Holding My Own in New York
Rod Dreher on Fathers & Sons
As night falls over Brooklyn and my book-mad toddler Matthew has said goodnight to Moon for the umpteenth time, drawn yet again from the bottomless well of Seussiana, and learned once more what happens when you give a moose a muffin, he rolls into the crook of my arm, cranes his head so he can whisper in my ear, and says, “Pawpaw.”
This is my cue to tell him stories of his grandfather, my own dad, who lives with my mom (“Mammy” in Matthewspeak) in Starhill, a rural south Louisiana enclave where the only sounds at night are crickets and bullfrogs, not the wail of sirens on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
Matthew is 20 months old and, being a city kid in the far North, hasn’t seen much of his grandparents. They visited a couple of months ago, and he fell hard for them. Especially Pawpaw, who shares the boy’s enthusiasm for graders and forklifts and things that go. After they went home to Starhill, Matthew kept asking for them (“Mammy! Pawpaw! See more!”), and at bedtime, wanted me to tell him stories about Pawpaw.
His Father’s Adventures
Now, I am a writer by profession, but a lousy inventor of stories. I can, however, tell true stories entertainingly. That first week after Matthew’s grandparents left, I lay with my boy in the darkened bedroom, unpacking the musty mental trunk containing my childhood memories, foraging for stories of my father’s adventures.
Here are a few things I found: A country boy, Pawpaw and his brother used to take .22-caliber rifles into the woods to hunt squirrels so the family would have enough to eat during the Depression and its aftermath. Pawpaw and the boys had to be careful of the tramps who lived under Grant’s Bayou, near their house, when they went swimming. Pawpaw raised 4-H Club cattle on his own, and was so good at it he and his steer won a trip all the way to Chicago, where Pawpaw sang a song about turnip greens and Southern belles on WGN radio. He was 12 and had never been to the big city.
Over the next few nights, Matthew and I followed Pawpaw’s adventures in the rodeo, riding bucking bulls, and wrassling ornery steers to the ground. Then Pawpaw enlisted in the Coast Guard and rode out a hurricane in Mobile Bay, lashed to the wheel of his 40-foot cutter and wearing nothing but his skivvies. Pawpaw piloted a dinghy in rough seas, outmaneuvering a giant shark to complete a mission to change a buoy’s light bulb.
Then I told Matthew about the things Pawpaw did when I was a little boy. There was the time he and his shotgun made short work of a nasty rattlesnake we kids ran across. On another occasion, Pawpaw caught an egg-stealing chicken snake with his bare hands, swung the varmint round and round like a lariat, and cracked it like a whip, snapping its head right off. That doesn’t happen in Brooklyn.
I told Matthew about the hunts Pawpaw took me on, how he drove his jeep into the swamp and showed me how to stalk whitetail bucks—and wood ducks, squirrels, doves, and rabbits. I told him about setting traps in creek beds for raccoons, how the Mississippi River floods every year, how Pawpaw would set trotlines in the flood backwater for catfish, but which often snared snapping turtles, alligator gars, and fat, black water snakes.
Matthew has heard about Pawpaw’s fondness for catfish grabbing, a south Louisiana sport in which men inch along the banks of bayous in the dark of night, in chest-deep water, probing the banks for holes large enough to be catfish dens. With a large hook in one hand, the men ease their hands into the holes, hoping to feel the belly of a giant catfish (and not, say, an alligator). When they find a log-sized specimen, they stroke its belly until they find the beast’s mouth, then set the hook hard, bracing themselves for the creature to barrel into their chests as it tries to escape.
You can do a lot of fun things in New York City, but catfish grabbing isn’t one of them. This kind of thing is thrilling to a little Brooklyn boy, whose only contact with traditional masculine culture is stopping to watch construction workers and their diggers tear up the street. But the other night, as I stopped myself mid-story when Matthew’s deep breathing told me he was asleep, it struck me that I hadn’t thought about these things in years. Here I was rediscovering my father’s amazing life through telling stories about him to my own son (a startling number of which seem to end with the cooking and eating of a wild animal).
Now amazing isn’t really the right word, because until just a moment ago, many, and maybe most, men in this country lived as my father has. But when I have told these same stories in another context to my friends in New York and Washington, D.C. (two jobs ago), they can scarcely believe they are only two degrees of separation away from such a creature as my father, who might as well be Wild Bill Hickok to them. These are usually the sons and daughters of suburbia, whose dads never did anything more daring on weekends than drive the family van without a seatbelt. They are easily impressed.
Truth to tell, though, it’s more pleasurable to me in the telling than it was in the event. I was a bookish kid, soft-hearted about animals, and longed for the big city, with its movie theaters, museums, bookstores, and endless entertainments. That’s what I eventually got, and I’ve never seriously looked back. Though I idolized my dad for his courage and dazzling omnicompetence, I always knew I would find the meaning of my life and vocation elsewhere.
Poetry of Place
Now that I’m a father, I’m not so sure. Telling these stories to my son about my Southern boyhood, I’m discovering a poetry of place that I hadn’t noticed before, or at least resisted. Only this afternoon, going down for his nap, Matthew asked me to tell him a story about Mammy. So I thought hard, and recalled for him the days Mammy would take us kids dewberry-picking, and about the cobblers she’d make as a reward for her purple-fingered rugrats.
