Come Father: Arms Around My Neck

June 20, 1993|By LEONARD ROSEN

Brookline, Massachusetts. -- With two young sons and a child on the way, my father quit his government job to found his company -- in the basement of his mother-in-law's house. I have no direct memories of his machine shop. My older brother tells me that he would return from school each day to find our father bent over a lathe with mounds of steel shavings at his feet.

My recollections begin later when our not-so-old man, having enjoyed some success, moved his business to the manufacturing plant where workers assembled his machines. That entrepreneurs in Lisbon could use an idea hatched by a man in Baltimore taught me something about the power of ideas. That my father's first machine, sold the year I was born, still logs 40 hours a week has taught me something about standards of excellence.

To build and build well, my father paid a price. He was not home much, and I accepted his schedule as a fact of nature with its own tidal rhythms: gone at 8, home at 7, paperwork till 12. He had no time for swinging a bat or shooting hoops -- arts my brothers taught me. He had no time for watching my teams play; nor do I remember going to a movie or to a lunch or to a park with him. But I do recall the way he embraced my mother every night when he arrived, always late, from work. I wondered even then at the trade-off they managed so successfully -- she making a home, he building things, the two of them flying into each other's arms at night as if, married 20 years already, they had through separate and unlikely stratagems survived a war and discovered, miraculously, that the other was alive.

He is 80. I am nearly 40. I have never known him not to work. He can afford retirement but this is impossible, both because he loves the challenges of business and because he was poor as a child. Recently I learned that he bought parts for his first bicycle -- one rusty part at a time, as he could afford it -- from the local junkyard. Then one triumphant day he assembled the device, which must have had a strange, stitched-together look. But that bicycle worked, and ever since (this would have been about 1921) my father's been building things.

I've given up asking when he'll stop, since he has no choice but to build -- as if to do anything other than lay brick upon brick, fasten nut to bolt, is to court death. So he builds and all the while has carried my mother, brothers and me on his shoulders, high above the privations of his own early life. He carried me for so long, and so well, that it came as a shock to discover that I had hoisted him onto my shoulders. I don't know just when I took him aboard, but I do know the instant I realized it.

Periodically, my wife and I discuss moving from Boston to Baltimore, where our parents live. They are there, aging and content, never once suggesting what is plainly in their hearts and what we plainly dread to hear: ''Won't you come back?'' But our parents dare not ask because we'd say no, which is a curious answer in that as long as they don't ask, we entertain the idea seriously.

In Boston, we are happy but frantic in our professional lives -- with kids, a house, getting more dug in with each passing year. Still, we wonder: might we not be happy and frantic in Baltimore? We never quite resolve the issue, and on our latest go-round I unexpectedly recalled an image from Virgil's Aeneid: of Aeneas, mythic founder of Rome, hoisting his aged father, Anchises, onto his back and leaving a ruined Troy. I hadn't read the story in 20 years, yet here is what I said to my wife: ''We live at home with our parents or we leave. In either case we carry them on our backs and found cities of our own.''

Who talks this way? I don't, usually, so I returned to the poem, wanting to know why an image long forgotten would come ghosting across the years. As I read, Virgil once again transported me: Greek soldiers breach the walls of Troy. The great city burns. Aeneas stands to fight, but through the divine agency of his mother, Venus, he is spirited from the battle and returned to his father's house. ''I'll follow you,'' the old man says. ''Where you conduct me, there I'll be.'' Aeneas replies:

Then come, dear father. Arms around my neck:

I'll take you on my shoulders, no great weight.

Whatever happens, both will face one danger,

Find one safety. . . .

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