Category Archives: sons

The truth and memories

Memories may light the corners of our minds, but where there is light there is sure to be shadow. The truth about memories lies less in the past than the present and the projected pasts of futures not yet realized. Memories are often more about the things we desire than the facts we observe or the things we’ve done.  In this sense, (re)membering is something we do in the struggle to be present, a constant process of building a useful world out of bits and pieces that survive in our minds from experience or hearsay. Thus it is that memory has two lives in this world, one a utilitarian form determined by the present and the future, the other a matter of art and emotion in the afterglow of things that are gone forever.

The apple and the tree

One of the great memories of my life is my father singing to me a song that I knew only as “The Kodak Song.” However dim that memory may be, it’s held steady for forty years now, changing little and always bringing a sense of warmth and comfort regardless of the circumstances of my life.

Where are you going, my little one, little one,
Where are you going, my baby, my own?
Turn around and you’re two,
Turn around and you’re four,
Turn around and you’re a young [man] going out of my door.

The song is called “Turn Around” and was written by Harry Belafonte, Malvina Reyonolds and Alan Greene, originally sung for a “young girl going out my door.” Perhaps the most beautiful thing about the song, after its haunting melody, is the way it captures the essential act of remembering the future by filling it with the desire of the present.

It must have been 1967, when we stayed at my grandparents’ house in Monessen, Pennsylvania. He sang the song to me in the bedroom my mother had slept in as a child. That was right after my father left the military service. He always said that the main reason he left the service was that the Army was coming between him and his family, and I believe this is true. Yet it’s also true that 1967 was a very good time to leave the US Army if you could, since the war in Viet Nam was heating up and the rumor among officers was that Viet Nam was a deathtrap. In any event, his commission had expired and he had served all the time the Army had asked of him, so there we were in Monessen, staying with my grandparents while my father figured out what to do with his new civilian life.

He was (and still is) a singer, my father. The Kodak song is my earliest memory of his soothing tenor voice, a voice that I inherited but readily admit is not as good as his. The way he sang the song captured both the marvelous awe of a man watching his three year old son get ready for bed and the inevitable sadness of knowing that the boy would one day walk away to live his own life. I’ve heard that voice from him so many times, and I hear it from my own mouth as well, for as apples go I didn’t fall very fall from the tree.

What we choose to remember

William Faulkner famously wrote that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” That’s because the past is useful. We remember what we want to remember, and we use those memories to shape relationships, to win or survive struggles, to create things both new and old. What we call the study of “history” itself is little more than a formally willful consciousness of past events, and the fact is that regardless of one’s academic training or intentions, we all do “history” from time to time in order to fix up the present the way we want it to be.

As useful as memories are, however, our capacity to remember is ironically limited. In an essay about the meaning of contemporary art in relation to time and history, the Raqs Media Collective sketched the problem like this: “As time passes and we grow more into the contemporary, the reasons for remembering other times grow, while the ability to recall them weakens.” For this simple fact alone, we must choose what to remember and what to forget. Not to choose is not an option, whether we admit or not. For Sigmund Freud and generations of psychologists since (and even some before), what we choose to remember says a lot about who we are. Even if our choices about memory are mostly unconscious, our constructions of memory have consequences.

One effect of how we remember is that some people are left out of history. Others have their stories changed in ways that are damaging and unjust. Memories and histories can turn lies into truths and elevate the emotions of the moment into reasons to cause others great harm. Memory, as it turns out, is as easily an act of violence as it is a beautiful and heart-warming thing.

The story

Not all damage to memory (or history) is bad, however. Thinking about how art contends with the loss of cultures and places, Raqs wrote, “We could say that the ethics of memory have something to do with the urgent negotiation between having to remember (which sometimes includes the obligation to mourn) and the requirement to move on (which sometimes includes the need to forget).”

In this light, any single memory carries with it layers of desire and competing emotions that give it texture and depth. Side by side, our memories impact each other, changing the past again and making it even more difficult to pinpoint true events from times gone by. How I remember my mother’s death affects how I remember my grandmother’s death, even though they happened thirty years apart, and this will affect how I experience death in the future, be it the death of a relative, a friend, or a stranger. When memories fit together with a certain complementarity, they reinforce simpler, more general impressions of past events that become a shorthand for experience and truth, frequently shortchanging both while at the same increasing our capacity to “remember.”

