Monday, December 2, 2013

Samuel Hamilton

Samuel's children, in thinking and talking about him:

"They all wanted to say the same thing--all of them. Samuel was an old man. It was as startling a discovery as the sudden seeing of a ghost. Somehow they had not believed it could happen. They drank their whisky and talked softly of the new thought.

His shoulders--did you see how they slump? And there's no spring in his step.

His toes drag a little, but it's not that--it's in his eyes. His eyes are old.

He never would go to bed until last.

Did you notice he forgot what he was saying right in the middle of a story?

It's his skin told me. It's gone wrinkled, and the backs of his hands have turned transparent.

He favors his right leg.

Yes, but that's the one the horse broke.

I know, but he never favored it before.

They said these things in outrage. This can't happen, they were saying. Father can't be an old man. Samuel is young as the dawn--the perpetual dawn.

He might get old as midday maybe, but sweet God! the evening cannot come, and the night--? Sweet God, no!

It was natural that their minds leaped on and recoiled, and they would not speak of that, but their minds said, There can't be any world without Samuel.

How could we think about anything without knowing what he thought about it?

What would the spring be like, or Christmas, or rain? There couldn't be a Christmas."

I read these words for the first time, I suspect, somewhere around 2005 or 2006. Six-hundred pages of beautifully constructed sentences and these are the ones that stood out in my mind. But it wasn't a clear vision. I didn't write them down anywhere. They spoke to me, and like anything that makes its way through time but isn't pinned down and crystallized into some form of permanence, the words became jumbled and confused. My memory of them were condensed down to two of the sentences incorrectly mashed together. I had to re-read this novel because somewhere in its depths I thought it said, "Without their father Samuel, they wouldn't know what to think about the rain."

When I closed the book after finishing it the first time I thought to myself, I must read this again before I become a father. It had joined a very short list of books that also/only included "To Kill a Mocking Bird." I had at least four years to accomplish the task but never quite got around to reading both books prior to Berkeley joining our family. I did re-read "To Kill a Mocking Bird" but "East of Eden" was always harder to get back to; a six hundred page book is no small commitment. With baby number two merely a week away (if she arrives on time) I have another three hundred and fifty pages to go to make good on my vow before becoming a father a second time.

I always felt that the story was suppose to be about Adam and Kathy and their two boys more than it was about the Hamilton family. Samuel wasn't quite the main character and whenever I hear people talk about the novel they rarely mention him, instead they make reference to the bigger biblical allusions in the Trask family. It's hard for a character to hold the attention of readers when placed next to someone as big and horrible as Kathy. But to me, the story is Samuel's.

But why these sentences? Now that I have a child I realize there is no small conceit in my hope that my children will one day duplicate the feelings Samuel's children expressed. And yet, after reading about his relationship with his children and those specific sentences again, my fondness of the idea holds no less of a sway over me.

I feel some need to defend myself and my desires. If you read the novel you'll notice that what Samuel does not do is he does not force or even aim to make his children resemble his own character. He finds ways to enjoy their various personalities, and celebrates them in ways that make sense to him. He tries not to lead them to a specific path, but he's certainly the backbone of their journey, a stable force, an iron rod, a trusted source, even when in disagreement. His children don't know how to think about the rain not because they depend on Samuel to tell them what to think about the rain, but because he has taught them how to think, period. He's a pool of water they can throw a rock into and always know, without a doubt, that the rock will make a splash and from that splash will ripple out little waves. What those movements mean are up to them to divine but he's equipped them with the tools to do so and the place to test the waters, to wonder. This is what I hope I can one day offer my children.