Discovery of a Father
By Sherwood Anderson
from Reader’s Digest, Copyright ©1939 by the Reader’s Digest Association. Copyright renewed 1966 by Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson. Reprinted with permission of Harold Ober Associates.
One of the strangest relationships in the world is that between father
and son. I know it now from having sons of my own.
A boy wants something very special from his father. You hear it
said that fathers want their sons to be what they feel they themselves
cannot be, but I tell you it also works the other way. I know that as
a small boy I wanted my father to be a certain thing he was not. I
wanted him to be a proud, silent, dignified father. When I was with
the other boys and he passed along the street, I wanted to feel a
glow of pride: “There he is. That is my father.”
But he wasn’t such a one. he couldn’t be. It seemed to me then
that he was always showing off. Let’s say someone in our town had
got up a show. They were always doing it. The druggist would be in
it, the shoe-store clerk, the horse doctor, and a lot of women and
girls. My father would manage to get the chief comedy part. It was,
let’s say, a Civil War play and he was a comic Irish soldier. He had
to do the most absurd things. They thought he was funny, but I
I thought he was terrible. I didn’t see how Mother could stand it.
She even laughed with the others. Maybe I would have laughed if it
hadn’t been my father.
Or there was a parade, the Fourth of July or Decoration Day.
He’d be in that, too, right at the front of it, as Grand Marshal or
something, on a white horse hired from a livery stable.
He couldn’t ride for shucks. He fell off the horse and everyone
hooted with laughter, but he didn’t care. He even seemed to like it.
I remember once when he had done something ridiculous, and
right out on Main Street, too. I was with some other boys and they
were laughing and shouting at him and he was shouting back and
having as good a time as they were. I ran down an alley back of
some stores and there in the Presbyterian church sheds I had a
good long cry.
Or I would be in bed at night and Father would come home and
bring some men with him. He was a man who was never alone.
Before he went broke, running a harness shop, there were always a
lot of men loafing in the shop. He went broke, of course, because
he gave too much credit. He couldn’t refuse it, and I thought he
was a fool. I had got to hating him.
There’d be men I didn’t think would want to be fooling around
with him. There might even be the superintendent of our schools
and a quiet man who ran the hardware store. Once I remember
there was a white-haired man who was a cashier of the bank. It was
a wonder to me they’d want to be seen with such a windbag. That’s
what I thought he was. I know now what it was that attracted them.
It was because life in our town, as in all small towns, was at times
pretty dull, and he livened it up. He made them laugh. He could tell
stories. He’d even get them to singing.
If they didn’t come to our house they’d go off, say at night, to
where there was a grassy place by a creek. They’d cook food there
and drink beer and sit about listening to his stories.
He was always telling stories about himself. He’d say this or that
wonderful thing had happened to him. It might be something that
made him look like a fool. He didn’t care.
If an Irishman came to our house, right away Father would say
he was Irish. He’d tell what county in Ireland he was born in. He’d
tell things that happened there when he was a boy. He’d make it
seem so real that, if I didn’t know he was born in southern Ohio,
I’d have believed him myself.
If it was a Scotchman the same thing happened. He’d get a burr
into his speech. Or he was a German or a Swede. he’d be anything
the other man was. I think they all knew he was lying, but they
seemed to like him just the same. As a boy, that was what I couldn’t
And there was Mother. How could she stand it? I wanted to ask
but never did. She was not the kind you asked such questions.
I’d be upstairs in my bed, in my room above the porch, and
Father would be telling some of his tales. A lot of Father’s stories
were about the Civil War. To hear him tell it, he’d been in about
every battle. He’d known Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, and I don’t
know how many others. He’d been particularly intimate with
General Grant, so that when Grant went East, to take charge of all
the armies, he took Father along.
“I was an orderly at headquarters, and Sam Grant said to me,
‘Irve,’ he said, ‘I’m going to take you along with me.’ ”
It seems he and Grant used to slip off sometimes and have a
quiet drink together. That’s what my father said. He’d tell about
the day Lee surrendered and how, when the great moment came,
they couldn’t find Grant.