To remember, which seems to us like no work at all, is no such thing. And yet here it is, our memory, providing for us the threads that connect each piece of our lives together into a story. Eric Kandel, reflecting on his life as a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winning biologist and pioneer of memory studies, says that memory “gives us a coherent picture of the past that puts current experience in perspective. The picture may not be rational or accurate, but it persists. Without the binding force or memory, experience would be splintered into as many fragments as there are moments in life.”

Those fragments would be impossible organize without stories, and we write those stories every day of our lives, writing and re-writing not so much to make our lives perfect as to make them livable. In the end, the stories that knit together our memories become the memories themselves, completing the transformations of past into present, present into past, desire into reality.

Notes and Credits

My first camera was a Kodak Instamatic.  It was originally my grandmother’s, and she gave it to me when she got a new one.  I was in the fourth or fifth grade and remember taking pictures of the French Quarter with it on our field trip there.  Somewhere in my house, among my things, are a set of old photographs taken with that camera, but alas in my many moves I have either lost the photographs or have packed them away in some old box stuffed somewhere in a corner of a closet or under my bed.  I looked around for some time, but to no avail.  Likely I will find them not long after publishing this post.

The photograph of me and my father was taken by my mother in 1966 when I was 2 years old.

Faulkner’s “past is never dead” quote is from Reqiuem for a Nun (Random House, 1951).  The Raqs Media Collective is a New Delhi-based multi-media contemporary art group founded in 1992 by Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta. They operate across varied media and are active in the international contemporary art world.  The quotes above are taken from an essay, “Now and Elsewhere,” in the e-flux journal What Is Contemporary Art? (New York:  Sternberg Press, 2010), p. 49.  For the Kandel quote, see p. 10 of his In Search of Memory:  The Emergence of a New Science of Mind (New York:  W. W. Norton, 2006).  An interesting post on the Kodak Song, which helped me gather context for the essay, comes from “Nicholas Stix, Uncensored,” in which he sorts out some mysteries about the song’s authorship and speculation as to who is singing the song in the commercial.

Selling memories is big business. Kodak used the song “Turn Around” to create an iconic television advertisement that itself is a classic memory for many in my and my parents’ generations. Kodak sold their cameras as memory machines, using the flawed but commonplace idea that memory is an act of freezing the present and keeping it, like frozen leftovers in Tupperwares, for some date in the future. A recent advertisement by Disney features families videotaping themselves in the theme park and finishes with the tag line, “Let the Memories Begin.” The time that rewrites every line of our lives is the present.

As I had was collecting ideas for this posting and putting together the initial paragraphs, news broke that that Eastman Kodak, Inc., was filing for bankruptcy.  On June 22, 2009, Kodak stopped making Kodachrome, its legendary film that has filled so many memory books and inspired the classic song by Paul Simon.  The power of Kodak’s product in our society can be seen in the comments on the company’s blog – quite stirring and heartwarming.

There are an endless (or seemingly endless) number of Kodak-related videos on Youtube.  In this one, a woman demonstrates how to use her grandmother’s Kodak Brownie box camera from 1922.  After the company filed for bankruptcy, Time Magazine collected 10 of the most memorable Kodak commercials on its Website.  The memories have piled up, and its striking to consider what a major force Kodak was in the forging of memory for three or four generations of Americans.  At the height of its run, Kodak created a remarkable pavilionfor the New York World’s Fair in 1964.  The photo below was taken by Doug Coldwell and can be found on the Wikimedia Commons.

And now, at long last, I give you Dick Cavett giving you Barbra Streisand.

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Filed under fathers, ideas, life, media, memory, sons, truth

The truth and the bee tree

The bee tree is gone.

It was there, under that tree in April of 2008, that I saw a bee swarm come up in the park.  I’d never seen such a thing before, and it remains to this day a most magical experience.  I was laying on the ground with Duke, my dog, just enjoying a nice warm spring day.  My son, Noel, was playing ball with his friend not too far away.  The bees came up on me and Duke slowly, a few at a time, until they were arriving by the dozens and then hundreds.  They hovered over us but never landed.  The sound of thousands of bee wings in motion covered us, like a blanket, and I felt a warm serenity.  After a while I noticed the bees moving up toward the branches of the tree above us.  There, the bees were swarming around their queen, who was leading the colony away to find a new home.  They shared a part of their journey with us, and we were blessed.

A few weeks ago, in December of 2011, my son and I were walking through the park when we passed the spot where the bee tree was.  In its place, there was only a stump.  It must have been cut down recently, perhaps a result of Hurricane Irene, or maybe disease.  Between the Hurricane, last year’s tornado, and the unexpected Halloween snow storm in 2011, the park had a lot of downed trees to deal with – so much so that the park was giving away the mulch they made from this year’s Christmas trees.  Whatever the reason, the bee tree was no more.

