along life’s path to reach down and pick up exquisitely formed stones from among the gravel. We shared time together over other simple tasks that meant nothing and, at the same time, meant everything. We talked about our lives, what we were doing, what we were happy about and what we wished were better, but it was the time we spent quietly in familiar ritual that felt the most like love.

I wonder whether grown-up penguin sons stand next to their dads while they shelter their own young, whether adult penguin daughters trudge across the frozen tundra with their moms to plunge together into the icy water to fish. Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether they know each other. They share habits and instincts passed along from one generation to the next, and there is comfort in that for any parent and child.


  1. Very nice.
    And I'm pretty sure this country wouldn't be in the cultural and economic mess it's in if Dad were around to bark at everybody when necessary.
    One drop of his fork on his plate would go a long way!

  2. What can I say...from what I've come to know about Meg over just the past 6 months, and what I've read of some of your blog posts...the two of you are sooo perfect for one another! And *that* is a Very. Good. Thing :~)