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Of Fathers And Sons: Through My Own Sons Finding The Love I Missed Out On

Alexander Kronemer Special to The Washington Post
June 10, 1997; Page B5

Joyful cries and the call "Daddy, look at this" or "Daddy, look what I found" are now as much a part of the sounds of the woods for me as the chirp of crickets or the babble of a creek. At the insistence of my two sons, ages 3 and 6, we go for hikes in the woods at least once a week. It is one of their favorite activities, and is something they like to do just with me. I pack a lunch, they take their butterfly nets and nature kits, and we spend the afternoon exploring and making up adventures. My sons are lucky. They possess something I never knew: their father's love and attention. My father was a hard-working but hard-drinking man, and my parents separated before I was old enough to start school. A few years later he remarried, and though he never lived far away, I didn't see him after that.

I was too young to know him, so I never missed him exactly, but I always yearned for a father. Growing up, I gravitated into the orbit of almost every man who showed me the smallest consideration, coming to think of some as surrogate dads. None ever saw me as a surrogate son, however.

After my marriage and the birth of my first son, I finally realized what a fruitless pursuit I was on, and I ended it. But ceasing to look for new father figures only made me start wondering about my real father.

I was then in my early thirties. I hadn't spoken to my father for almost three decades, though I knew where he lived. One day while I was thinking about him, a thought popped into my head: Maybe he was thinking of me, too; maybe in his old age he finally needed and wanted his son.

So three summers ago, I drove half the day to his small rented house and we met. We talked through the afternoon and into the evening. Still burly, as I remembered him, and chewing on a cigar throughout the day, he was more articulate and well read than I expected. And I saw that he must have cut an attractive figure as a young man. He was once a decorated Army officer and took part in the D-Day invasion. He fought in Korea and commanded a Green Beret unit in the early 1960s, with a picture of him on the cover of a faded magazine as proof.

But as if the day were a microcosm of his entire life, he also drank an entire fifth of whiskey during our conversation, and by late evening was starting to talk silly.

Nevertheless, as I drove back in the early hours of the morning, I was happy. He had asked me many questions about my life and seemed to feel pride about some of my accomplishments. I visited him again, and began writing letters and calling regularly.

Yet despite my attempts, the warm sentiments of the first visit were never quite repeated, and increasingly, he had less to say to me. I also started to notice that he never answered any of my letters or returned a single phone call when he was out (often at a bar), even when I purposely let long periods of time pass between them.

He was willing to respond to me if I made all the effort, but it was crushingly obvious that it did not make a great deal of difference to him whether I was in his life or not.

Around that time my sons and I took one of our first hikes together. My older boy was then 4, the younger close to 2. Feeling glum, I sat on a large rock in front of our favorite creek while the boys poked around. I really hadn't expected to start a close father-son relationship with my dad, but I felt dejected nevertheless. Suddenly the younger boy began to shriek. Running toward me, he screamed that a spider had crawled on him.

It was a daddy longlegs. Kneeling, I brushed it off his sleeve and gently hugged him. As he held on to my neck, I noticed that the older boy was hovering nearby, watching us.

All the times that I had longingly watched my friends' fathers comfort them on different occasions pressed down on me. I hooked my arm around the older boy's waist and pulled him into my embrace. I squeezed them, and as they squeezed me back, I buried my head in the crook of their necks and held them as I had always wanted a father to hold me. Later we waded in the creek and looked for crayfish. We sunned ourselves in a clearing, and while the boys used my stomach for a pillow, we called out the names of animals we saw in the clouds floating by above.

I am never going to know a father's love, and that will always be a source of some sadness for me. But I am a father myself now -- to sons who bring back memories of my own childhood. And the love that I feel toward my boys seems to create a gentle emotion that somehow washes back over me like a healing bath. Being a loving father has filled the gnawing emptiness that was only made worse during years of trying to be a good surrogate son and prove myself worthy of a father's love.

So I am lucky, too. More than my sons' childhoods are being made out of these happy years. During our hikes and other adventures, and with each bit of comfort that I may bring to some of their troubles, part of my childhood is also being restored.

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