With death comes reflection for those of use who are left behind.  That’s how I felt when we happened upon the stump.  In the time since the bee swarm in 2008, a lot has happened.  About a year later, Duke died, which I chronicled in “The truth and sleeping dogs” on this blog.  We buried some of his ashes in the park, where he had spent so many happy days.  Noel is now in the fourth grade and is a whole lot more of a person than he was then.  His wants and desires are more solid.  His life in the park has grown, too, from birthday parties and piñatas, to baseball and sledding and flag football.  Back in 2006, when he was 4, he saw a racoon on the little hill by the Third Street Playground.  For a year or two, every time we passed that hill he would slow down and hunch up, stopping to say, “Daddy, be quiet, we’re hunting for raccoons!”  He doesn’t say that any more, but he still thinks about it and we were talking about that raccoon just last week.

In that time, I lost a job and spent a little over year doing odd consulting gigs while trying to see if I could reorient my career.  It was a pretty bad crash, but I came out of the better in the end.  The year of searching was a gift, in which for the first time in my life I stopped and simply enjoyed myself.  I started Truth and Rocket Science at this time, in February of 2009 about four months after I stopped working. That summer, I wrote a post called “The truth and Twitter, part 3:  The Swarm,” reflecting on the “swarm culture” that Twitter is producing.  In the post, I brought up the bee tree and added a photograph of it.  That photo gets a lot of hits – if you Google “bee tree” or “bee bee tree,” this photograph is on the first page of images that comes up.  In February 2010, I took a limited contract with an agency providing services to people with HIV and those who are at risk of HIV.  By Christmas the funds were running out and I was about to be laid off when the department director walked off the job and a new career was born.

In the wake of my mother’s death, my father and I have created a new relationship, two men supporting each other against life’s adversities.  I met a wonderful woman who has helped open up my heart in ways I haven’t been used to.  I got up to 7 miles a day running and then herniated a disk in my lower back, which has put me off running for the last 18 months.  With everything else, it left me feeling older and older, approaching 48 now and wondering what it would mean to start thinking of myself as middle-aged.  I spend a lot of time reflecting on my youth and what I’ve done in those other 2 or 3 lives I have led in Ann Arbor, Brazil, South Africa, Rock Island, and the Mississippi Delta, to name a few of my great haunts.  I can go on YouTube and watch videos from the 80s and 90s for hours, remembering all the songs that form the soundtrack of my life.

At this point, the episode under the bee tree seems like a lifetime away.  In the next few years, as I have over the last few, I will pass the bee tree’s place again and again.  It won’t be with Duke, and less and less with Noel as he grows into his own life and starts to spend time in the park without me.  Today I did 2 laps around the park on my bike, smiling as I passed the bee tree stump in the darkening eve.  In the next couple of months I will start running again, and there it will be, a reminder of so many things in life and, at the bottom of it, the day when Duke and Noel and I saw the bees migrating to their new home.

It all brings me back to another place, when I first read Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree in the fourth or fifth grade, in religion class at Catholic school.  A good 35 or 36 years later, my brother gave me his son’s copy of the book to pass on to my son.  The first time I read it to him, I had to choke back tears.  Something profound came over me, like it does sometimes when I’m doing things with my son.  I suddenly see myself in him, or my father in myself.  Time stands still and life takes on new meanings, like light refracted through a prism emerging in many colors on the other side.

I’m not ready to sit on that bee tree’s stump just yet.  I have a few more things to do, but one day I will go to Prospect Park and take a seat there.  I’ll be an old man, and my own son will be grown and maybe with children of his own.  I’ll sit there, and I’ll remember to thank the bee tree for the times we have shared.

The Bee Tree of Prospect Park, RIP 2011

 Notes and Credits

Photographs taken by the author.  The image from The Giving Tree was scanned from my own copy, which was published by Haprer Collins in 1964, the year I was born.  In that frame, the boy sits on the stump.  It’s the last thing the tree could give him, “and the tree was happy.”

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Filed under ageing, death, Duke, fathers, life, Park Slope, sons, truth, youth

10 years later, we remember

The Parkside School, Brooklyn, New York, September 11, 2011

Ten years ago, I went to work early.  I was in the office before 8:00 am.  I taught political science at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.  It was a beautiful blue-sky morning, and I hoped to get a lot of work done.  My wife was in St. Louis on a work trip, so I was on my own.  At some point in the morning, our Administrative Assistant, Jane, came running down the hall and ran into my office.