“You know,” my father said, “about General Grant’s book, his
memoirs. You’ve read of how he said he had a headache and how,
when he got word that Lee was ready to call it quits, he was
suddenly and miraculously cured.”
“Huh,” said Father. “He was in the woods with me.
“I was in there with my back against a tree. I was drinking. I had
got hold of a bottle. “They were looking for Grant. He had got off
his horse and come into the woods. he found me. He was covered
I had the bottle in my hand. What’d I care? The war was over. I
knew we had them licked.”
My father said that he was the one who told Grant about Lee. An
orderly riding by had told him, because the orderly knew how thick
he was with Grant. Grant was embarrassed.
“But, Irve, look at me. I’m all covered with mud,” he said to
And then, my father said, he and Grant decided to have a drink
together. They took a couple of drinks and then, because he didn’t
want Grant to show up drunk before the immaculate Lee, he
smashed the bottle against the tree.
“Sam Grant’s dead now, and I wouldn’t want it to get out on
him,” my father said.
That’s just one of the kind of things he’d tell. Of course the men
knew he was lying, but they seemed to like it just the same.
When we got broke, down and out, do you think he ever brought
anything home? Not he. If there wasn’t anything to eat in the
house, he’d go off visiting around at farmhouses. They all wanted
him. Sometimes he’d stay away for weeks, Mother working to keep
us fed, and then home he’d come bringing, let’s say, a ham. He’d
got it from some farmer friend. He’d slap it on the table in the
kitchen. “You bet I’m going to see that my kids have something to
eat,” he’d say, and Mother would just stand smiling at him. She’d
never say a word about all the weeks and months he’d been away,
not leaving us a cent for food. Once I heard her speaking to a
woman in our street. Maybe the woman had dared to sympathize
with her. “Oh,” she said, “it’s all right. He isn’t ever dull like most
of the men in this street. Life is never dull when my man is about.”
But often I was filled with bitterness, and sometimes I wished he
wasn’t my father. I’d even invent another man as my father. To
protect my mother, I’d make up stories of a secret marriage that for
some strange reason never got known. As though some man, say
the president of a railroad company or maybe a Congressman, had
married my mother, thinking his wife was dead and then it turned
out she wasn’t .
So they had to hush it up, but I got born just the same. I wasn’t
really the son of my father. Somewhere in the world there was a
very dignified, quite wonderful man who was really my father. I
even made myself half believe these fancies.
And then there came a certain night. Mother was away from
home. Maybe there was church that night. Father came in. He’d
been off somewhere for two or three weeks. He found me alone in
the house, reading by the kitchen table.
It had been raining, and he was very wet. He sat and looked at
me for a long time, not saying a word. I was startled, for there was
on his face the saddest look I had ever seen. He sat for a time, his
clothes dripping. Then he got up.
“Come on with me,” he said.
I got up and went with him out of the house. I was filled with
wonder, but I wasn’t afraid. We went along a dirt road that led
down into a valley, about a mile out of town, where there was a
pond. We walked in silence. The man who was always talking had
stopped his talking.
I didn’t know what was up and had the queer feeling that I was
with a stranger. I don’t know whether my father intended it so. I
don’t think he did.
The pond was quite large. It was still raining hard, and there were
flashes of lightning followed by thunder. We were on a grassy bank
at the pond’s edge when my father spoke, and in the darkness and
rain his voice sounded strange.
“Take off your clothes,” he said. Still filled with wonder, I
began to undress. There was a flash of lightning, and I saw that he
was already naked.
Naked, we went into the pond. Taking my hand, he pulled me in.
It may be that I was too frightened. too full of feeling of
strangeness, to speak. Before that night my father had never seemed
to pay any attention to me.
“And what is he up to now?” I kept asking myself. I did not
swim very well, but he put my hand on his shoulder and struck out
into the darkness.
He was a man with big shoulders, a powerful swimmer. In the
darkness I could feel the movement of his muscles. We swam to the
far edge of the pond and then back to where we had left our
clothes. The rain continued and the wind blew. Sometimes my
father swam on his back and when he did he took my hand in his
large powerful one and moved it over so that it rested always on his
shoulder. Sometimes there would be a flash of lightning and I
could see his face quite clearly.