And I told my boy this very afternoon about my great-aunts Lois and Hilda, who were Red Cross nurses on the front in the Great War, and who spent the last frail years of their lives in a cabin near our house. As a child not much older than Matthew, I would toddle through the pecan orchard to their cabin. Aunt Lois would hold me on her lap and bake pecan cookies, and we’d go out later and spread corn for the birds. Then we would walk through her secret garden, I told my son, shaded by magnolias, japonica bushes, and a golden-blossomed Chinese rain tree, whose blossoms looked like . . . and then Matthew was asleep.
Admittedly, this is nostalgia, the same sort of nostalgia I’ll have for the appealing and inimitable parts of New York City life should we move away and consign our years here to poetic memory. Anyway, I’m pining for a world that has largely gone. West Feliciana Parish—if you’ve read Walker Percy, you know the place—is rapidly becoming a suburb of Baton Rouge, with domiciles for Dixie-fried Bobos springing up like mushrooms in erstwhile cow pastures. Lois and Hilda died over 20 years ago, and the cousins who inherited their cabin and orchard looted its antiques and bulldozed the whole thing. A corner of a subdivision sits there now.
Cable television monoculture is everywhere, as is the same social breakdown and moral chaos you see in big cities. For instance, lesbian couples walk the corridors of the local high school. Sic transit gloria mundi, y’all.
And the world that made my father, who once stood all day on the side of the gravel-coated Highway 61 to wave a flag as Mrs. Roosevelt’s car passed, hardly exists at all. Manhood means something different in this culture and economy. Matthew will never look up to me in quite the same way as I did to my father, because the tasks I, and urban dads like me, are required to perform aren’t as physically arduous—and hallelujah for that. Even though I won’t have the opportunity to be a hero to my son in the same way my dad was to me, it’s a more than fair trade.
So why do I keep thinking about the South, which I longed to escape? “Lanterns on the Levee”-style romanticism has never appealed to me, but as I think about the childhood my son will have here, without family nearby or grass to run barefoot in, I can’t help reconsidering the good in what I rejected. It bothers me that Matthew won’t grow up in a place where people say “sir” and “ma’am.” That he won’t be part of a culture that treats the elderly of all races with tenderness and respect as a matter of honor—a place, in fact, where people still speak of “honor” with a straight face.
Most of all, it bothers me that Matthew won’t have his Pawpaw around to be a friend to him. He won’t have imbibed the smell of tobacco, bourbon, Community Coffee, and dried gumbo mud flaking off hunting boots that is my father’s aroma. He won’t know what it feels like to stand in a duck blind, chilled to the bone and anxious to the fingertips, waiting for the mallards to swoop in.
And not just a friend, but an example. The classic American virtues my dad embodies come from a hardscrabble rural life that has largely disappeared, even among country people. Daddy was born at home, in a house that didn’t have indoor plumbing until he himself installed it as a grown man. He lifted himself out of the grinding poverty of the Depression and its aftermath through backbreaking work, study, thrift, and living by a strict moral code—not Christian, exactly, but Christian-Stoic, in the classic Southern tradition.
I have never known anyone who despises the “shiftless” (his word, and it’s a good one) as fiercely as my father. He’s not a rich man by any means, but he’s comfortable, and he was able to put us kids through college—something his folks couldn’t afford to do for him (God bless the GI Bill, he says). He takes immense satisfaction in knowing that nothing was handed to him, that everything he has he earned.
When my sister and I were children, he spoke to us constantly of the value of work, honesty, fairness, self-reliance, personal dignity, courage in the face of long odds, and fidelity to one’s wife, one’s family, and one’s promises. These aren’t platitudes with him; he lives by that moral code, and thinks those who did not were, in his words, “no damn good.”
I don’t mean to make him out to be a saint. He wasn’t, and isn’t. His rectitude needs leavening with mercy, and, like most white men of his place and generation, he is blind on the subject of race (but then, no more blind than urban liberals, and a good deal less humorless). The thing that sets my dad apart from most men today is that he is not soft, and he is not decadent.
By “soft,” I mean men like—well, men like me, who never have to perform labor that makes heavy demands on our bodies, and who are shielded by our very urbanity (or suburbanity) from the rigors of life that rural people cannot avoid. There comes with that hardness a certain realistic moral stance toward the world and what it owes one—and what one owes it.
By “decadent,” I mean ironic detachment and radical doubt masquerading as sophistication, a cast of mind that cannot produce righteousness because it doesn’t believe righteousness exists. As C. S. Lewis said about such people in The Abolition of Man, “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings to be fruitful.”
I am to raise my son in a world dominated—indeed, in our social and professional milieu, overrun—by those pale, faithless men without chests. Well, my country dad has a chest, and the habits of the heart that beats beneath his breastbone are ones I desperately want to instill in my boy.