“A plane crashed into the World Trade Center!”

We went to the seminar room and turned on the television.  Live coverage.  There was the building, with smoke pouring out of it.  Before I saw the pictures, I thought it must a be terrorist – but then once I saw the images I couldn’t believe it was a big plane.  So I thought it was an accident.  Maybe a small plane.  And then, as Jane and I sat there, gape-mouthed and gazing at the television, another plane came into the view and hit the second tower.  That was a big plane, and I couldn’t believe it.

After a bit, I went back to my office and put on the radio.  I was listening to NPR as American Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon.  At this point, I thought we were under attack, at war, and I was terribly afraid of what might be next.  We didn’t know who was doing this, and it was very frightening.

I was able to talk to my wife later that day.  She was stuck at the airport in St. Louis for a day.  She was stuck but okay, and I was relieved to speak with her.  By midday, we knew what had happened, but it was still scary and hard to believe.  A couple weeks later, we found out that she was pregnant.  We were going to have a child.

Ten years on, I spent this anniversary of the attacks in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.  My son, Noel, had his first flag football practice today.  He’s been waiting for this day for a long time – he loves football and so wants to play.  He was incredibly happy, happier than I have seen him in other sports, and it was a joy to watch him play.

While the kids were practicing with Coach Marc, the other dads recounted where they were on September 11, 2001.  One worked just a few blocks from the towers and managed to escape the area as the towers were falling down to the ground.  The other had witnessed attacks from his apartment in Brooklyn, where he had a clean view of the events.  He’d been taking photos of the skyline that morning, and only later, upon developing his film, did he realize that he’d caught images of the second plane flying into the second tower.

I didn’t live in New York then, but I do now.  Noel was born on May 28, 2002, and I am raising him here.  New York – or Brooklyn, more precisely – will be the place he always calls home.  He has no memory of 9-11, though he knows what happened.  All his life, his country has been at war.  When I think about his life and my life, this post-9-11 world seems like a weird and different place, and this America is not at all the country I grew up in.  Yet this is his country, and on this day that I remember with somber feelings and sadness, he had a great football practice.  Later, we went home and watched the games on television.  Then I called my brother and wished him happy birthday, like I do every year on 9-11.

Notes and Credits

Photographs by the author.  The first is of the flag at half-mast at PS 130, The Parkside School.  The school is just next to the entrance to the Fort Hamilton Parkway Subway Station for the F and G trains in Brooklyn.  It’s where we live, and the site of an earlier post, Without the Truth, You Are the Looser.

The photograph of the airplane in the clouds was taken in Prospect Park, near the “dog beach.”  That’s where my son’s team was practicing this morning.  Prospect Park is beneath one of the main approaches to LaGuardia Airport, and you can hear the planes fly over every couple of minutes most days.  Today, it was cloudy, low clouds, and the planes could only be seen in the haze, rocketing over us on their way into the airport.  Fifty-one years ago, a plane crashed into Park Slope along that flight path.  It was one of the worst disasters in New York history to that point; 134 people died in the crash.  From 2004 to 2006, I lived on Sterling Place, the street where the plan crashed in 1960.  My neighbor, Ms. Phipps was a witness that day and had told me about it. You can find a photo essay of it here.

Planes and clouds.  It seems we have always lived under flight paths.  In Minnesota, we lived just under main approach to the Minneapolis Airport.  Noel’s first word was “airplane.”  As we were leaving Prospect Park after practice, we saw a man selling bubble-making kits for kids.  He filled the playground with bubbles as he walked along.

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The truth and Legos (Good Things Come in Small Pieces)

You can make anything with Legos.   They are a digitized dream machine spawning infinite variety from a small set of mainly similar little pieces.  These plastic bricks stoke the imagination and allow minds—young and old alike—to turn ideas into things. Playing with Legos, one has a sense of creative power that is rare in my experience.  Hours and even days can pass just building, building, building—then tearing down and building again.

I don’t remember when I got my first set of Legos.  Nor do I recall when I stopped playing with them.  What I do remember is that Legos were always part of my childhood and then quite absent from my young adulthood.  That’s how it was for a long, long time, until I had my own child and, around the time he was two or three, I started playing with Legos again.