It was as it was earlier, in the kitchen, a face filled with sadness.
There would be the momentary glimpse of his face and then again
the darkness, the wind, and the rain. In me there was a feeling I had
never known before.
It was a feeling of closeness. It was something strange. It was as
though there were only we two in the world. It was as though I had
been jerked suddenly out of myself, out of my world of the
schoolboy, out of a world in which I was ashamed of my father.
He had become blood of my blood; he the strong swimmer and I
the boy clinging to him in the darkness. We swam in silence, and in
silence we dressed in our wet clothes. and went home.
There was a lamp lighted in the kitchen, and when we came in,
the water dripping form us, there was my mother. She smiled at us.
I remember that she called us “boys.” “What have you boys been
up to?” she asked, but my father did not answer. As he had begun
the evening’s experience with me in silence, so he ended it. He
turned and looked at me. Then he went, I thought, with a new and
strange dignity, out of the room.
I climbed the stairs to my own room, undressed in darkness, and
got into bed. I couldn’t sleep and did not want to sleep. For the
first time, I knew that I was the son of my father. He was a
storyteller as I was to be. It may be that I even laughed a little softly
there in the darkness. If I did, I laughed knowing that I would never
again be wanting another father.
By Will Schuck ©2016
From reading all the greeting cards written for husbands and fathers to give to their wives and children, one might believe that most men are out-of-touch dolts who are only capable of feeling “pride,” and who are so selfish that they “never say enough” kind words to those they love. While I don’t count myself among the husbands and fathers who represent these culturally endorsed stereotypes, as with many stereotypes, there must be at least some faint truth to them. Some men are out-of-touch because they isolate themselves. Some are just born that way.
Growing up, I didn’t know my father very well because he was either working or sleeping. In Kindergarten, my class was asked by our teacher to draw pictures of our dads at work. I had no idea what my dad did at work, and so I relied on the images I saw on television for the answer. I imagined that my dad did what Darrin Stephens on Bewitched did, that he sat behind a desk, answered a phone, and had meetings and luncheons with other business people. I drew my dad behind a desk answering a phone. When Mom saw my drawing, she laughed. “Your dad doesn’t answer a phone. He drives a forklift in a warehouse!” My heart sunk. Not only because my impression of his job was wrong, but also because I could be proud of desk-job dad. The thought of a forklift-driving dad was disappointing.
Like television, Scouting also encouraged me to feel disappointed about the kind of dad I had. The charismatic, articulate, high-achieving cubmasters and den leaders in my experience, who conducted meetings with booming voices and led rounds of singing patriotic songs, seemed to have it all together. When compared to my pensive, squinting, smoking and nodding dad, I felt I was missing out on something that other boys had all the time, whether they were at home or at Scout meetings.
Eventually realizing that I did not have – and probably would never have – an outgoing suit-and-tie dad, I decided that the best way to live in peace with whatever Dad lacked in character was to avoid those aspects of his personality that I didn’t like and to go on with my life. Even on the one day of the year our family felt a sense of excitement – Christmas Day – Dad sat in the kitchen breakfast room calmly squinting as he dragged on a Pall Mall cigarette.
“Come join us, Jim,” Mom would shout. “The kids are opening their presents. You’re missing it!” Dad’s reply was a monotone, “I’ll see the presents later.”
Following a disabling workplace injury, Dad grew even more remote and introspective, spending long days at home alone with our two family dogs while Mom worked and my brothers and I were at school.
As a long-distance runner on my high school’s track team, I noticed that most other team members had family cheering sections dressed in our school colors of navy blue and gold rooting them on with banners and shouts of encouragement. While part of me thought that must be embarrassing, I eventually wondered why my family wasn’t cheering me on at the meets. So I asked Mom one day. She said, “I work all day, and your brothers work, but your father is home. I’ll tell him to go to your next meet.” I felt excited that unlike Christmas mornings, for once, Dad might be there.
