Quest for Our Fathers, Living Still by Carole Duff

At a recent conference I attended, a young woman stepped to the microphone to address keynote speaker Nick Flynn. “I teach yoga at the same homeless shelter where you worked in Boston. Your book Another Bullshit Night in Suck City is my favorite book. It gives me hope of finding my father.” Flynn replied, “Thank you for the good work you do. As for rest, the best thing my mother ever did was to leave my father. It was a really good thing I didn’t grow up with him in my life.”

And yet.

The previous evening, I listened to six debut authors, three of whom had written about their fathers. Anika Fajardo’s parents divorced when she was a toddler. Her Colombian father returned to his native county, and her American mother raised Anika in Minnesota. In Magical Realism for Non-Believers: A Memoir of Finding Family, Fajardo writes about those years:

People used to ask me, “What is it like not having a dad?” I never knew how to answer them. What is it like living on the moon? What is it like having three hands? These are unimaginable things, preposterous even. “Don’t you miss having a father?” they would ask. I longed to say, Don’t you miss being an astronaut? And they would answer, I don’t know, I’ve never been an astronaut. And I would say, Exactly. (50)

And yet. When Fajardo visits her father in Colombia at age twenty-one, she discovers a more complex story than the one she’d been told—and had told herself.

Suzanne Farrell Smith has no stories to tell about her father, who died in a car accident when she was six. In fact, she has no memory of her childhood. How to write a memoir without memory? In The Memory Sessions, Farrell creates a past out of research, others’ memories, the objects in her mother’s house, her imagination, and various therapies. After an acupuncture session designed to help reclaim the past, Smith takes the subway home and sees a man who looks just like her father:

…when the train moves again, he fades into a much older man, one who looks nothing like my father…I read about a little boy whose father died. He tells his mother that he sees his father everywhere, mostly as a “very small man in the kitchen cabinet.” I bet there’s a whole breed of us spread across the world, children who see our tiny dead parents in random places. The subway, the kitchen cabinet. I can keep my father in my pocket. (90)

And yet, Smith’s past never comes back.

In A Lion in the Snow: Essays on a Father’s Journey Home, James M. Chesbro ponders his complicated relationship with his emotionally distant father. He correlates his prodigal father with the parable of the prodigal son:

Without the prodigal father’s ability to return to this purest state of fatherhood, which is what gives him the freedom to open his arms, there is no story, no reconnection. Both men experience internal movements that propel their outward actions. When the lost son returns, the father returns as well. (150)

And yet, after a brief reconciliation, the prodigal father dies of heart complications, and Chesbro’s quest continues—as son and father himself.

At the conference, the young woman returned to her seat next to me. Two young women in front of us leaned back and told her they’d grown up without fathers, too. “People always say it’s a shame I didn’t grow up knowing my father,” one said. “Maybe it was a good thing. He lives on the street, like Nick Flynn’s dad did, only I haven’t found my father yet.”

I recalled Charlottesville’s own Sharon Harrigan, who wrote about her young father’s accidental death in Playing with Dynamite. On the book cover is a quote from none other than Nick Flynn: “A daughter embarks on an odyssey to find her father, to find herself, and to find her way home. She is, by turns, both Telemachus and Odysseus…”

We are both child and adult, I thought, questing for our fathers, living still.

Photo of man on bench looking into stroller
Father child and nothing else by Lloyd Morgan. CC license.

Carole Duff
Carole Duff is a veteran teacher, flutist, and writer of creative nonfiction. She posts weekly to her long-standing blog Notes from Vanaprastha, has written for The Perennial Gen and Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, and is working on a book-length memoir titled Wisdom Builds Her House: A Memoir about Love, Faith, and Forgiveness. Carole lives in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband and two large, overly-friendly shelter dogs.

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