Thursday, October 14, 2010

Aimless Reading: The K's, Part 12.1 (Rudyard Kipling)

Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Kipling, Rudyard

I think this, like yesterday's title, is one of the older books in the collection. Not sure how I acquired. It might possibly have come from my father, but it might also have come from my brother's high school books.

I woke up thinking about my father again. We had a pretty rocky time of it through most of my teen years and into my twenties. I was always the rebel in the family and he brooked no dissent in the family. My memory of our relationship between the ages 12-21 consists of a constant tug-of-war between to strong personalities. We'd fight, he'd lose control, then apologize. Peace would follow, then we'd fight again, he'd lose control and apologize. And so on. As a teenager he'd sometimes hand me a five dollar bill when he was really sorry.

After I quit drinking, we managed a kind of detente that over the years grew into a kind of mutual respect, even a little dependence.

My father often spoke to me about his concerns over my younger brothers, his business, his health, his feelings that he hadn't been a good father, etc. I felt a certain amount of sympathy for him, as I knew his temper was more or less beyond his control and that had it been in his control he would have kept it in check. Even so there was a certain amount of anger at having been at the receiving end of a lot of his rage.

I recall a couple of occasions when he asked directly if I thought he'd been a good father. I was a very angry man in my early twenties. Having given up drinking and so forth, a lot of my negativity was directed towards others -- my family, especially.

In college I wrote and directed a play about a dysfunctional family. After my parents came to see it, my father asked if I'd had a happy childhood. It was kind of an impossible question to answer--if I said yes, then why write such an unhappy play with so many obviously autobiographical elements? If I said it was unhappy, I'd be blaming him for my unhappiness, which was also only part of the truth.

As I recall, I took the middle road and said it was mostly happy and that many of the traumas that made me an unhappy twenty-two year old occurred outside the family -- at school, among friends and classmates, etc. This was partly true, but I felt I couldn't blame him and didn't want to add to the guilt he was so obviously feeling.

One other time, when I was visiting home, he brought it up again. I can't quite remember the context, but I think whatever it was he saw me suffering from what he viewed as a lack of self-esteem. During a conversation in our living room, he said, I guess I wasn't the kind of father who could give you boys a good self-image. I am not sure what brought on these doubts later in life except to say that perhaps all of that out-of-control anger had with age and sobriety morphed into a combination of sensitivity, self-reflection and Catholic guilt.

I think he felt that he was supposed to raise children who were educated, successful, confident AND happy and that anything short of that was a failure on his part as a parent.

After he died, I spoke to my youngest brother, who lived at home at the time of his sudden death, about some of this. He told me a story of driving past my father one day on the sidewalk near our house and of being unnerved by the look on his face, which he described as depressed. He said it looked like he was carrying some kind of terrible burden.

In those last years, I sometimes found it difficult to sympathize with him. I had grown used to avoiding him in order to avoid loud, angry confrontations. When I was unable to avoid them, I had taught myself to shut down. The angrier and more out of control he became, the calmer and more unresponsive I became. It was a test of wills.

Once when I visited we started talking about my mother. He was very proud of the fact that she had worked her way through college later in life. At the time she was working at a geriatric care center as part of an internship for her degree in psychology. He'd apparently seen her working one day and this had made him proud.

Suddenly he burst into tears at the breakfast table and said how lucky he was to have met her. I had never seen my father shed a tear. Not once. I completely froze, having no idea how to respond. All I could do was wait for him to stop, which he did, and eventually the conversation continued in another direction.

from Kim

There was some justification for Kim - he had kicked Lala Dinanath's boy off the trunnions - since the English held the Punjab and Kim was English. Though he was burned black as any native; though he spoke the vernacular by preference, and his mother-tongue in a clipped uncertain sing-song; though he consorted on terms of perfect equality with the small boys of the bazar; Kim was white - a poor white of the very poorest. The half-caste woman who looked after him (she smoked opium, and pretended to keep a second-hand furniture shop by the square where the cheap cabs wait) told the missionaries that she was Kim's mother's sister; but his mother had been nursemaid in a Colonel's family and had married Kimball O'Hara, a young colour- sergeant of the Mavericks, an Irish regiment. He afterwards took a post on the Sind, Punjab, and Delhi Railway, and his Regiment went home without him. The wife died of cholera in Ferozepore, and O'Hara fell to drink and loafing up and down the line with the keen-eyed three-year-old baby. Societies and chaplains, anxious for the child, tried to catch him, but O'Hara drifted away, till he came across the woman who took opium and learned the taste from her, and died as poor whites die in India. His estate at death consisted of three papers - one he called his 'ne varietur' because those words were written below his signature thereon, and another his 'clearance-certificate'. The third was Kim's birth-certificate. Those things, he was used to say, in his glorious opium-hours, would yet make little Kimball a man. On no account was Kim to part with them, for they belonged to a great piece of magic - such magic as men practised over yonder behind the Museum, in the big blue-and-white Jadoo-Gher - the Magic House, as we name the Masonic Lodge. It would, he said, all come right some day, and Kim's horn would be exalted between pillars - monstrous pillars - of beauty and strength. The Colonel himself, riding on a horse, at the head of the finest Regiment in the world, would attend to Kim - little Kim that should have been better off than his father. Nine hundred first-class devils, whose God was a Red Bull on a green field, would attend to Kim, if they had not forgotten O'Hara - poor O'Hara that was gang- foreman on the Ferozepore line. Then he would weep bitterly in the broken rush chair on the veranda. So it came about after his death that the woman sewed parchment, paper, and birth- certificate into a leather amulet-case which she strung round Kim's neck.

No comments: