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The Fascination of Fathers

You’ve certainly had one. Beyond that, what do you know?
Gene Martin as a young man.
      Who’s your daddy?
      That fascinating question gets 16 answers in this week’s paper. Fourteen of that number are readers and writers who accepted my challenge to capture their father’s character at an indelible moment in time. Their character sketches in this week’s feature, Dad in the Moment, not only introduce their dads but also each relationship of father and child.
      Our 15th writer is the Bay Gardener, Dr. Francis Gouin, who took a long view of his character-forming father, Romeo Gouin.
     The 16th is wildlife photographer Mark Hendricks. Last week, he introduced us to nature’s babies in the photo-feature Chesapeake Summer. This week, he introduces his own new baby, Liliana, recounting her dramatic entry into the world and reflecting through her on his relationship with his own father.
       As to my personal question, it’s not the revelations of my DNA swab that has me wondering. Few surprises there, except that I turned up only 25 percent Italian, not the 50 percent I expected my maternal grandmother and grandfather to have contributed. My genes seem to see a bigger picture than I can imagine.
      No, it’s a singular Gene I have in mind, Gene ­Martin, the undoubted father of whom I was the spitting image. That’s what my mother said as she enumerated the ways.
      My wonder has a more existential aspect. It’s who Gene Martin was that fascinates me, for on that I’ve never had a grip.
      “When I was a little girl …” his story began.
      How my father might have continued that sentence, I never learned. The outrageousness of the proposition was too much to bear.
      When I was a little girl in mid-20th century mid-America, little girls didn’t grow up to be men. It was scary enough to imagine how little girls grew up to be women.
     “No you weren’t!” I interrupted, and the story I had hoped for drowned awash in were not’s and was too’s. 
     Dad’s life as a little girl was one of an anthology of semi-tall tales. When I was a fireman, I’d hear another day … When I carried my brother Jack on my back … When I rode the rails and rods … When my shoes were stolen off my feet on a Greyhound bus.
      Would you believe a man who told stories like that?
      To the best of my knowledge, my father was never a fireman or a little girl.       But what do I know?
       The title of father, such a big deal to me, was to him only one of a long life’s roles. Over 50 earthly years, I shared him with people he held more dear and occupations more pressing.
      Now there’s nobody left to know him better. Nor anybody more curious to know the man who was so much more than my father. 
       Now his story is mine. 
      What do I know? More than I imaged — and less than I intend to find out.
      For he’s left a trail of evidence I follow, Gretel-like, to find my way back to him.
      He told stories, made memories, posed for photos, wrote the occasional letter, earned comment in more, talks in the voice of the living Gene Martin on a recording made in my early days as a reporter, appears on film in old home movies I have yet to mine. 
       He starred as a mischievous demigod in my mother’s stories, taking the role of Reynard the Fox. 
        He passed through the lives of a maternal generation who recorded his doings — along with the taste of country apples, the price of dresses and the latest in movies — in habitual letters and postcards. As letter-writing had rules taught in school in their day, their letters included return and destination addresses. Those numbers and letters are fixed points I use to navigate a shifting universe.
       Gene Martin broke into the news, too. So all these years later I read about him as hard-working newspaper reporters saw him: a clever and industrious businessman on both sides of the law.
      I saw him, too, the observer in the background as he went unself-consciously about the daily business of living in his own skin. 
      A rich legacy of fact survives Gene Martin.
      Anchored on facts inscribed, emulsified and engraved on paper, my wisps of memory shape into stories … 
      The stories I’m learning are too long to tell here. They’ll make a book if I hurry. But that’s reading for another day.
     In the here and now, my hope is that all those fine stories bring up stories of your own father for your Father’s Day enjoyment.