Magazine article Psychology Today

My Father, the Stranger

Magazine article Psychology Today

My Father, the Stranger

Article excerpt

( TWO-MINUTE MEMOIR )

I spent my childhood following my father around the globe-and a lifetime in search of what he knew.

BELGRADE, 1981

I was 7 and living in Yugoslavia. My father had been assigned to the embassy there. Our small stone cottage was in a quiet diplomatic enclave on the south side of the city, perched on the banks above a bend in the Danube River.

In the evenings, we walked our dog, a golden retriever called Duke. We did so slowly; my father liked to amble. My father usually wore a brown beret and a puffy blue parka, under which his frame disappeared entirely.

He often stopped by one of the park's giant trees, behemoths that had been there for half a century or more, and reached down to examine die ground at its base. He was looking for good chestnuts, he said. As I played, or watched the dog, he'd root around on his knees, running his hands through the beet-colored leaves. Sensingahunt, Duke would come racing up and cause my father to topple over, laughing, against the tree. He'd emerge holding a chestnut for me and off we'd go. Life was an adventure, and he was my guide.

Children are malleable, and I no less than most, so the novelty of the situation inspired more curiosity than terror. That we were behind the Iron Curtain, or right on its edge, had a special significance for me. I imagined a wall that stretched from the ground to the sky, a chain-link through which the rest of the world was visible but not reachable. My parents had divorced a year before, and I had left my mother behind in Virginia, on the other side of the curtain. Little did she know how pleasant it was in Belgrade.

At that age, I didn't know why I was always moving, only that it was an irreducible component of life with my father. When I asked him about it, he said he worked for the Foreign Service, and that was enough for me. I understood that this involved embassies and functions and parties. I thought it a rather dignified job, something I might like to do one day. My dad spoke Serbo-Croatian fluently; ladies trilled in his presence. Other men seemed harsh next to his charm.

Being7, my universe was small. I didn't know much about what was happening around me- the simmering ethnic tensions, the country's slow exodus from the Soviet Bloc, and what that would mean for the generation of Yugoslavs with whom, in school, I was learning to add and subtract. Those walks through the woods define my experience of Belgrade.

If I had looked closer- say, at the base of one of those trees where my father searched for chestnuts- I might have noticed something. The ground might have been loosely packed, a single branch placed almost haphazardly against the base of the trunk, a brown paper package left in the hollow just above the roots, covered with a smattering of debris.

But if a person wasn't looking carefully-if, in fact, you didn't know exactly whatyou were lookingfor- you wouldn't have noticed a thing.

SOUTHFIELD, MICHIGAN, 1987

One lazy Saturday morning, my father took me to his office. I was 14, old enough to be asking the kinds of questions to which my father's answers- or sleight-of-hand that masqueraded as answers- no longer sufficed. I think, too, that he knew the ordinariness that permeated most aspects of our current life in the middle of America was corrosive, that I craved something more. My father may have suspected that his hold on me was tenuous, and that making me complicit in his secrets might be a way of staving off my inevitable revolt.

We pulled into an office complex, and he tracked across to the mostly empty lot, past a Baskin-Robbins, a pharmacy, and a video store, parking in front of a drab two-story building. The blinds on the second story had been shuttered. He shifted to look at me. When I reached for the door handle, he said gently, "Wait"

I turned back to look at him. His normally confident mouth slackened. He was stuck between apology and pride, which morphed into a mischievous grin, then again into gentle certainty. …

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