Distinguished Professor Emeritus Bruce Guernsey
taught in the English Department at EIU from 1978
to 2003. For the past several years, he has served
as editor of the Spoon River Review.
Information on his many books and current activities
can be found at his
home page. —JDK
the buried, closure.
For the missing, space
This Illinois distance
Where a man can walk forever,
Stubble and sky,
Where a house on the other side
Is ever the horizon.
en years ago this month — June, the month of Father's
Day — what was thought to be the remains of my father's
body were found in some woods along a ridge by a couple
of hikers. He had disappeared three years before from
a VA hospital in rural Pennsylvania. His Parkinson's Disease
had finally exhausted my mother, and she couldn't keep
him at home anymore. On most days, he was helpless, but
every once in a while, he could with a struggle dress
himself. Gaining momentum, he'd then shuffle about, gathering
speed as he went, head-down and charging like the soldier
he once was into enemy fire—that is, into whatever
was in the way, be it a lamp or a shelf full of crystal,
and down they'd come. And if a door were open, out he'd
go, which is exactly what he did that day at the VA.
brother and I and our three sisters gathered from across
the country to help in a search that included helicopters,
bloodhounds, and an extraordinary group of volunteers.
We had his picture everywhere—in coffee shops, gas
stations, and on sign-posts and trees—but after
five days and nights without sleep, we finally gave up—gave
up the physical search, at least, but certainly not the
one of my sisters called three long years later with the
news that human remains had been found not far from the
VA, I didn't believe that this was my father and am unable
to yet, despite the final judgment in court. To have him
declared officially dead was in the best interest of us
all, my mother especially, but I cannot dispel the fantasy
I still live with, that my father has never died. I know
that he did, somewhere, but like Hamlet, find myself saying
“Alas, poor ghost” each June when Father's
Day rolls around, and I see him walking the battlements,
his shadow stooped and beckoning.
wonder we believe in ghosts.
Where else do our shadows go in the dark,
Putting on someone else’s clothes,
Dressing up to haunt us?
I don’t want his winter coat.
I know you’d just bought it,
That he only wore it once.
I know it will fit me fine.
I know, I know, I know.
Don’t send it, please.
divorced father myself and living in a time when fatherhood
has undergone some redefinition, I realize this cool Friday
morning in June, two days before my two grown children
will surely call, how "father" really haunts
us all, whether he is living or dead. It’s no wonder,
then, that “Father’s Day” is such a
commercial success. It’s also been well-timed: the
crabgrass is spreading and the Yankees and Red Sox are
slugging it out on the field. Thus, giving Dad a new weed-whacker
or a day at the ballpark confirms the picture that most
fathers see of themselves. Dad might just be someone else
inside, however, and not really that interested in whacking
anything, be it a dandelion or baseball.
month, my children and many like them sent their mothers
lots of flowers, a gift that seems harmless enough, but
imagine the national consternation if fathers across the
country received similar bouquets this coming Sunday.
“Dad just loves daisies, Mom,” says the strapping
sixteen-year-old son to his mother. “Yeah,”
confirms the sarcastic daughter in hip-huggers, “and
how about some pansies, too?” I laugh at how amazed
my tough-minded old man would have been had I sent him
a lovely arrangement back in his prime when he was part
of the "greatest generation" and served in the
tank corps from l941-45. My earliest image of him was
from a picture he'd sent from the war. "This is your
Dad," my mother probably said, and I remember distinctly
this grinning guy with a helmet on standing in front of
some kind of frightening machine.
looked like my fallen blocks lay strewn all around, buildings
and statues blown to bits. The happy man was holding a
bottle in one hand and in the other, a statue’s
head, its eyes fierce above the thin, mustached lip. "Me
and Hitler at the Rhine," my father had written on
the back. Like him this photo has long since vanished,
but like my father, too, it did indeed exist and remains
fixed in my imagination, the ultimate family album.
two faces in that picture my father had sent—the
one of boyish triumph, but the other, grim and scary—remained
with me into manhood. It is, I believe, the national image:
the father as a happy-go-lucky, game-loving guy, or he's
the other extreme, some version of Adolf Hitler, a "Darth
Vader." The light and dark fathers are seldom one,
at least in the view of him that we hold because father,
by choice or chance, has been away a lot of the time.
We simply don't know who he is.
neither does he.
old man, then young, was fighting the real Hitler when
I was born, but his absence continued as he tried to support
an ever-enlarging family. He was gone before I woke up,
off to make a sale. Who is this guy, the little boy I
was must have wondered when he came home. I even called
my father “Doug,” for a while, as my mother
did, long before I ever called him “dad,”
which I don’t ever remember doing. Instead, he was
“Pop,” at times as funny as a party favor;
at other times, as explosive.
was that guy, I find myself still asking. In those surreal
months just after he’d disappeared, I would mistake
some poor bent-over man for him whose image I could never
quite reach, despite how stumbling his step. Or out in
these fields of central Illinois where the empty landscape
allows the mind to wander in distance, I would see in
the grayness an image of my father trembling along through
missing need a place to be,
As much as for themselves as we
Who cannot rest for tracking them, we
Who dream of snow, his footprints fresh and he
Just ahead I’m sure, just over the next rise,
Where he stumbled here, how he needs
An arm, a place to lean,
Faster now, faster, please . . .
he was away so often when I was growing up, my father's
disappearance from the VA seemed very much in character.
