Sunday, March 6, 2011

A Father’s Gaze

As I approached the glass door of the coffee shop this afternoon, a small, blond boy was trying to push it open from the inside. I opened the door carefully so that he would not fall out. Then he came toddling toward me at the edge of the sidewalk. “Are you going outside with anyone?” I asked him. I was prepared to stop him from running out into the street, but no danger: The boy turned around, ran back inside, and plopped himself down on a seat beside his father, who beamed at him, just beamed.

I was struck by the father. He was someone I had seen before in the coffee shop, but without his son. (I assume it was his son; only a loving father would look that way on a child.) The father was young and what to my oldish eyes registers as hip—short hair but unshaven face, and a really goofy pair of glasses, with dark, wide rims and colored spots on the rims almost like sequins. Seeing him alone in the coffee shop, I would have attached these observations to certain preconceptions and made a judgment of the dismissive sort. But seeing him with his son, my heart melted, and I thought of my own father and my own self, about 57 years ago.

My father wore goofy glasses like that, or at least they looked goofy to me when he first brought them home. The tortoise-shell rims were thicker and wider than functionality required; it was the early 1960s, and these may have represented some sort of “Mad Men” fashion, although my father was not the “Man Men” type. He was the original straight arrow, straight from God’s quiver. As I looked at the father and son in the coffee shop, I felt again Dad’s gaze on me when I was that little boy’s age, maybe two years old and just learning to throw a baseball and pick up after myself, and I was pierced by a memory of love.

By coincidence, if that is what it is, I had another moment today of remembering the love of a parent for a child. This morning, I arrived in the choir loft early, and only three other men were there, one of them, C., a recently minted father. His first child, a son, is about nine months old. I asked C. how things were going and how fatherhood suited him. Great! he said, beaming. He told me an anecdote and then I told him one, from my first summer of fatherhood, 25 years ago this year, when my older daughter was only a few months old and I took her walking early mornings so that her mother could get an extra hour of shut-eye. We walked using a Snugli, the kind where the child lies against the adult’s chest, papoose style.

My daughter was asleep as we walked down the main street of our town, and her beautiful, soft, fair, angelic face was sticking out to my right side. I approached Mickey on a park bench to my right. The local legend of Mickey was, way too much LSD in the 1960s, with the result that Mickey walked around talking and shouting at himself, when he wasn’t rocking placidly on the porch of the house where he lived. Mickey was talking and shouting to himself now, as I approached. I didn’t feel alarmed. I was in that state of bliss that I often felt while carrying my daughter around town, and there was nothing Mickey could say or shout that would have interrupted that state.

Instead, it was Mickey who was interrupted. As we passed through his field of vision, Mickey raised his head from the sidewalk, still shouting to himself but now raising his gaze toward me and then moving it, I could see, toward the little papoose on my chest. As his eyes fell on her face, his face changed instantly. The madness vanished, and Mickey smiled widely and said, “Beautiful. Very beautiful.” I smiled back and then, as we moved beyond him, continuing up the street, I could hear his rant resuming.

Fatherhood is a great blessing. It changes men and children, and the way we look at each another, all of us. I wonder if it doesn’t also somehow bring us back into alignment with the image, the gaze, of God. Seeing that father and son in the coffee shop this afternoon pulled me out of my own madness—my thoughtless preconceptions, my failure to look with love—no less than Mickey out of his, 25 years ago this summer.

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