Between my running events at the next track meet, I scanned the stands. I didn’t see Dad, but figured I had overlooked him. When I got home, I asked Mom, “Did Dad go to my meet?” She said, “I told him, ‘Why don’t you go see your son run today?’
“What did he say?”
“He was gone all of 10 minutes,” she explained. “He left, and when he came home, I asked him if he went to your meet. All he said was, ‘Yeah, he’s up there.’”
Apparently, Dad drove to the stadium, saw me through the fence, and left.
Another time, Dad refused to believe our school was closed because of an ice storm. Even though my brothers and I had watched the early morning TV news to confirm that our school was closed, Dad said to us, “C’mon. It’s open. You’re going to school.” Despite our protests, we dressed and got in the car. Dad drove us to school, where there were no other cars or buses on the street.
“See it’s closed.”
“No it’s not. Go try the door.”
We did. It was locked.
At some point, I supposed that Dad just didn’t domesticate very well. He didn’t know how to be a dad and so he avoided or ignored the calling in favor of living in his internal world where everything was the way he perceived it, and there was no visible stress. How else could I explain his apathy? It hurt too much to face any other way.
One way in which Dad made up for his shortcomings was by trying to impress people with embellished stories that I knew were lies. Cringing inside and curling my toes inside my shoes, I was too afraid to challenge him openly and risk making matters worse. Once I was playing Scrabble with friends when Dad walked in. He asked to join the game. My friends welcomed him, but it was a toe-curling moment for me. Dad didn’t talk much because he had a limited vocabulary and he sometimes mispronounced words. Word games were not his forte, to put it kindly.
On his first turn he played “exorb.” One of my friends said, “I don’t think that’s a word.”
“Yes it is,” Dad replied. ”I majored in English in college.” That’s when my throat got tight and my toes curled.
“You know, like when you exorb knowledge.”
Inside, I rolled my eyes and screamed ugh! He didn’t major in anything in college. He only went to a community college to take a couple English classes when he was in his forties. And the word he was attempting to spell was “absorb.”
Joining in a game was unusual because whenever my friends visited, Dad usually sat in the breakfast room and smoked by the window, legs crossed, occasionally tapping his cigarette on the glass ashtray. More than one of my friends asked a question like, “Is that what your dad does all day?” As much as I hated his habit of sitting there, I also hated the questions. At once, I wanted to condemn him to my friends and say “Yeah! I wish he’d get up and do something!” but I also wanted to defend him and say, “He’s disabled and probably depressed. Leave him alone!” Dad’s presence was embarrassing, but I couldn’t do anything about it. He was a fixture, and that was my normal.
Besides sitting and smoking in the kitchen, another one of Dad’s past-times was talking on the phone. We had one phone in the house, a black plastic dial phone that hung on the wall in the dining room. Of course, there was an ashtray there, too. I didn’t usually know who he was talking to, but maybe the person on the other end of the line was a fellow numismatist – a coin collector. They all had names like Lloyd, Dick, Bill, and Bud. Dad would sit for long periods in silence, allowing the other person to speak at length. He would nod and walk around the dining room in his slippers, phone pressed to his ear, while the other fellow perhaps went on about the condition of some coin or the rising value of gold, or some deal he made that he regretted or treasured. I don’t know exactly because it seemed that these conversations mostly took place when my brothers and I weren’t at home. The part of the conversation we heard was usually the end, always spoken in the same way: “Alrighty. Okie-doke. OK. Mmm-hmm. Bye-bye.”
It seemed that Mom and my brothers shared my feelings of disappointment and embarrassment about Dad. Anytime I repeated something I heard Dad say, Mom would say, “Eww. Yuck. That’s what your dad says.” One time I touched a nerve with Mom, perhaps repeating one of Dad’s most-hated statements, though I didn’t know it at the time. Mom asked me why I had to spend my money on collecting baseball cards. I said, “Sometimes you have to spend money to make money.” Her response was an explosive, “If I EVER hear you repeat anything like that which your father says, I’ll brain you!” Mom dealt with Dad by shutting his words out of her ears, even if his words came from me. She would also occasionally compare the way Dad spoke and acted to TV dads by saying about a John Walton or a Tom Bradford, “Wouldn’t he make a nice dad?” Both of these tactics helped to stifle any connection I may have been constructing toward my own dad.