It seemed especially so when I later discovered from talking
to his brothers that their own father had taken off one
February night from the family farm in upstate New York
and never came back. He left four young sons and a wife
in the Catskill cold. "We hated the bastard,"
my Uncle Sheldon told me.
your father wanted to find him, I don't know."
find him he somehow did after the war. My father's father
turned up in Newark, New Jersey, selling fire insurance
from a stark office over a pawn shop in that rough city.
It was then that we moved, on a hot August day in l950
with my father at the wheel of our Studebaker stuffed
with kids and cats and my beleaguered mother. But we were
heading towards that hated man, not away, and had left
New England so that my father could go to work for someone
he hardly knew, that strange man who came to dinner the
first Thanksgiving in our new home, that scary man who
never said a word.
was that severed head in the picture, I realize now, with
his fierce brow and dark stare. He had no friendly name
like "granddad" or "grampy," and I
never spoke to him at all other than in a trembling voice
to call him "sir." My father jokingly called
him "I am," but never to his face—“I
am," because when he did speak, the man began every
sentence that way: “I am the first,” “I
am the best.” He was also "I am" because
to my father, this stern and silent figure must have been
a terrifying god—“I am the Word”—with
such power as he seemed to have.
the lightning, sudden on the ceiling like a searchlight,
I can see the statue rise, massive and stiff—
In my chest can hear it marching, marching, in strict
Striding towards the river now,
Its right arm out and rigid,
A man’s head in its marble hand.
his brothers, I wonder why my father ever sought to find
his own. He certainly didn't expect an apology, and how
would someone apologize anyway for what my grandfather
did? Surely, Pop wanted what any child does, a parent's
recognition, but that never came. On his death-bed in
hospital several years later, he turned to my father,
the only family member there other than my mother, and
said, "I don't know you," then muttered the
names of his other three sons as he died—and only
their names, the bastard.
father had just turned nine when he woke up to find his
father gone, the same age Jackie Gleason was when his
father walked out on him in Brooklyn, New York. Gleason
was my old man's favorite entertainer and died around
the time my father disappeared, which is why I know about
"Ralphy-boy's" history. For some reason I wanted
to learn who else had “vanished” that year,
and when I found out that Jackie and my old man had the
same kind of father, I began to wonder if Pop saw something
of himself in this funny, sad man.
Flatbush Avenue, a skinny kid
Now nearly ten,
Sets out for home
From P.S. 101
And while the other tenement kids
With dreams of their own
Like balls in their mitts
Go off to play together,
He takes off alone, meeting
As he goes along
The many failures he’d become . . .
father loved all those abandoned Gleason characters like
the pantomime “Poor Soul” whose hand-me-down
clothes never fit, and his opposite, the brash and pushy
“Loudmouth.” Pop saved Friday nights for laughs
as vigorously as he earned cash the rest of the week.
My father was Ralph Cramden with his get-rich-quick schemes
and must have longed to say something like, "Alice,
you're the greatest" when he’d get home, or,
no doubt, “To the moon, Alice, you’re goin’
to the moon,” as if real family life could have
ever had the half-hour resolution of each Honeymooner
father had all of Gleason's records, too. We forget—and
for good reason, hearing such schmaltz—that Jackie
conducted an orchestra, and my father would play the stuff
all the time. Not one note was original, and all possible
dissonance was resolved by the comedian's magical baton.
I can see my father now as he listens in the dim light
of the living room, sitting there alone, swaying slightly,
eased to sleep after the mad dash of his day. The "Loudmouth"
and the quiet one: both were Jackie Gleason, and both
were my old man.
By himself on the stoop
Before his mother calls him in,
He lifts a dream baton
To the street lamps
Coming slowly on,
And in the stage lights’ glare
Gropes through the curtain
At the end of the show,
All swagger, all sweat,
Wrapped in the wealth
Of a boxer’s silk robe
To wave us all good-night
Who’d laughed till we cried . . .
the famous acorn, I fell not far from my father's tree
and have at least two faces myself. I write and publish
poetry and hold a PhD in literature. I am also an avid
hunter and fisherman. My hands are small and my fingers
delicate, but I can use them as deftly composing a sonnet
as gutting a deer. I am exactly my father's size and literally
hiked in his boots for years after his disappearance,
hunting the gray November emptiness of these Illinois
fields. I wore his bright cap, too, in hopes that he might
see me from wherever he was, its brilliant blaze-orange,
a small fire in the cold.
my thumb to my wrist
I count the tiny sheep
leaping there, beat by beat,
Minutes, hours, morning,
Teaching my son to tell time,
The big hand, the small,
The numbers slipping from them,
Seven, eight, nine.
