The One Way Mirror: Fathers Watching Sons
June 14, 2011
In honor of Father's Day, we share this excerpt adapted from Cabin Fever: A Suburban Father's Search for the Wild. Tom Montgomery Fate is the author of five books, including the collection of essays Beyond the White Noise and the spiritual memoir Steady and Trembling. He is a professor of English at the College of DuPage in Illinois, where he lives with his family. His cabin is in southwest Michigan.
My son, Bennett, has a fever today and can’t go to school. So I’m staying home with him. As I write this — on my laptop in the family room — he is playing on the floor at my feet. In spite of his illness, he is happily lost amid two gallons of LEGOS, which we just found at a garage sale. Their newness, and the infinite possibilities, seem to enthrall him. He sits rapt on the carpet inventing and quietly talking to himself––as if conferring with another seven-year-old inventor.
Every fifteen minutes or so, after he has clicked a few more of the red, blue and green plastic pieces together, he shows me something. “Look Daddy. See this guy? He’s driving the ship.” Then a bit later: “Look Daddy I put a coffee maker on the main ship. But I put a lemonade maker on the shuttle.” “Which is the shuttle?” I ask, now understanding it was a rocket ship, rather than a sailing ship. “Here. Look!” he says, unhitching a red match-box sized platform from the main ship. A driver sits in a little chair and I assume a green thimble-sized cylinder attached to the back is the lemonade maker. He flies the shuttle completely around the sofa, making a whooshing noise all the while and pausing twice to fire imaginary machine guns at a couple of Hot Wheels cars below him. Then he lands it on my thigh. There he takes the driver out, straightens his legs, and walks him to my knee, which is now clearly a precipice looking out on an alternate universe. An inch tall, the plastic, square-headed man surveys the messy terrain of the family room. “He’s an explorer,” Bennett said. “What kind of explorer?” I asked. “I don’t know. Like a Power Ranger, or maybe an Indian,” he said.
Well, I wasn’t expecting Meriwether Lewis, but the odd contrast of cultures fascinated me, as did the power of Bennett’s raw imagination––all that he saw and discovered in a pile of discarded plastic LEGOS. He was the explorer that most impressed me.
Last week he brought me a red truck to repair. He broke off its wheels while “driving” (bouncing) it down the stairs and then left it on my work bench in the basement. The cracked wheels were plastic and couldn’t be glued or replaced––a lost cause. Or so I thought. “That’s OK. I’ll keep it Daddy,” Bennett had said and carried it back upstairs to the playroom. I see it now on the carpet—a red plastic sled hitched up to a three legged horse with a Star Wars character riding in the flatbed. Luke Skywalker seems to be lashing the horse with his light saber. I’m still not sure why the horse is standing upright, or how Bennett knew that it would. I just don’t see that way.
This feeling, this inability to see, is not new. I used to get it each day when I dropped Bennett off at the preschool at the college where I teach. Because it was a lab school there was a long one-way teaching mirror in the front hallway. Students and parents could look in at the kids without them seeing us––our window was their mirror. But it took me several days to even notice this. I was often in a hurry. After the sign-in sheet, the hug, the nod to his teacher, I usually bolted off to my office with my briefcase to do important things.
Yet one day, on the way out, I paused for a moment and caught a glimpse of my distracted self in the window. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work. The kids are supposed to see themselves on the other side. But when I took two steps toward my faint, self-absorbed reflection, it disappeared. My “I” yielded to my eye, which suddenly saw through to the world on the other side, the world I so often just walked by: children sprawled everywhere on the carpet in a kind of wild and holy innocence—working wooden puzzles, reading board books, rocking dolls, singing silly songs. My God, they were delirious with curiosity, and I was thrown into their childhood, and my own, so abruptly that I found myself in tears.
What was it about this window?
I could see the kids, but they couldn’t see me. If they tried to look back at me all they saw was themselves and their own world: Four-year-old Maggie, in pink, glittery slippers and a baggy, green velvet dress and two strings of white plastic pearls, stirred a pan of air on a little wooden stove with a rubber spatula and intently adjusted the dials until the temperature was just right. Then James came running over with a little snake he had rolled from a ball of blue Playdoh and popped it in Maggie’s pan. This perturbed her at first, but soon she began to stir it in and to readjust the dials. Bennett, who wore a black and silver stethoscope, sat cross-legged on the carpet next to Maggie and diligently checked the heart rate of the stuffed green dinosaur he was cradling. Then he tucked it into to a wooden crib and whispered something to it—perhaps a bedtime prayer.