Contrastingly, my brothers and I dealt with Dad by imitating him behind his back. We used his malapropisms: scurling powder (for scouring powder), exorb (for absorb), pitcher (for picture), and melk and pellow (for milk and pillow). We also imitated his anger by exclaiming “Cripe!” or by imitating his method of keeping us from using his tools: stomping on the kitchen floor and yelling, “Get out of my workshop!” His workshop was in the basement beneath the kitchen. Even though his words weren’t always correct and he didn’t always control his temper, Dad was as I said, a fixture. So besides imitating Dad – both positively and negatively – there were moments when I tried, as most children do, to lift the edge of Dad’s personality to see who he really was.
On a Sunday evening in late winter when I was about nine years old, Dad arrived home from a coin show. The sun was setting, there was snow on the ground, and the only thing I did that day besides go to Sunday school was watch TV. He came through the side door and walked into the kitchen to greet Mom. I heard them talking softly. Without thinking, I got up from the couch, entered the kitchen, and right in front of the sink, I embraced Dad around his waist. I remember feeling too old to do that, but it just happened. All three of us were surprised. Mom finally said, “Aw, did you miss your daddy?” I nodded against Dad’s belly as he patted the back of my head with his left hand. I don’t remember how that moment ended or what followed afterward, but each of us knew at that moment that I loved him.
There were other, less tender times, too, when I tested Dad’s love for me. Sometimes without a motive and sometimes with a desire to tell him how I felt about his kitchen smoking, I would just sit down at the kitchen table and interrupt his deep thought. When he finally noticed me, he would say, “So, what do you think?” to which I replied, “About what?” Then Dad would say, “I don’t know. About anything.” I never had an answer. We would sit in silence looking at each other with smoke swirling around our heads, before Dad would turn his gaze again to the window that looked out on the back yard. These were awkward times that ended in my walking out – not angrily, just dissatisfied.
In an effort to break his silence, I tried a couple practical jokes. These were out of character for me, but I was desperate for a positive response to my presence in Dad’s life. One Saturday afternoon, I put plastic ants on the kitchen table all around the sugar bowl and I added a plastic fly to float in his hot tea. When he returned to his seat at the table, he cursed softly, brushed the ants to the floor and quickly dumped the tea in the sink. When I collected the fly and the ants, Dad simply said, “Don’t do that again. I wasted a cup of tea.” There was no laughter and no congratulations for my creative sense of humor. So, I tried again one evening. When Dad sat in his favorite orange armchair to watch TV, I sneaked up behind the chair with a rubber spider on an elastic string. I dropped the spider down in front of Dad’s face. Unknown to me, he had a glass of iced tea in his hand. When he startled and yelled, “Hey!” he threw his glass backward, drenching me, the chair, and the wall with iced tea. Of course, I had to clean up the mess and again there was no laughter.
Throughout all my growing up years, I had few glimpses of who my dad was. When I grew into a young man, I still didn’t have the opportunity to talk with him about much of anything because he started a business and then my parents divorced after 22 years of marriage. Dad moved out, and I didn’t see him or talk to him for more than three years. But then there came a certain day.
I had gotten a new used car one fall, and one afternoon I drove it to a friend’s house to show it off. My friend, however, laughed and called it "a family ride" because it was a Buick with wire wheels and cruise control. Disappointed and unsettled, I drove home, past Dad’s house. I knew where he lived, and I passed his house all the time. Sometimes if I saw him in the yard I would wave or honk the horn. He would wave back and that was all. I noticed Dad was getting thinner and his hair was getting long. He also began to wear a bandana around his head and he had a moustache. These traits all were opposite of the Dad I grew up with, the clean-shaven dad, the one who did yard work in his polyester dress pants and an oxford shirt. Anyway, there he was, out raking leaves. Knowing how he appreciated cars, I decided to stop and talk with him, even though I hadn’t talked with him in years. Maybe he would like my car.