I find my father with his sleeves rolled
Driving a stake with a stone.
I hear him say from some far field,
“Watch how the shadow falls
In a circle on the ground.”
without meaning to, the behavioral hand-me-downs passed
on to me, I have, in turn, passed on to my son and daughter.
Naturally, I can more easily see my influence, both good
and bad, on my son. Brendan likes to fish, for example,
and, like me, played ball through school. I taught him
how to hit and throw, but what did I teach him about love,
I wonder? It's not a skill like casting a fly or swinging
a bat. It's not the mastery of technique as even poetry
at its worst can be. Does his hand tremble with joy or
fear when he touches a woman?—for I have seen his
fingers that are shaped like mine shake almost as uncontrollably
as my palsied father's when he's tried to net a fish and
thinks I'm watching, whether I actually am or not. And
for my daughter, which of the many “me's”
have I been to her? How can I make her know I'm real and
not some image from the culture?
years ago while teaching in Greece, I had the rare chance
for both of us to find out who I am as Megan, then sixteen,
came to live with me for most of the spring. Her stay
was the ultimate Father's Day gift. I got to be both Mom
and Pop, an opportunity my own father seldom had. I was
especially determined to bring the parts of me together
for my daughter. I had witnessed the consequences of a
woman's knowing only the stern, unforgiving kind of father
in my former wife and Megan's mother, a woman I had loved
profoundly. She has forever feared her workaholic father
and to this day, acts like a frightened child around him
although he's eighty-seven years old. Those yet living
can haunt us, too, and in my wife’s mind I became
the shadow of that man she never knew.
didn't help matters much either, being as blind about
my own behavior as Oedipus was when he could see. The
father-daughter issue in Sophocles’ play is rarely
talked about but should be. We forget that Oedipus also
had sons, but they never appear in the play. Only Antigone
and Ismene do, which throws emphasis on the daughters’
relationship with their father. Who he is in their eyes
becomes very important. How to be a king at the dinner
table is the contemporary version of being on the throne
the end of a pretty bad day, Oedipus is more kingly as
a humbled man than he was as royalty, and Antigone and
Ismene—two images themselves: one strong, one weak—are
there to accept, forgive, and even admire. But first there
must be some painful self-recognition on the father's
part, and what better place than Greece to help one "Know
was as nervous when my daughter arrived as I might have
been on a first date. We weren't "doubling"
with another couple. Instead, we would be isolated together
in a strange culture where neither of us knew the language.
I was the one who felt sixteen, although when really her
age, I was far more self-confident than I was at that
moment. Back on a street corner in Jersey in the late-fifties,
with my collar up and hair slicked back, I knew what love
was then: "five feet of heaven and a ponytail."
Love was as easy as those words from a Frankie Avalon
song, but it had somehow become more complicated over
the years. More than forty of them, in fact, and there
I was waiting for my daughter in the smoky Athens airport
and terribly unsure of myself.
did I know me well enough, a father's first obligation?
Could I trust myself not to lie or boast as we traveled
and ate together; to not be too judgmental? Was I self-confident
enough to admit when I didn't know something or to say,
yes, I'm lost, too?
always, but I tried.
six weeks together zipped by, quick as a lizard on a Santorini
hillside. We shared the present moment in hurried taxis
and eternity under the gold mosaics of Istanbul's Hagia
Sophia where we'd gone for our last trip of her visit.
And then she flew home, the Monday after Father's Day
which we spent with some Greek friends who lavished the
family's patriarchs with, of all things, flowers. Cascades
of yellow and pink bouquets, and then they wept, everyone
did, bawled like babbling babies, even those swarthy Greek
men, the older ones anyway, cried until they laughed,
as we all did. And, next day, when she flew off, I shamelessly
don't remember ever seeing my father cry. What would I
have thought if I had? It would have confused me, just
as his getting flowers one Sunday in June would have baffled
him. He must have cried, I'm sure, though men of his generation
seldom did in public. I do know he loved to laugh, when
he had the time.
wish I could have told him about a word I learned in ancient
Greek: "klafseeyalos," as it might be spelled
phonetically. It means "laughter" and "tears"
in one word, not two. It’s also the perfect word
to describe so many of Jackie Gleason's characters, like
the shy and shuffling funny pantomime of his "Poor
Soul" and, of course, the brassy yet sorry Ralph
we see this wise word most often pictured above a stage,
perhaps like the one where Jackie Gleason would take his
bow at the end of the show, sweat marks on the silk of
his robe. “Klafseeyalos”: the comic and the
tragic mask, but they are the same face, really, with
just different directions for the mouth. The same person,
too, as the ancient Greeks realized, Father or Daddy.
he went that day, years ago now,
I see him leading a platoon
Of men like those not there around him,
Purple Hearts and heroes, all of them, yes,
But not on this mission with a daffy Captain.
Instead, they’ve found their way to some green
The 9000th inning about to start
And beer for all forever:
Just a bunch of happy ghosts, waving to the camera.