How odd it was to see Bennett but not be seen by him, to be in the same room with him, yet not. When I got up to leave for the office, and was several feet away from the window, I again turned it into a mirror, again caught my dim likeness in the glass. It was then that I finally saw the obvious: I was watching Bennett through the dim reflection of myself, weighing my own childhood against his, the known against the unknown. That’s a hard thing for parents—to stop seeing ourselves in our children. And to stop waiting—consciously or not—for them to demonstrate that one attribute or flaw that would mark them as a part of us. As they get older, I wonder who will be blessed with a modicum of musical or athletic ability, and who might inherit my impatience or depression.
But thankfully, the dimming mirror is also a sparkling clear window.
And I think that paradox was the source of my tears and confusion that day at the lab school. I saw myself in the presence of those little kids and wanted to crawl on all fours back into their world, to dress myself up in their total surrender to the now, and in a kind of vision that could turn LEGOS into spaceships and play-doh into edible blue snakes. When, I wonder, did I first begin to lose my faith in the moment I was living in? When did my life first start to feel like a sprawling “to do” list?
* * *
Like me, my own dad sometimes struggled to see life’s blessings amid its burdens, and to shift from the I to the eye, from self to world. He too could get overwhelmed by work, and the future, and struggle to get back to the present. Or at least that’s how it seems now, in the shadows of memory. But that was all a long time ago. Dad and Mom are close to 90 now. And though they have sharp minds and still swim most days, their bodies are wearing down, as they approach the deepest mystery of all.
Yet, it was just forty years ago that Dad was my age and I was a little kid. And he sometimes picked me up at the lab school in Ames, Iowa, where he was a young pastor with a large church and four sons. I can see him leaning on the chain-link fence on the edge of the preschool playground, watching me play freeze tag on the blacktop with my four-year old friends. And there, in his sport coat and slacks, I imagine him waiting and watching us for a few slow minutes before calling my name, before waving me in—before hugging me, zipping up my open coat, adjusting my hat, and taking me home. Just a minute or two of pause, of revision, before returning to real time.
Maybe it’s because I’m now almost exactly in-between my son and father—forty years older than Bennett and forty years younger than my Dad--that these small moments seem sacred. This morning I’m wondering how my Dad found such moments along the way—amid the chaos of family and church, amid all those sermons and meetings and potlucks. But I’m hoping he did sometimes, while lingering on the edge of that playground. That my little friends and I, in our crazy games of tag and kickball, could, like Bennett did for me, somehow loosen the grip of time—giving him a moment of presence, of prayer.
* * *
By mid morning Bennett is still lost in his LEGOS. I tell him I’m going into the kitchen to clean the floor. He says “OK,” but after about ten minutes he calls in to me, “Where’d you go Daddy?” “I’m in the kitchen,” I say. “O.K.” he says, again seemingly satisfied. A few minutes later he carries in an arm load of Lego spaceships and shuttles and sets up shop on the kitchen table. Soon he is sailing off to other galaxies and planets while I scrub the floor on all fours. It is not long before he flies one of his Lego ships over my head and dramatically ejects the pilot into my pail with a soapy kurplunk! and a squeal of laughter. “He can’t swim! He can’t swim!” I say. Bennett laughs.
The rest of the morning seems to pass quickly, or I barely notice that it’s passing. Bennett keeps drawing me back into his play, and then I return back to cleaning. I know this is “parallel play,” and that I should be fully engaged with him rather than trying to finish my work projects. But this is the best I can do today. And he seems pretty happy. Later, when I get out a sleeve of Ritz crackers and a can of Seven Up, he looks both excited and thankful for the simple snack. “I like staying home with you Daddy,” he says, as he starts to make lean-tos and little towers out of the crackers. “Yeah, I like it too,” I say.
His gratitude startles me and awakens my own. And again, for a brief moment, I can see just beyond my own reflection into a greater presence.