Our writers have experienced many shades of fatherly love—conditional, unconditional, warmly comforting, authoritarian, judgmental. From now until Father’s Day—this Sunday, June 16—we present these varied memories, which, the authors acknowledge, are tempered by the mature understanding (and sometimes empathy) that their life experience has brought them.
“I know that my father loved me,
but it was in the manner of an earlier age.”
I remember my childhood with my father as a sequence of teachable moments. He was a beloved professor of art history, and “teaching” was simply his permanent personality. All of his love and affection was conveyed through his unquenchable desire to impart knowledge and—I suspect now in hindsight—to validate his presence to himself and others.
The teachable moments could have comical results. I was taken to art museums as far back as I can remember, and I loved to wander the galleries while holding his hand and listening to marvelous stories about what we were seeing. While still unable to distinguish between a Titian and a Tintoretto or tell a Monet from a Manet, I could draw the kind of conclusions that led me to equate the long armored feet of medieval knights with Catholicism—which, Papa explained, was the religion of that age. At one of my parents’ cocktail parties I came up to a very pretty woman—I imagine that I was under 7 at the time—and admired her narrow feet with the declaration that she must be Catholic. Since her family were staunch Episcopalians, this was met with gales of laughter and “Quiet, please, Susanna is speaking to her elders.”
In 1936, Johannes Alexander Gaertner left his native Germany to avoid the draft. He went to Lima, Peru, where he intended to spend a year . . . and it became 10. In 1941 he met and married my mother; they came to this country just after the war. In the manner of Einstein, Nabokov, and other émigré eggheads, my father obtained a position at Lafayette College—at that time an all-male bastion of engineering and science. His Th.D. dissertation on Roman sarcophagi made for a natural progression from Theology to Art History. My father “became” the Humanities Department, teaching German, French, Spanish, Latin, Art Appreciation, Music Appreciation, and Painting. (No doubt I have omitted something.)
As Lafayette grew, Languages and Music peeled off and my father founded, and for decades was, the Department of Art History. Legions of his students have remembered him in testimonials, recalling both his passion for the subject matter and his lovable eccentricities (a tissue box was placed on the corner of his desk on the first day of class with the admonition that students were not to sniff and snort but to come up and get a tissue if they needed one; for some reason this has stuck in the minds of many).
As the only child of such an eminent professor, I have to withstand the impulse to berate myself for being critical of him, because it smacks of selfishness, even ingratitude. But his fathering did not include the empathy that would have made him protect me from my manic-depressive mother. I can’t in good conscience fault him for this: It wasn’t on the radar of German intelligentsia of my parents’ generation and background to consider maternal bullying and jealousy as treatable depression. Papa retreated to his attic office immediately after dinner and I was left to withstand my critical—because unhappy—mother.
I know that my father loved me, but it was in the manner of an earlier age: Children were meant to be seen and not heard, to be obedient in all things, and to follow the path prescribed by their wiser parents. I wanted to be a classical ballet dancer; my father wanted me to be a professor like him. Though I showed promise as a dancer (even gaining admittance, at age 16, to a summer program at the Joffrey), this was never up for discussion.
We had an easy if formal rapport, my father and I. But after those museum trips in my youth, we were never again a father-daughter duo—except at Christmastime in 1989, when I surprised him with a book of his own writings that I had privately published from a manuscript I found where it had fallen behind a radiator in my father’s office. Bound in theologically appropriate maroon linen, Worldly Wisdom is a compendium of Papa’s pithy aperçus on all aspects of human behavior. Retitled Worldly Virtues, the little volume came out again in hardback under the Viking imprint, and then yet again as Penguin paperbacks in both American and Australian editions. (Hardcover and paperback copies still float around on Amazon.) I know that my father was just as happy as he could be, cheered up immensely in his declining years. Even my mother approved of this endeavor.
So I really had no relationship with this wonderful man after my teenage years. When I finished graduate school but turned to advertising as my occupation, I knew that Papa was disappointed. He could not understand why I would not want to teach at the university level, even though I now had the credentials to do so. And it took me decades to accept that not being an academic does not invalidate my life’s choices. As a Pilates instructor I now combine the movement and discipline that appealed to me from ballet with the teaching ability that is in my genes. I can only hope that he would finally be proud of me.