Friday, January 24, 2014

To My Father, on the Occasion of His 70th Birthday

My father and grandfather: Theodore C. Rasmussen III (l) and II (r), 1945.

When I was growing up, my grandfather gave me books: on my birthday, for Christmas, when we visited him and my grandmother at their house on Blossom Hill, in Lancaster. He was not alone in doing so. My great-aunt was a librarian, and a reader of novels, and she, too, gave me books, many books; starting with children's classics and working up, over the years, to various sorts of dictionaries, thesauri, and other volumes in support of my growing interest in writing. The books my grandfather gave were different.

First, they were from his own collection, and even then I perceived a powerful magic about the transaction: passing on books--vessels of knowledge--that reflected not only my grandfather's myriad interests but also his life journey, his self-education. A Conrad Argosy, Henry Miller's The Books in My Life, anything by Somerset Maugham.

Second, the books always were inscribed, in my grandfather's steady hand, in pencil. Invariably, they began with some version of "To Ryan, on the occasion of his 12th birthday," followed by an anecdote about the book's acquisition or (more interesting) Charles Doughty's exploits in the desert or how my grandfather met Henry Miller (twice!), and at last his signature: "Grandpa Alex."

Berlin, 1950s.
The thing that impressed me then, if I could have articulated it, was the experience of being made to feel special. The day was my day, and here, separate from the usual wrapped gifts, was something genuine and ineffable. It was a generational transmission, and it was significant that it came from outside the circle of my immediate family. There was mystery about the gift, always, something old and weighty, for there was no way I could conceive of what volume my grandfather would deem appropriate for the occasion. Besides, my grandfather, who was actually my father's stepfather, was difficult to know, according to both family consensus and my own vantage point of youthful timidity, and probably just plain difficult. But I felt special all the same, tended to, the chosen bearer of ancient lore. My grandfather could not have given anything finer.

I was of a generation, as many before and all since, that did not undergo a particular rite of passage. There was no common, widespread way of preparing a boy for manhood. I feel fortunate, at least, to have been the recipient of the material stuff of accumulated wisdom, doled out at odd intervals.

Today, the day my dad turns 70, I have the temerity to offer an inscription of my own, hastily scrawled, as I reflect on what it means to be a son, to receive the inheritance of manhood, and how and whether we can ever know our father, our many fathers all the way back. I cannot claim to possess special knowledge or hard-won wisdom, or at least anything worthy to be passed on to my father. Indeed, it seems such gifts can only ever be passed down, not up.

What, then, can I give? What do you give the man who, truly, has it all? What can I offer here besides the literary equivalent of ties, sweaters, and novelty items?

I think, today, I can offer only this: a story. Not even that: a moment. Recently, my sister came across an old photograph of my father. It's 1945. He's one year old, and standing with his father, my grandfather, Theodore C. Rasmussen II. This photograph stunned me. For I never knew this grandfather; he died several years before I was born. I know only facts: Captain in the U.S. Army, black belt in judo, survived a machine-gun burst, could lift a chair off the ground by grasping one leg while lying flat on his chest, divorced my grandmother, remarried and started a new family in South Carolina, died of throat cancer. I look at the photograph, at this unknown man, and in his face I see my own looking back at me. I can only marvel at this ageless and constant thing, this . . . Rasmussen-ness, that is expressed in a series of bodies through time.

I wonder at the "otherness" of my father, his me-ness and not-me-ness, or perhaps it's my him-ness and not-him-ness. And I wonder: How does my son know me? How will he come to know himself? What faces will stare at him?

.     .     .

Fortunately, my father was not entirely mysterious. I am aware of what he gave me. A sense of pride in my work. A sense of the cosmic. A love of what my mother terms "blood-and-guts movies." An appreciation of human frailty, and of physical strength. The capacity, as Robert Bly calls it, to shudder. He gave me books, too, at critical moments. Two in particular stand out. When I was eight (and he 36), he gave me The Empire Strikes Back Sketchbook. It was a turning point in helping me discover that films didn't just happen. They were written, designed, made. Four years later I received a copy of Dune (bearing the inscription, in my dad's perfect architectural lettering, "SHOOT FOR THE STARS, RYAN!"). Neither book was expected let alone asked for, and their arrival seemed auspicious.

Mount Victoria, Wellington, December 2012.

Churchill Park, Seatoun, Wellington, January 2013.

Thanks, Dad.


P.S. Early this morning--it was still "dark morning" as we call it--Hawk awoke and climbed onto me and said, "I really like the stories of your childhood, because it gives me the ideas of what I might do." And then he dashed into the dining room to wait for his father to get up and cook his breakfast.

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