Portrait of My Father
Granta 104: ‘Fathers’ includes recollections of their fathers by nine writers. For Granta.com, we have invited more writers to reflect upon a picture of their father. The next in our series is by Jess Row, one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists.
This picture was taken in my kitchen two weeks after my daughter, Mina, was born, on the morning of her Simchat Bat, her baby-naming ceremony. Though my father is a lifelong fan of the opera, the resemblance to James Levine is purely coincidental.
In my family, until recently, the generations stretched out and became more like a generation and a half: my father’s father was forty-six when my father was born; my father forty when he had me. Lathe Burton Row, my grandfather, served in the United States Cavalry in border incursions into Mexico in 1913. Later in his long army career, he was a colonel in charge of Scofield Barracks in Honolulu, in December 1941. On a routine inspection mission to the Big Island, he heard the Japanese bombs falling on his base over the radio. My father, seven years old, watched Zero fighters whining over his house on their way to attack Pearl Harbor.
When asked about my father, I often tell this story: it’s an image that sticks in the mind, but more importantly an index of how wide a historical gulf separates us. Unlike most of my contemporaries – I was born in 1974 – I did not have a Baby Boomer for a father. Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the SDS, the Summer of Love – these are the distantly observed detritus of his midlife, not the fervour of his youth. We have never been, in any sense, contemporaries, as Boomers sometimes imagine themselves to be with their children. Our whole lives have been spent gesturing across that too-wide gap: gesturing, for the most part, rather than speaking. Though not immune to emotion by any means, he strains at putting feelings into words. A lover of flora, forestry economist by trade, gardener by vocation, he feels most at home with things that grow quietly and of their own accord.
There isn’t a similar picture of him holding me as a newborn, but this one says it all: a mingling of bafflement, pride, and amused pleasure at the late surprise of fatherhood. He, needless to say, is not Jewish – our roots in this country begin with Robert Cushman, treasurer of Mayflower Colony – but at my Hindu-Unitarian-Jewish-Buddhist wedding, at the end of the hora, he was clapping wildly, tears running down his cheeks. Settled and habit-prone, he nonetheless loves to see new life springing up – and, in this case, dropping right into his arms.