The void at the head of the table

August 04, 2002|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

ONE DAY many years ago, for reasons that escape me now, I took a running leap and landed smack in the middle of my father's bed. What I didn't realize was that my father was in it at the time.

He came bolt upright out of a sound sleep, going, "WHO? What's that?" I rolled quickly off the bed, out of his line of sight, and willed myself to invisibility. Seconds later, probably convinced he had suffered the mother of all nightmares, Dad dropped back to the pillow.

And I remembered to breathe.

It wasn't just that I feared reprimand. It was also that I had crossed a line.

Fathers of my dad's generation were distant, unknowable men. I mean, when he felt like it, my pop could be an amiable fellow who made you laugh yourself breathless. But the unwritten rule, as with so many fathers in those years, was that you waited for him to approach you. You didn't impose yourself on him. Fathers seldom talked to you or explained to you. You never quite knew just what it was they did when they splashed on their Old Spice, adjusted their hats just so and went out into the world.

These are the nuances that Tom Hanks gets just right in his latest movie, Road to Perdition. Superficially, it's a Depression-era gangster drama with Mr. Hanks as a hit man on the run, trying to protect his son, who saw something he should not have seen. But the film has more on its mind than gun battles and mob politics. In its study of a bad man and the boy who worships him, it offers an elegiac meditation on the ties binding fathers to sons.

It couldn't have come along at a better time in the life of a father-phobic nation.

Maybe you would dispute that characterization. You could argue, I suppose, that fatherhood has changed dramatically for the better since the era depicted in the movie. A good father today is expected to nurture, to be involved, to make himself "emotionally available" to his children.

But something else also has happened. In the same years that society asked fathers to open themselves up, it simultaneously decided they are irrelevant. The Census Bureau reports that, of 72 million U.S. children younger than 18, 16.1 million - nearly one-quarter - live without their fathers.

And if those numbers are distressing, the numbers in the black community are downright catastrophic. Roughly half of 11.4 million black children are in fatherless homes.

Fatherhood sometimes seems as obsolete as vinyl records. And we don't seem to miss it. To the contrary, it has become fashionable for women to create children expressly without fathers. It has become routine for those children to say they don't need their fathers, because mother fills both roles. It has become unremarkable for fathers to just ... disappear.

I'm reminded of an old folk expression: "Mama's baby, daddy's maybe." It spoke of a man's irresolution in the face of fatherhood, his difficulty claiming pride of authorship in his children because, let's face it, only the mother knew absolutely and positively for sure.

What men sometimes fail to grasp, I think, is that children feel irresolution, too. They need to love us, but often they don't even know how. They need to know something of where they are from, but sometimes they are not even acknowledged there.

These needs are not always honored or understood by society, by mothers, even by fathers themselves. Still, I think, they are hard-wired in us as human beings. They don't change because social mores change or mother can't stand father or technology renders father obsolete or father can't comprehend. These needs are always.

This is what Mr. Hanks' character finally comes to realize. That realization makes a bad man a better father - and provides an object lesson for a society that never seems to get it right where fathers are concerned.

Instead, we travel an arc between unacceptable extremes.

Once upon a time, father was the indecipherable presence at the head of the table. Then we took away his chair.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. He may be reached via e-mail at lpitts@herald.com or by calling toll-free at 1-888-251-4407.

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