Of course, I have an advantage because my father instilled those habits in my own heart. Matthew will learn what it means to be brave and true from his father, but the experience seems attenuated for a city kid, and he will be immersed in a culture that corrodes the moral structure his mother and I will try to build. For all the drawbacks of the rural South, a man can raise a family there knowing the seeds of faith and virtue he plants in his children’s hearts will have a less hostile environment in which to grow.
Besides, there are no angry cottonmouths in the creek bed to face down here, as I once did as an adolescent, with Matthew’s Pawpaw at my side, encouraging me to keep my shotgun’s aim steady. I shook violently, but my aim was true. Heck, the Yankee moms at the playground here would have grand mal conniptions if they knew we wanted our son to learn how to use a shotgun. Come to think of it, nearly everything my father is and stands for is utterly alien at best, and abominable at worst, to your standard educated New Yorker.
More and more, we’re finding the playground to be a petri dish for our child-raising ideas. Last week, when Matthew and a little girl arrived at the playground slide at the same time, Julie took Matthew’s hand and said, “Ladies first,” as all Southern male children learn. The little girl’s mother gave Julie a nasty, how-dare-you look, and pushed her daughter on.
It pained the late Mississippi writer Willie Morris, who moved to Manhattan with his young family in the late 1960s, to hear his little boy make fun of his Southern accent. I don’t have much of a Southern accent left after so many years away from home, but it’s alarming to think Matthew will be raised in a culture that regards Southern-ness itself, especially the Southern tradition of manhood, as retrograde and piggish.
North toward home? Increasingly, no, not for us. Don’t misunderstand: We live in New York City because we love it, and that’s where my job is. In my field, at my level, there is little work for me down South. My wife and I moved here as newlyweds, fell hard for the city, and could probably stay here forever. I’m doing well in my vocation, and have even begun to appear on national TV every couple of weeks. For me, it’s onward and upward.
But it’s not about me anymore. I want to give Matthew the best in life, but I’m less convinced that that means growing up in a big city up North, and more inclined to the view that the best life of all possible lives for a boy—for our boy, anyway—involves a Pawpaw down South. My father is 67, and in increasingly poor health. He and my mother get to see their only grandson three times a year. My wife’s East Texas grandfather—now there was a man with a chest!—died when she was a small child, but his felt presence through memory sustains her almost two decades since his passing. She says my father, with his physical strength, however diminished by age and infirmity, and quiet, manly authority, reminds her of her own Pawpaw.
At the rate we’re going, Matthew will only really know his Pawpaw through my stories. That can’t be right. However, my father sacrificed his own career dreams to stay near his family, nearly all of whom are dead now, and nearly all of whom broke his heart a thousand times. Would the same thing happen to my family and me if we threw away New York City to migrate to the backwater?
Would I rather lie on my deathbed mourning the fact that I stepped away from a great career, and moved my family out of the cultural capital of the world to grow up in the sticks around family members; or that I declined to do so, and raised children who know the glories of the Metropolitan Museum, but who never knew the glories of their grandfather and their Southern roots? It’s a hard call to make, and it can’t be put off forever.
Where is God in all this? “Honor thy father and mother,” God said, but also, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” What does he require of Matthew’s father? God placed a calling on my life to be here in what Pope John Paul II called “the capital of the world,” bearing witness to the truth as best I can.
Following Jesus meant leaving behind mother and father. But must it always? Could our Lord be calling us to return to our roots—a call we wouldn’t have been ready to receive until we had a child of our own?
Julie and I confessed to each other recently that God had been working on our hearts, and that the bright lights of Manhattan had lost much of their luster. We talked about how much we loved seeing Matthew play with both sets of grandparents, and how much it hurt us to hear him ask to see them after they’d gone.
We talked about how uneasy we felt at the long-term prospect of raising him in an urban culture that militantly disdains the virtues in which we had been raised. We fretted over how the only way to overcome alienation in this city is to become deracinated, which in some smart quarters means regarding a man like my father as a colorful “character” at best, and at worst as a figure out of a rustic and backwards past best forgotten. That’s a steep price to pay—and to make one’s son pay—for a New York byline.
And yet, and yet. The other day, when I told a wise old Jewish friend, a lifelong veteran of the media biz, about my restlessness, he cautioned me not to be hasty. “The impact of any book you write, and of any printed work you do, is enormously magnified by a New York byline,” he said.
“I know what you mean about wanting to leave for the sake of your son, and maybe that’s what you’re meant to do. Before you make that kind of move, though, ask yourself what you want to accomplish with your writing. Because once you leave, you’re probably not going to be able to come back, and it’ll be hard to be taken as seriously without the New York tag.”
Is location, then, vocation? Maybe I have to be unfaithful to my father, in a way, to be faithful to my Father. It is important that Matthew learn the virtues embodied by his Pawpaw. But above all, my son must see embodied in his dad an unswerving devotion to the commandment, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God.” No matter what the sacrifice. Nobody said following Jesus would be easy, but it would be easier if Pawpaw, that dear, dear man, understood this too.
A shorter version of this article appeared in The Wall Street Journal with the permission of Touchstone.
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“Holding My Own in New York” first appeared in the October 2001 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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