When I moved out of my parents’ house a little over a year ago, I thought everything was okay. Now my mother is leaving my father, and everything is falling apart. It’s not my mom I’m angry with, though, it’s my dad. I don’t get him. I mean, he was one of those dads who missed my brother’s game and my school play because he was working. We all just got used to that. But now he’s not working so much, and I can tell how lonely my mom is. He just disappears into his den and she’s miserable and he won’t change. She said that even when she said she was leaving, he didn’t tell her he needed her or ask her to stay, he talked to her like she was a child trying to run away from home. I don’t understand my father, and I’m too pissed off to talk to him. He’s going to be lost without her. Why can’t he just admit that?
There is a scene in Evan S. Connell’s novel Mr. Bridge that undoes me every time. The father is preparing the children’s Christmas gifts. They are young, probably at the age where they would still put a train set on their wish list. And certainly they are still young enough that Mr. and Mrs. Bridge are labeling their gifts as being from Santa.
He waits until everyone is asleep on Christmas Eve and then quietly goes to the tree to slip in four envelopes, one for each of his two daughters, his one son, and his wife. Connell tells us, “He surveyed this tranquil scene and it pleased him.” In the morning he patiently waits for the discovery of the gifts, and upon coming across an envelope with her name on it in the tree his daughter tears open her envelope in anticipation.
“It’s ten shares of stock in the Kansas City Power & Light Company… Thank you, Daddy.”
When you’re a child, hoping for a new toy and receiving an inexplicable piece of paper, you don’t understand the nuances your parents’ emotional limitations. You don’t conclude, This is a man incapable of expressing affection. You think, My father put stock shares in my stocking. Why does he hate me?
Unfortunately, when it comes to our parents, those early formed conclusions have a sticky quality, and the resulting bafflement can linger. For his part, your father sounds terrified. Not just of his wife, although probably he is not entirely blind to her needs and is hiding out from them, but also of the outside world. It is functioning by processes that he no longer recognizes, and the standards have changed without his consent. He sees it not as something to adjust to but as a threat. That’s when we hunker down, isn’t it? We start building fortifications to protect ourselves against invaders that live only in our imagination. There is no regiment of warships gathering on the horizon, but your father has retreated to secure his domain nonetheless.
Mr. Bridge shows his affection through security, through stubbornness, through guiding his family through the world he knows so well. The problem is, that world does not really exist. The novel is set in the years leading up to World War II, and Mr. Bridge managed to steer his family successfully through the deprivations of the Depression by grit and stinginess. But that world of scarcity has been replaced with optimism and prosperity. He’s responding to stimuli that have faded out entirely. He could relax a little, but that would require adaptation. It’s clearly something he’s not interested in, but it’s what his family needs. There lie the roots of an inevitable clash.
Your father must seem like he’s from another world because in many ways, he is. It’s a world that also counts Mr. Bridge as a citizen. As Mr. Bridge starts to lose his family — to modernity, to sex and jazz, to the realization by his wife that not all men treat marriage like a series of financial transactions — he only tightens his grip and pulls his head down farther. You don’t get your father, but you want to. And a good first step would be to get to know the world that created him. Mr. Bridge could be just the right guidebook to that strange planet.
If you’d like Jessa to ponder your question, write to “Kind Reader” at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration by Thea Brine.