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Conversations with My Father

Postmodernism, morality,
and the evolution of a
father-daughter relationship
by Jessica Roemischer

In one of my earliest memories, I was standing in my crib in the bedroom of our beautiful Tudor home, just north of New York City, from which I overlooked the vast Hudson River and from which I overlooked the driveway. It was late afternoon and the familiar crunching sound of tires on asphalt and gravel released the joyous response of fulfilled anticipation: my dad was home. A buoyant happiness flooded my body as I began shaking the crib to the bounce of the music coming from the radio down the hall: “Double your pleasure, double your fun, double your flavor, Doublemint gum.” It was 1961.

The handful of idyllic years following my birth were often the subject of my mother's reflection: “Your father really loved you and gave you everything during those first few years. You were his firstborn.” It was the only thing she recounted about him that was free of bitterness. And indeed, those early years were the times I remembered with him that were free of disappointment. I always felt my father and I were close, connected at some deep human level, some a priori dimension that was subtly present always—the simple and immutable expression of the fact that I was his daughter and he my father and that, as it would later turn out, we shared much in common. Yet, as those early years gave way to the mid-sixties, he became elusive, and the sense of joy, fullness, and completeness I experienced as a toddler gave way to a gnawing hunger and a haunting uncertainty: I couldn't grasp him, hold him, rely on him.

I had just turned six when one afternoon, my mother came down to the kitchen crying. When I asked why, she said, “I've got a stomachache.” It didn't quite add up—she never cried. But shortly following that puzzling episode, she sat my brother and me down and explained that my dad would be living somewhere else, although he'd come to visit every week or two. And he did, sleeping on the living room couch, a prized piece of modern Danish furniture that we all knew was uncomfortable, despite its value. What we didn't learn until years later was that he had left to start a new family with the young woman who had been our nanny.

It was 1969. The day prior to my tenth birthday, I watched on a small black-and-white TV as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to stand on soil beyond our planet. But what I remember more vividly from that summer was standing alone on the exposed dirt in the open field parking lot of the girls' summer camp I attended in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts. One by one, the parents were arriving for Parents' Day, meeting their daughters, and walking off to spend the rest of the afternoon together. I kept waiting, but my dad still didn't arrive. Minutes and hours went by, and I was the last one left, accompanied by one of the counselors, watching forlornly as the last few girls and family members disappeared from view. Finally my father drove up, but by then it was late afternoon and most of the Parents' Day activities were over. I couldn't help but be happy to see him . . . and sad.

“Jesus Christ, Jess, I think that's your father!” exclaimed my mother one morning later that year. Sure enough, there he was on the front page of the New York Times. Bearded and ponytailed, he was pictured marching in an anti-war demonstration in Washington, D.C., carrying a casket, which, the caption said, was filled with the names of the Americans killed in Vietnam. By this time, I was beginning to realize that my dad was unlike most of my friends' fathers. He was cool. I would invite friends to come with me to the house he had recently purchased and was fixing up in the rural far reaches of upstate New York. There, in a small, picturesque town on the shores of Lake Champlain, in a community that shared few (if any) of his progressive values, he planted his new family, his left-wing lifestyle, and what proved to be the best home-grown marijuana he'd ever smoked. “It's the fertilizer I made from chicken shit,” he proudly declared.

Commuting long distance, he split his time between his new family and his classes at Brooklyn College, where he taught. Sometimes he would pick up my brother and me on the way back upstate. Whenever we'd leave my mom in our beautiful suburb to drive the five hours north to his rambling old home, she would stand in the frame of the front door, beyond consolation—partly from the loneliness that she knew would follow and partly out of disdain for my father's new life and growing family. “Your father needed four more kids like he needed a hole in the head” became one of her favorite quips, delivered with predictable and scathing bite. And while that wasn't an unreasonable response, all things considered, life at home with my mother could be suffocating. So, despite the lack of sustained human connection with my dad, I was always relieved and happy to go visit him. In the midst of it all—my mother's overbearing nature and my father's elusiveness—I began to fill the loneliness by being hip, being popular, by enfolding myself into the haunting melodies I improvised on our grand piano in the stillness of the evening, and soon thereafter by enfolding myself into guys.

About the same time that I realized my dad was cool, I also realized he was brilliant. A philosophy professor with an exceptionally broad-ranging knowledge, from the Greeks to the most contemporary philosophical trends, his specialty was the school of American pragmatists that included George Herbert Mead and John Dewey. His doctoral thesis, a full sixteen hundred pages of original research on the little-known Scottish philosopher Thomas Davidson, was the definitive statement on that man's life and work, far superseding all previous explications of Davidson's philosophical contribution. My mother kept a copy of it in the basement, all five volumes. We joked that my father's thesis must have been used to argue the decision to ultimately cap thesis size at three hundred pages.

As I grew older, my father became a resource for my mind, for that part of me that was compelled by ideas, a part not entirely dissociated from, but also not entirely connected to, my heart. “Jess, before you graduate from Princeton, you have to have the invaluable experience of reading Plato's Apology in ancient Greek,” my dad advised me one afternoon as we were driving up to his home on Lake Champlain. In the end, I did enroll in Ancient Greek, but was disappointed by the professor, who was far less inspiring than my own father on the subject.

Indeed, in the times he and I spent together as I went through my late teens and early twenties, we would invariably speak about philosophy, about the history of ideas, about the evolution of Western thought. Together with him, I roamed the vast terrain of the Western world's great philosophical traditions, touching down on Socrates, St. Augustine, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, and Dewey. Actually, my father's specialty was the pragmatic application of those ideas, particularly in the field of education. He taught teachers how to teach. And for him, education was important because it was anchored in the real world and in the realm of human learning, human transformation, and most importantly, human relationship.

I was nourished by his exuberant love of life and by his insights into and appreciation of human nature, which spanned the spectrum of race and culture, touching the lives of the young pupils of the inner-city student teachers he supervised. He did everything he could to help those teachers-to-be recognize the raw energy and potential of the children in their classes, simultaneously revealing how so much of the standardized educational process stultified them. One time, a student teacher from a predominantly black school in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn presented my dad with the test paper of a particularly tough fifth grader. In every box on the mindless rote exam, the boy had carefully penned “Fuck you” in large, clear letters. My dad's eyes lit up as he said to the young teacher, “This kid hasn't been beaten down by the system yet! There's something here you can work with!” I deeply appreciated his appreciation.

At the same time, my father seemed like a walking contradiction, fueled by a formidable intellect and a genuine love for human beings but driven by his own compulsions—compulsions that were more than accommodated, indeed encouraged, amid the new freedoms of the time. As I was to discover years later, in some important ways he exemplified the culture that emerged during the sixties. Because, despite the progressive ideologies of those who participated in and defined that era, the personal lives of so many during that period pulled free from the moral principles that had tethered uncountable generations before.

And so it was with my dad. His unusual passion for life, his generosity of spirit, and his prodigious intellect were offset by a failure to take responsibility in his personal life, and this continued to create an existential rift within me. My mind and heart split in order to accommodate it. Sifting through the contradictory experiences, my mind fed on the inspiration and knowledge he transmitted while my heart tried to reconcile my long-standing hunger for his attention and love. Indeed, he continued to be unreliable and distracted, and he continued to be late. It was simple: as it did for many of his generation, the loosened morality that buoyed the emerging culture freed him, and a whole society, from the traditional social rules and roles. But in the process, it also despoiled those qualities that form the very fabric of human relationship—trust, commitment, authenticity. And as my own life unfolded over the years to come, I would realize firsthand that the lack of moral constraint left both freedom and a legacy of narcissism in its wake.

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