I knew a girl in college named Green, a wonderful painter and beautiful. Her paintings were abstract, full of colors and shapes like a Kandinsky but with softer, fuller lines. She used to destroy most of her work before anyone saw it. I fantasized about sleeping with her. I wanted her to paint something for me so incomplete in its ability to convey the emotions of our intimacy that she destroyed it at once.
I knew a boy at UConn who grew up in Mansfield. I’ve forgotten his name. He went to school with us, but as a hometown boy he lived with his mother. We called him late one night to invite ourselves to his home. We were fascinated by him. He was solitary, unknowable. There were wondrous depths to him we wanted to explore. His mother answered our call. She was friendly but reluctant to invite us over. He, too, was hesitant on the phone. He warned us his room was small, an attic. When we arrived, we were ushered into a close-ceilinged space filled everywhere with piles of books and magazines, and boxes full of rocks and shells and feathers. It was as if he had never in his life discarded anything, and his old mother, out of love and desperate acceptance, had consigned him and his awful accumulation of life’s things to her attic. I thought of T.S. Eliot shoring up fragments against the ruins.
As an undergraduate I would smoke pot in the grey mornings of winter before walking to class across the old part of UConn, through the early morning fog that rolled off the lake and past the bare trees, and across the open field that today has sidewalk and lights. I loved the old brick buildings and the towering oak and the pine trees. It was easy to lose myself in time and imagine I were walking across campus in the previous century. I would experience an odd nostalgia for the present, as writer Paul Auster calls it, that enabled me to appreciate the present moment more by looking at it as if it were the past—as if the very moment I lived in was a memory, and I could be comforted the way only memory can: by the familiarity of the scene.
Years later, after I had a son and my father had disappeared, I would experience a different kind of nostalgia in which I would see my childhood self in my son and wanted to weep for the boy I was—lonely, almost fatherless, and peripatetic. When my son became old enough, he would ask me while lying in bed at night to tell him stories of my childhood, and I realized that most of my memories were sad or from my teens and twenties when I lived an outrageous life that strove to banish the memories of my sadness and anger. But I could not tell those stories to him yet. Instead, I offered him the handful of happy memories I had—of eating a hot dog with my father outside the Peabody Museum, of seeing a fish jump out of Lake Whitney as my father and I rode our bikes across the causeway, of ice-skating on Holland Pond near my grandparents’ cottage.
For years my wife and I have taken in strays: high school and college students, children left afloat as we had been by absent parents and difficult circumstance. Over the years, the web of our intimate relationships grew. The notion of family, of what it means to love or be in love, expanded and defined by empathy rather than blood.
Many years ago, we were invited to the first wedding of a former student. I was asked to stand in for her father and give a reading at the ceremony and a toast at the reception. We have been to the weddings of several other students since then, all our former strays. Relationship after relationship, I find myself inserted into the fatherless lives of these students and acting the part of the father I never really had. After almost thirty years of teaching, I have watched them become adults, marry, and begin their careers—many choosing to teach English like me. In just this past year, one had a baby. Another has begun law school. A third is trying to recreate her life from the ashes of her failed marriage. A fourth confronts the likelihood that she will have to do the same. These former students, now friends, meet me for coffee, a drink. Some write to me late at night seeking advice or just a friendly voice. As Hemingway writes, “It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing.”
I seek solace in a late-night glass of wine and a book in the woods around my house, in the things that grow in the gardens of my yard. Do the demons ever leave, or do they merely recede? I remind myself that our fate is only the story we craft. “Death is the mother of beauty,” said Wallace Stevens. Daily, I resurrect memory, crafting identity by choosing what to suppress and what to preserve.