I noticed that Legos had changed a little in the thirty-or-so years since I’d last played with them.  The basic Lego blocks in all their bright colors were still the main pieces, 1x1s, 1x2s, 2x2s, 2x3s, 2x4s, 2x8s, 2x10s, in regular height and the one-third flats.  But they were packaged differently.  Now there were commercial tie-ins to Star Wars, Spongebob, Harry Potter, and Pirates of the Caribbean, as well as special theme sets of cities, oceans, or ancient Egypt.  Specialty pieces proliferated—hinges, odd shapes, and other pieces that gave Lego creations operational abilities (like flapping wings) and a verisimilitude that mainly existed in our minds when I was young.

Now, at 47 years of age, I look forward to each birthday (my son’s, that is) and Christmas for the Legos we’ll (I mean he’ll) get.  On quiet evenings when we can make the time, he asks me to “play Legos” with him, and we sit there in the living or in his room just making up new stuff.  We always make the items in the packages first, but these are torn apart immediately to build more interesting things and rarely do we redo them a second time (though we have all the directions in a folder, just in case we’d want to).

My favorite objects to build are houses—Legos are about dreaming and we all have different ways of dealing with the New York housing market.  My son embraces greater variety—everything from dinosaurs to kitties, houses, spaceships, cars, and even cities.  If I get busy, I’ll return to his room hours (or a day) later and find an entire theme park.  He’ll explain me the rules and characters, and these will remain for days or weeks.

Perhaps the best thing about Legos, however, is the moment when I tuck him in to bed after we’ve created a jumble of buildings and other things and he says to me, “Daddy, it was fun playing Legos with you.”  One day he’ll grow out of these Legos, but I’ll pack them away and keep them for my next turn at Legos in another twenty years.

Notes and Credits

Thank you, Noel.

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The truth and moonshadows, 4: Coda, from friends

After I published the essays, “The truth and moonshadows, 1-3,” a couple of my friends shared their own stories with me.  The essays prompted them to think of their own fathers.  They are two very dear friends, whose associations go back many years.  This gave me an idea, and on this, my 47th birthday, I ask …

The Ask

What I seek from this posting is any email or correspondence concerning other fathers and sons. I’d like to collect some of our stories and figure out what they mean.  Send me stories and photos and I will work with you to craft something that we can share.  After you read this, post this to other websites, or email it to friends who are themselves fathers, whether of sons or daughters.

Peter

I met Peter in 1996 when I walked on to the campus of Augustana College as a newly minted Ph.D. with an office in a former closet next to his own office, which was small but had spectacular windows.  Peter was my epitome of an academic, walls of books surrounding a neat desk from which he produced a steady stream of books and articles, all the while teaching a full spate of classes for dozens of undergrads who came through Augustana every year.

John,

I just finished reading the third installment of your look at fathers and sons, and maybe because I did so in the ancestral land of my own father—Finland (a place he never saw)—I thought back on our relationship.  The summer after my first year at Michigan was the last time I lived at home.  I got a job working for the mining company, the Cleveland Cliffs Iron Co. (“do or die for the CCI” was the old refrain in Ishpeming).  My Dad had just retired from teaching and I think [he] was at something of a loss, trying to figure out what’s next and seeing his son giving indications that whatever his future was, it wasn’t going to be in the UP.  Most days after work, we went fishing, something we really hadn’t done while I was growing up.  He sought out all of the old small streams where you used to be able to catch brown trout.  It would appear that by the summer of 1967 those streams were all fished out because I don’t recall catching anything, while being eaten alive by mosquitoes.  The experience was, however, a moment of silent bonding that I never forgot.

When my son, while studying for his PhD at Tennessee, and I decided on a road trip that would take us from Nashville through to his place in Knoxville for a few days (including his treat: a John Hiatt concert as a replay of the first concert I took him to when he took up the guitar—John Hiatt and the Tennessee Queens at the Col Ballroom in Davenport), and then on to Ashville.  We called it the “-ville tour” and decided then and there that we would do a comparable road trip each year.  In fact, we had plotted out a trip that started in Memphis and headed south from there.  Before that happened, Aaron proposed to Katie, they got married in Virginia last summer and thus Memphis wasn’t going to happen.  I did help him with the move into New Jersey last summer and will do the same in July when they move to Providence, RI. I am really happy that Aaron got married, but I realized what my father was thinking about back in ’67.

By the way, you really do look like your father.

