JIM DODSON: A Father Lets Go of His Boy
As I sat on the football field watching my grinning son and his best buddy Drew march in with the class of 2008 to receive their diplomas last Saturday afternoon, their cardinal robes flashing in the sun, my wife asked if I remembered the day I graduated from high school.
Somewhere I read that high school commencement ranks high on the list of things many people remember in vivid detail to the end of their lives.
Unfortunately, I'm not one of them.
"I have only the vaguest memories of that day," I admitted.
I remembered, for instance, the heavy navy blue gowns and wearing gym shorts and flip-flops under it. I remembered a buddy who brought a chilled pack of Falstaff beer under his robe, promising to pass out cans as our mortar boards flew. He was days away from going to basic training at Parris Island. Next stop, Vietnam.
I recalled the beautiful Italian fountain pen my mom gave me. She said no future writer should be without one.
I remembered the special anniversary edition of Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast" my dad gave me, saying he thought I just might like it.
That was a little joke between us. Hemingway's impressionistic tale of a young American writer's coming to terms with writing and love and life in Jazz Age Paris was already my favorite book -- had, in fact, inspired me to seriously consider delaying college for a time and moving to Paris. Only a darkening war, my mother's rising panic that I would soon be in it, a newly instituted draft lottery, and my dad's wise counsel that I would be trying to live Hemingway's life -- not mine -- kept me from it.
Beyond these things, I retain shockingly little memory of what transpired on my own high school graduation day -- whether the ceremony took place on a sunny ball field or in an air-conditioned hall, or who gave the commencement address, or even whether there was a celebration afterwards.
My class that year numbered more than 900, was said to be the largest graduating high school class in the history of North Carolina. Yet I only can recall a few faces from the crowd.
What I remember most from that warm June day 37 years ago in Greensboro was what my father said to me. He was an adman with a poet's heart.
"Life is a moveable feast," he said. "Just remember it's what you bring to the feast that will make you happy -- not what you take from it."
I know these were his exact words because I was smart enough to write them in the book he gave me. With my mom's new fountain pen, of course.
Suddenly Grown Up
As I sat watching Jack take his place on the graduation platform, I looked at all the familiar suddenly-grown-up faces I knew in his graduating class, and wondered what details he might record from his own important day.
There was his bright and adorable girlfriend, Corey, the class's tireless vice president, cheerfully hugging every classmate who stepped up on the riser.
There were Drew and Andy and the two other Jacks, his best buddies, his longtime teammates. Suddenly they no longer looked like the kids I'd known so well.
There was Connor Fitzsimmons, his other funny brainy pal, Middlebury-bound, the class salutatorian, whose mom, Liz, my wife's best chum, confided that he'd written his speech while soaking in the hot tub in the wee hours of that very morning, refusing to divulge the "surprise ending."
There was the entire infield of the baseball team I coached for two seasons, winning the town championship both times through no particular genius on my part, suddenly looking old enough to coach Babe Ruth baseball themselves.
There were our good friends and close neighbors Ron and Gina, whose daughter Megan perished in a car crash after school one snowy day this past winter. Megan was being awarded her graduating diploma, too.
There was Dr. King, who became the principal the same year this class arrived at the high school, who surprised us by coming to Jack's graduation party at Jack's mom's house the night before, as did Jack's first-grade teacher and his beloved music teacher, who slipped away from her own retirement party to come congratulate the graduate.
As we'd stood together nibbling cheese and swatting moose-sized mosquitoes on the deck, Dr. King confessed he almost hated to see this particular class move along.
"I've seen few classes that can match this one for talent and ambition," he said. He ticked off 10 or 12 outstanding colleges and universities where "his kids" were headed next fall, many on partial or full scholarship, including my son to Elon in North Carolina.
"I think Elon is going to be a good fit for Jack, with his writing and guitar music," Dr. King said.
"He considered delaying college and going to France," I confessed, explaining how I'd done exactly that at his age.
"The apple doesn't fall far from the tree," said Kathy Carey, Jack's first-grade teacher, noticing the wrapped gift in my hand.
"Let me guess," she said with a laugh. "You're giving him a book."
It was a copy of "A Moveable Feast" by Ernest Hemingway, containing a few scribbled words of advice from the graduate's proud father about bringing something to the feast.
'Never So Quiet'
For reasons I still haven't sorted out, and may not be able to come to terms with for quite some time, my son's graduation struck me much harder than I'd expected it to.
The long and warm familiarity with his classmates and teachers was undoubtedly part of it. But it also didn't escape my notice that this was my first trip back to the small town in Maine where I lived happily for nearly half of my life -- a place of the heart that has only recently been overrun by the kind of rampant commercial development that can compromise a community almost overnight.