In the late afternoon sunshine with leaves falling, I parked the Buick, took a deep breath, and nervously parked at the curb. I was shaking. Dad saw my car, but kept raking. The look on his face was one of annoyance and breathlessness, until he saw me coming up the sidewalk. He then drew a tired smile with a cigarette dangling from his lips.
“Hi! Long time no see!” he uttered with all the breath that was in him. “Where ya been? Workin’?”
“Yeah, I guess I have,” I squeezed out sheepishly. I held three part-time jobs and attended college classes, so my answer was an understatement. He reached out to shake my hand. I hesitated, then took his hand to try to hide my anxiety. I felt calluses and the bones of his fingers through his rough 50-year-old skin.
“C’mon in, I need a break. Got some iced tea in the fridge. You wanna sit down?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said unsurely. My arms and legs shook as I walked toward the porch that my brother Al and I had helped Dad build about six years earlier, before the divorce when this house was Grandma’s house that she rented out. My nerves made me afraid I would trip, but I was able to hold my breath long enough to calm my nerves, walk up the steps, and enter his house. I walked behind Dad. He walked slowly as he always did, because of his spinal injury. His shoe soles scuffed on the sidewalk, steps, and porch floor as we walked.
Although his frame was always thin, Dad looked especially lean because his clothes were baggy. A belt kept his loose fitting Wrangler jeans from sliding down. Like an x-ray, the sunlight shined right through the rolled up sleeves of his white work shirt, creating a shadow of his arms against the fabric. I wondered if he was dying, perhaps that his 30-plus years of cigarette smoking was finally winning the battle to take his life.
“Wanna sit in the living room? It’s cool in there. Got new air conditioning,” Dad informed me. “I’ll get us some iced tea. You want ice?”
“OK,” I replied. For someone majoring in English, I was out of words except for OK, yeah, and sure. I took a seat on a brown velour sofa in the living room. The cushions felt stiff and new. I grasped the big round arm of the sofa with my right hand in an effort to control my continued shaking. I sat on my left hand.
“Here ya go,” Dad whispered as he handed me a tall, cold glass of iced tea. The ice filled the glass. I had to let go of the sofa arm to take the glass. I feared I would spill the tea because of my anxiety, so I placed the glass between my knees. Then, I added a new word to the conversation: “Thanks.”
“Shoo! I’m tired. Been workin’ all afternoon.” With a grunt, he sat down in the matching brown chair opposite me. The dim, late-afternoon light in the living room blurred Dad’s sunken cheeks, two days of gray and brown beard growth, and his long curling-up hair. As he squinted and sipped his iced tea, Dad asked, “Ya got a girlfriend?”
“Yeah,” I thoughtfully answered. “She’s great.”
“Mmm,” Dad nodded as he sipped his tea again. He looked at his tea and then at me. His eyes were piercing but friendly probably because he hadn’t seen me in three years or so. He wanted to look at me but also not appear to be too eager. And despite his disheveled appearance, Dad was wearing his dentures. They held his cheekbones up high and gave his jaw definition.
As the sun set and the room got darker, Dad flicked on a lamp. By now he regained his color and energy. We continued to talk, but I don’t recall about what. All I know is that by the time I left, the nervousness had faded, we shared a few laughs and when I walked out the door, I was shaking again but it was because I felt happy and excited about the Dad I found that night who was interested in me and in what I was doing.
Days later when I talked to my brothers and Mom about the visit, they played it off as if they had been telling me all along that Dad was OK, and why had I stayed away so long? But that night I visited with Dad, when I returned to my one-bedroom apartment, I scrambled to get into bed so I could lay awake in the darkness replaying our conversation. All of the words, however, had slipped away. But I was left with a new, excited feeling of receiving the best birthday or Christmas gift ever: the bicycle, the new baseball glove, the car, or the card with a big check in it. But this gift was all of those, it had come for no special occasion nor holiday, and I would always remember it: The dad I thought I had lost in all those years of ball-playing, bike riding, Scout camping, and whatever else I was doing, was still right here, and he still loved me in all the ways the best dads do.