Best,

Peter

Jeff

Jeff and I met in 1986.  In that year, I began the Master’s program in Latin American Studies at Tulane.  Jeff had started in ’85, and so he was a veteran.  He lived with a bunch of hippies and Dead-heads up off Broadway in the coolest house I’d ever seen.  A year later I met my first wife in that house.  I was a neophyte from New Orleans, going to school in New Orleans, who had never left New Orleans (save for a 1984 summer in Mexico City to study).  I was a social justice oriented quasi-Marxist, inspired in equal doses by Liberation theologians and Sandinistas (who were sometimes the same people).  What I said in seminars made sense in some ways; in others, however, it was inchoate and in need of focus.  Jeff gave me a nickname I didn’t become aware of for many months:  “Raw Material.”  It was an affectionate nickname, meaning I would be capable of some very good things when I got more shape and maturity to my view.  Of course, he was right.  The summer before I left New Orleans for good, I lived in that house, subletting Jeff’s room while he was off somewhere in Colombia or Baltimore.

Nice read, John. It was challenging for me to focus on because M is on the phone in the kitchen, and for some reason is being really loud with her parents this morning. I started with part 1 and read all 3. The 3 generations of your family seem to share high emotional intelligence, which is usually repressed in our gender and looked down upon. My friends (especially those from work) look at me askance whenever I emote, unless it’s sarcasm, anger, or drunken boisterousness. I’ve always said that my dad has almost no affect—though he has a good sense of humor—and his only 2 emotions are love and anger. He’s never held back on the affection, but he doesn’t seem to be as insightful as you and your dad both seem to be. Noel is lucky that way. I’m also impressed that you can trace your family back to the 17th century!

Jeff

Notes and Credits

The photos are by the author.  The first is of me and Noel and Duke, taken in the summer of 2006 in front of our home at 50 Sterling Place.  Duke departed us in April 2009.

The “UP” to which Peter refers is Michigan’s “upper peninsula,” the triangular nose of land north of Wisconsin that sits between Lake Superior’s southern shore and Lake Michigan’s western shore.  People from the UP are called “Yoopers,” and it was an area historically known for its iron mines, independent spirit, and Finnish settlers.  In Marquette, there is Northern Michigan University, where another old friend from Augustana now teaches.  Ishpeming, where Peter was from, is a few miles west of Marquette on Hwy 28.

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The truth and moonshadows, 3: Oh, Very Old

Note:  This is the third of three posts in an extended essay exploring my relationship with my father and my son through the songs of Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam.

Oh, Very Old

My son, Noel, plays baseball with the 78th Precinct Police Athletic League.  He has a great throw and a yen to learn pitching.  I am trying to teach him, and for inspiration I took him to websites with pictures and facts about Yankee legend Ron Guidry.  I remember well the heady days in the seventies when Ron Guidry, The Ragin’ Cajun, was blowing away the Major Leagues and winning the World Series.  Everyone in Louisiana became a Yankees fan at that time.  My mom hatched a scheme to have my father, also Ron Guidry, sign baseballs and sell them to fans.  This would be no lie, she said, but my father wouldn’t agree to it.  On one occasion, he had his credit card refused at a gas station in Alexandria, Louisiana, because the clerk refused to believe that was his real name.

Noel Shanks Guidry

One night recently, as Noel and I were having dinner and watching TV-on-the-internet, I wondered what Noel might think of the song, “Father and Son.”  I called up the video on YouTube and pointed at me when the lyrics indicated the father, and at him when they indicated the son.  His comment at the end was that he didn’t ever want to “go away.”  Of course, a few days ago, he’d announced his intent to go to college in Colorado (notably, he had just visited the state with his mom).  Then he added quickly that he would come back to Brooklyn after college, saying “I’ll live in Brooklyn for ever.”

I said, “Sonny, it’s ok. All fathers and sons go through that.” He looked a little puzzled.  I said that “going away” is not just moving to another place.  It’s also about changing your mind or growing up into someone who isn’t like me or his mom.  He perked up when I said this, as if it meant something to him.  (I didn’t ask.)  Then we listened to other Cat Stevens songs.  When I played “Moonshadow” he said, “I feel like this song is familiar, but I don’t know why.” Then I told him about how I used to sing it to him when he was an infant.

In the years since my son was born, my father has come back to me in many ways. While Cat Stevens was busy becoming Yusuf and converting to Islam, Captain Ronald James Guidry was earning a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies and becoming Deacon Ron Guidry, ordained in the Roman Catholic Church.  He serves as a Deacon to St. Louis Cathedral in the heart of the French Quarter and was for several years Master of Ceremonies for the Archbishop of New Orleans.  He still doesn’t like guns and is trying to figure out if there is anything such as a “just war” – World War II perhaps, maybe Afghanistan in the early going, but certainly not Iraq (I or II) or the other imperial wars America has waged in the last 100 years. As Deacon, he has baptized all three of his grandchildren, including Noel.