In the past two years, we'd known a half-dozen families who packed up and moved away, grieving for what their little town had become. As of a month or so ago, having sold our house just outside town, we too became just summer visitors to the lovely coast of Maine.
I confided this sadness to our dear friends Bill and Paige Mangum as we were cruising in Bill's boat on Casco Bay a few hours after the graduate and his class headed off for whitewater rafting in the mountains and I put my wife on a flight home to North Carolina.
As I was not so long ago, the Mangums are transplanted Carolinians who'd been bewitched by the beauty of Maine. Their sons, Gordon and Casey, graduated from the same high school as Jack and went on to attend outstanding colleges in the South.
"I remember when Casey left on that same rafting trip Jack's gone on," Paige sympathized. "I came home and felt like crying. The house had never been so quiet. It was like, 'Oh, my. Our last child is gone forever.'"
Saving a Landmark
As she said this, we were passing Margaret Chase Smith's old house on the point and making around Rogue Island for Holbrook's in Cundy's Harbor. The water was calm, the light extraordinary. Bill pointed to a dive-bombing osprey.
When my children were young, just minutes ago it seemed, we were regulars at Holbrook's -- a rustic wharf restaurant squatting on barnacled pylons in a village harbor that looks like a postcard and is often said to be the "Lobster Capital of America." Way back when, you could get an incredible shore supper for about 10 bucks, including the lobster.
Three years ago, however, bowing to development pressure, Holbrook's was suddenly put up for sale, raising fears that yet another of Maine's fabled working waterfronts -- perhaps the most historic of all -- would soon disappear without a trace into private hands.
The coastline of Maine ranges more than 5,400 miles, yet less than 25 miles of it remains accessible by 10,300 full-time fishermen. Every year, places like Holbrook's disappear and private homes appear in their place. Many are bogglingly oversized mansions lived in for only a few weeks each July or August.
But thanks to Bill and Paige and a determined group of locals and concerned summer people, Holbrook's will have a happy ending.
Two years ago, they banded together to form the Holbrook Community Foundation. Against some pretty steep odds, the group raised the $1.5 million from more than 600 donors and acquired various grants to purchase the wharf, restaurant, community store, and a handsome Italianate house that has stood overlooking the wharf since the end of the Civil War.
The effort, staffed entirely by unpaid volunteers, was so successful it's been hailed by everyone from the local home shopper to The New York Times as a model for similar preservation causes everywhere. Talk about bringing something to the feast.
"A way of life was about to be lost -- and once it was gone, believe me, we'd never have gotten this back," Bill, the group's tireless president, explained after we ordered our fried clam suppers and poured out cups of tart Toasted Head white wine so I could toast their success at saving Holbrook's and they could toast my success of sending my last child into the great blue yonder of life.
'Both Sad and Happy'
After supper, Bill took pleasure in showing me the state-of-the-art desalinization plant beneath the store that can provide fresh water to the entire complex for pennies on the dollar, and telling me about the plans to rebuild the wharf for tuna fishermen and others with fiberglass replacement pylons Bill found back home in North Carolina, of all places, made from reclaimed fiberglass by an "old boy" who rejoices in the name of Johnny Lavender.
By then, we were cruising past Little Yarmouth Island, where the fading light was even more extraordinary beneath a sky crimped with peach and lavender. We stopped to fish for striped bass for a time, and Paige put on a sweater and hugged herself quietly, smiling at that sky, perhaps thinking of her grown boys and mine. Bill called sweetly to the fish like a lover below the window, "Let's go, fishy-fishy. Jimmy needs a big fish before he goes home to North Carolina."
None came, alas, but it was such a fine end to such a fine day, still tasting the clams and tart wine from Holbrook's on my tongue, a little sad to know something important was ending but something else was beginning and had been saved, so grateful to be with my best friends from Carolina, I found myself thinking of Jack and my favorite passage from the opening chapter of the hypnotic little memoir I'd given him just hours ago, the way my father had given it to me 37 years ago exactly.
I've never read a truer passage about being a young man, a hungry writer. Winter has returned to Paris, and Hemingway, poor, unpublished, newly married, sits in an empty caf watching a beautiful girl and working hard on a story about his vanished boyhood in Michigan. Putting down his pencil, he orders oysters and wine to celebrate.
"After writing a story I was always empty and both sad and happy," he wrote, "as though I had made love, and I was sure this was a very good story although I would not truly know how good until I read over it the next day.
"As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans."
As we made for home past Little Yarmouth Island in the darkness, I told Bill and Paige I would probably soon let go of Maine the way I'd let go of my own boy, both sadly and happily, a father's sacred duty -- though I doubted, or maybe simply hoped, neither would ever quite let go of me.
Best-selling author Jim Dodson, The Pilot's writer-in-residence, can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
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