“You beat time on my head”: Thoughts on Being Older Than My Father

My father, Gerhard Heuser, before I was born.

“As all the pleasures of intellect arise from the association of ideas,” Richard Payne Knight reasoned in An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste (1805), “the more the materials of association are multiplied, the more will the sphere of these pleasures be enlarged.”  He argued that, to a

mind richly stored, almost every object of nature or art, that presents itself to the sense either excites fresh trains and combinations of ideas, or vivifies and strengthens those which existed before: so that recollection enhances enjoyment, and enjoyment brightens recollection.

While I am not convinced that the “association of ideas” always brings “pleasures” or ‘brightens recollection” – experiences that are not strictly a matter of “intellect” to begin with – I am so prone to raids on the store of memories, in varying states of neglect and disrepair, that any and all matter may turn up and, often unexpectedly, turn into reassembled “materials of association.”

Tracing the proverbial dots that speckle – or perhaps constitute – my mindscape, I invariably connect the tell-tale marks that, like splotches of blood, lead right to the heart of what is the matter with me, and, without any recourse to science, make themselves felt to match my DNA.  I am dotty that way.

Call it egocentrism, call it empathy, such provoked but uncalled-for recall can lead to discoveries decidedly beyond “enjoyment.”  The compulsion to relate – to find associations relevant and revelatory rather than beside whatever the point of anything may be, according to some – keeps driving home that the past, however processed or pasteurized, like spilled milk made longer-lasting to be cried over anew – keeps repeating on us.  Hold our tongue as we may, we can still taste it.  I am tasting it now.

Belatedly, as ever, I am catching up with season one of 13 Reasons Why.  Based on what, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, was apparently one of the most frequently banned novels in the US, the serial drama inserts a dead teenager’s voice – via tape recordings – into the aftermath of her suicide, calling on her fellow students to reflect on the motivations underlying her decision to end her life and forcing them to engage with her memory.

Clearly, I am not the target audience for such teen fiction.  And yet, I can and cannot but relate – not from the perspective of the parent I never was but from the point of view of an adolescent whose identity confusion and angst still reverberate in the echo chamber of my psyche.

Perhaps, the collision of trains of thought was rather more predictable than they can be at times. As a seventeen-year-old, I had written a short play on teenage suicide, casting myself in the role of the one calling it quits – throwing my proxy self on my father’s circular saw, no less – and playing the part on the stage at my high school.

Contemporary newspaper article showing fellow students at rehearsal

Titled “Hass” (German for “hatred”), my playlet was part of an anthology of vignettes responding to Die wunderbaren Jahre (“the wonderful years”), a collection of short prose by the East German writer Reiner Kunze that was banned in the East and published in the West, where I grew up.  It was one of our teachers who suggested the book as a source for a play to be written and produced at my high school, itself named after Sophie and Hans Scholl, student activists who were sentenced to death for resisting the Hitler regime.

Estranged as I felt myself to be from those on the other side of the iron curtain, the title of Kunze’s book – a reference to Truman Capote’s Grass Harp – resonated with me in its intended irony.  Nothing is “wonderful” about being young when you are, wherever you are.  

In your face and devoid of sophistication, “Hass” was meant to cut through the silence, the sham images of childhood pushed by those who count on us not to remember.  To be sure, the title was masking as well what the play only hinted at: the agony of a queer youth unable to feel or express love without shame or the fear of facing hatred.

A page from the script, newly scanned

“Hass” drew concretely on my experience.  My father had a circular saw in his workshop. I hated the noisy and violent ersatz toys of conspicuous manhood, my father’s motorcycle being another such tool.  Keeping up the illusion of strength and virility killed my impotence-suffering father in installments, bottle by bottle, although he made more drastic attempts at ending his life along the way.  In the play, my alter ego, acting impulsively, tries to do away with his father but, failing and being humiliated by that failure, ends his own life instead.

“You have to say it was an accident,” my alter ego cries, sneaking into the workshop at night while his parents lie awake in that dried-up seedbed of their unmaking.  The pathos of the exclamation anticipates the lie they would no doubt tell and perhaps even manage to make themselves believe.

So passionate was I in enacting my botched revenge fantasy that, during rehearsals, I hit the fellow student playing my father with a two-by-four, quite forgetting to keep up the illusion of play-acting.  What is hitting me now, decades later, is the realization that, this year, I am older than my father ever was.

It brings to mind the vulnerability and relative youth of parents, the assumptions children make about adulthood as a stage of being all grown up and having it all figured out – and, above all, for being in the world for apparently no other reason than to take care of them.  My father was twenty-four when I was born; and, worshipped though he was by me as prepubescent boy, he was not yet forty when I told him that I hated him.  What I hated, as a queer gay youth, was the thought of becoming him at a time when my androgynous self struggled to define what it was to be a man.

13 Reasons Why has little to say about parents, other than that they are disconnected from the reality of their children at a time when those children begin to think of themselves as adults.  My parents certainly where disengaged; but now, at least, I am able to see them as children, children growing up rather too fast.

At the time of my father’s death, in 1998, I was studying literature in New York; and a poem that immediately came to mind then was Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” (1948):

The whiskey on your breath / Could make a small boy dizzy / But I hung on like death: / Such waltzing was not easy.

The hand that held my wrist / Was battered on one knuckle; / At every step you missed / My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head / With a palm caked hard by dirt, / Then waltzed me off to bed / Still clinging to your shirt.

As a boy, I was an unseeing witness to my father’s gradual self-destruction.  Unable to read the signs and connect the dots, I took his rough-and-tumbleness, coming home from the work he hated, for exuberance and joy – a love of life.  Perhaps, my declared hatred years later made me something other than a mere witness to the unravelling of a man whose funeral I did not attend.  Like the classmates in 13 Reasons Why, I am culpable and must carry the burden of guilt for not having had the courage to speak frankly and the compassion to listen with understanding.

I did not speak with my father for the last ten years of his life; once, when he picked up the phone at my sister’s place, I pretended not to recognise his voice and hung up. Might things have turned out differently for my family if my parents had come to see the play?

No, the “association of ideas” does not always result in the “enlargement” of “pleasures.”  Sometimes, it can feel more like guilt by association. It can make you shrink from the self you shrink into until the arrival of “fresh trains and combinations of ideas” enables you to see and embrace the world anew.

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