I experience him now differently than I did as his young son.  I watch him with Noel and see something I hadn’t expected.  They understand each other and communicate in an intuitive way that seems both foreign and magic to me.  The older man is more easy-going and less rigid than when I was young.  I’ve imagined saying to him now, “where were you 35 years ago?” But I don’t.  He has the right to grow old, to become whatever person he wants to become, even if it seems different from the father I used to know.

As I look at it now, it seems my father was growing older even as I was; while I was busy becoming someone, it turns out that he was becoming someone, too.  This is something I can appreciate only now, seeing him with my own son. Such are the vagaries of time and companionship, and we are indeed companions, me and the Old Man, having survived my two marriages, bouts of unemployment and career redefinition on both sides, the loss of innocence and the freedom of wisdom, and on June 27, 2007, the loss of my mother and his beloved wife, Mary Krupa Guidry.

The Guidry boys - Noel, Ron, and John

At the end of the day, I’ve been able to return to my father and to Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam, a famous singer who brought us together in odd ways many years ago. I listen both to the old Cat Stevens tunes (there are wonderful YouTube recordings) and the new Yusuf Islam recordings, his old songs and his new ones. The music he makes now is much like the music he made before, and he is still pursuing the same dreams. As Yusuf told Charlie Rose in 2009, “It’s the same old heart, you know, that’s the point.”

Last summer, my father did something he’d always wanted to do.  He saw Joan Baez live in concert.  He had always loved her voice and something about her message. The way he talked about seeing her in concert made me think a little of the consummation (albeit chaste) of a long and unrequited love affair, something like Love in the Time of Cholera, a book he has greatly admired and which he read at some point on those early Saturday mornings after my brother and I were gone from household to build our own lives.  It’s wonderful to see him happy.

For my own part, I have mixed feelings about the passage of time and growing older.  Cat Stevens was right—I had to go away, but sometimes I wish I never had.  Then again, every time I look at my son, I am old, but I’m happy.  And so is my father.

Notes and Credits

In August 2009, Yusuf Islam gave an interview to Charlie Rose, which I reference above.  It’s a great interview, and it’s easy to see how Cat Stevens and Yusuf Islam are the same man.  Particularly poignant is when he talks about how his own son’s interest in playing the guitar sparked Yusuf to pick it up again.  The interview is on YouTube in two parts, found here (part 1) and here (part 2).  Another great interview with Yusuf in Dublin is here.

The Cat Stevens entry in Wikipedia list among his influences a folksinger from New Orleans named Biff Rose.  Biff went to college with my parents at Loyola University in the late 1950s.  Rose went on to have a career of some prominence, and he returned to New Orleans to perform at the Penny Post coffee house in the mid-80s, where I met him when I was performing there.  Around the same time, a young Emily Saliers played there as a student at Tulane University, following Lucinda Williams who’d passed through the venue years before.  The Penny Post is one of America’s great coffeehouses, founded in the mid-1970s.  It closed in the 1990s but has reopened as the Neutral Ground and continues to provide a space for singers of songs and teller of tales.  The Penny Post story is told by Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community

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The truth and moonshadows, 2: Of Fathers and Sons

Note:  This is the second of three posts in an extended essay exploring my relationship with my father and my son through the songs of Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam.

Of Fathers and Sons

John Alexis Guidry

With the passage of time, everything changed, as it always does. By 2002, Cat Stevens had been Yusuf Islam for 25 years, becoming a Muslim in late 1977 and appearing to disappear from Western public life altogether. During that time across the 1980s and 1990s, my brother and I both grew up. We moved far away from home, and we had sons of our own.  My brother’s was named Joseph, after our mother’s father, Joe Krupa, a Slovak steelworker from the Allegheny Mountains in western Pennsylvania.

My son was named after one Noel Matherne, born around 1768 on the First German Coast of Louisiana.  He married a woman named Charlotte Delmer on November 24, 1789, and among their children was one Eugene Matherne, among whose great-grandchildren was my own great-grandmother, Pauline Badeaux, born in 1896 and deceased in 1998.  Pauline married Ernest John Guidry II in 1917.  Their first-born son, Ernest John Guidry III, married Marie Lezina Vicknair on June 7, 1939, and on March 21, 1940, Ronald James Guidry was born.  Ronald married Mary Krupa on September 7, 1963 and on June 3, 1964, John Alexis Guidry was born.  On June 10, 2000, John married Denise Shanks and Noel Shanks Guidry was born on May 28, 2002.

