Searching for Literary Fathers

Searching for Literary Fathers

My dad loves telling stories about his youthful days, back in Greenwood, as a hockey goalie. He had some great games, and he had one game where he got nicknamed “redneck” for all the times the goal light went on behind him.

When I learned to play, it was on a lake by our house, and Dad’s knees and job usually kept him off the ice. My hockey was strictly pond-based, no goalies. Skating was not a strength of mine. Still, like my father before me, I’d stay out for hours, into the darkness, hypnotized by the rhythm of blade cutting ice.

My son and daughter both play competitive hockey: a goalie and a defender. My eldest got hooked when we had his stuffies play with rolled-up socks. My kids are excellent skaters, a delight to watch.

I’m fascinated by the portrayal of fathers in literature. Fictional fathers are typically complex, difficult figures, often loving yet unintentionally twisting their relationships with their children taut to the breaking point. Within that tension I find so much insight on being a man, a son who wants to make his father proud and a father who wants to make his children happy.

This year I found a story of a father, a son and hockey that set heart and mind reeling. Searching for Terry Punchout focuses on the reunion between the titular estranged father, a broken-down former hockey goon, and his adult son, Adam, a sportswriter suffering an early midlife crisis.

Adam returns to write a Sports Illustrated story on his father, whose NHL record for penalty minutes is about to be broken, with “a contrived mix of anger and ambivalence.” He’s after much more than a story. We see it when he looks at an aged taxi driver as if he were a wise guru, before the man has spoken a word. Adam needs guidance. Problem is, he’s never had much of a relationship with his father. 

Some of the most powerful passages come in Terry’s voice, as transcribed by Adam for the article he’s writing. Terry never wanted to be a father. “I just knew I wouldn’t be very good at it.” Ouch.

Yet, to Adam’s surprise these brief interviews change his feelings. “Spend a few hours with someone and they matter?” Well, yes, that and Adam’s slow realization that he is more like his father than he realized, in good ways and bad.

Reality is, dads don’t always need words to teach us. My wife marvels watching my father, me, and my son walk together. Apparently we share the same characteristic gait. No one gave any of us walking instructions. But children are sponges. We’re their manual on how to move through life.

Being present is everything. When our fathers are gone, we miss the quiet moments as much as the blustering stories, the terrible puns and the fatherly advice. Adam, once he gets to know Terry through adult eyes, will probably miss the way he rubs the jagged pink scar on the back of his right hand.

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