From infancy through his third year, I sang Noel to sleep every night with “Moonshadow,” delighting in the playful exchange of eyes and ears and teeth and hands throughout the lyric.

mall map of Nova Scotia. From Atlas Portatif Universel, by Robert de Vaugondy.
L’Acadie, c. 1749, R. de Vaugondy

This August of 2011, my father, my son, and I are travelling together to Nova Scotia.  We’re going back to the Acadian homeland, called l’Acadie by its first European settlers.  As Cajuns, we don’t really have a European homeland, which sets us apart from most white people in America. Our ancestor, Claude Guidry, was either born in l’Acadie in the 1640s or arrived there from France in 1671 (the records are disputed).  There is no known Guidry prior to Claude, and the path backwards vanishes there.

He is known in the archives as Claude Guidry dit Laverdure dit Grivois.  “Dit” means roughly “said to be” (like “also known as”), and Claude’s other names mean “The Green” (Laverdure) and “Saucy” (Grivois).  “Saucy,” as far as the record indicates, appears to refer to Claude’s and children’s joviality and penchant for living life the way they saw fit. They were outlaw fishermen and trappers who intermarried with the local Micmac Indians and lived with them, thus exempting themselves from the early census of the colony in 1671, which didn’t count people in mixed-race marriages and their children.

We’re going to go to Claude’s old haunts in Lunenburg, LaHeve (Bridgeport), and Annapolis (Port Royale). If Claude was on the ship L’Oranger, which reached l’Acadie/Nove Scotia in 1671, he would have disembarked in Lunenburg, then known as Mirligueche.  If he wasn’t on that ship, then he was already living there among the Micmac. Which story is true isn’t as important to me as simply knowing that I will walk the ground that Claude trod. It’s a dream I’ve had for many years, of standing with my son on the Eastern Coast of Nova Scotia, looking out across the Atlantic Ocean and telling him that our people came from that water, somewhere over there, leaving everything behind, and growing up here, on the land of the New World.

The British and French had both laid claim to Acadie since the early 1600s, and across time this tension provoked an independence in the people there, who preferred to mind their own business and generally refused to sign oaths to bear arms for either side. As it became apparent that the French might not support these renegades, Yankee forces in Boston and the lower colonies formed a plan to expel the Acadiens and repopulate the land with Protestant Scots and Germans, creating a prosperous market for the farms and factories of New England.

“The Great Expulsion” of 1755 was an Eighteenth Century case of ethnic cleansing that dispersed our people throughout the Britain’s Atlantic Empire.  An idealized version of the story is told by Longfellow in Evangeline, a more historical form in John Mack Faragher’s A Great and Noble Scheme:  The Tragic Story of the Explusion of the French Acadians from their American Homeland (New York:  Norton, 2005).

That’s how we ended up in Louisiana.  How Noel and I ended up in New York is another story, but at least we’re not the first Guidry’s to make the move from Louisiana to New York.

Ron Guidry, Yankee Legend

Notes and Credits

The photo of Ron Guidry was taken from the website Josh Q. Public, profiling some great pitchers, including our namesake, the Ragin’ Cajun.

Throughout the 1600s, both the British and French and tried to have the Acadiens sign oaths of allegiance.  For the most part the people refused to do so, preferring to be left alone.  Neither the French nor the British wanted to protect them, and they fit into neither country’s imperial schemes.  Some yielded to the pressure, however, and on August 16, 1695, Claude Guidry signed an oath of allegiance to the British King.  The record in Ancestry.com states,

The Oath read “We do Swear and Sincerely Promise That we will be Faithful and bear True Allegiance to his Majty King William, King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland. So help us God.” Captain Fleetwood Emes, Commander of the Sorlings Frigate administered the Oath at Port-Royal. In taking the Oath, Claude signed his name as “Claude Gaidry”.

On January 9, 1723, Claude Guidry “conditionally baptized” twin grand-daughters Helene and Marie-Josephe Guidry in Boston.  They were there with other Acadiens who were prisoners and refugees of a war between the English and the Indians that lasted from 1722-25, known variably as “The Three Years War,” “Rale’s War,” “Lovewell’s War” and “Governor Dummer’s Indian War.” This is the last mention of Claude in any historical record.  Not long after he returned to l’Acadie and passed away some time thereafter, among his family in his homeland.

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