August 26, 2008


When I was a kid, my parents and I would jump in the family car and make the long drive from Houston to Wyoming. We did this just about every summer. It involved a lot of waking up before dawn and hitting the road for three or four days straight, one devoted entirely to getting out of Texas. That's how big it is. Despite the conventional wisdom that says it must be a truly horrific experience to be trapped with your family for 12 hours at a time, it was pretty wonderful. Having made that commitment, we'd stay in Wyoming for a couple of weeks. And on at least two or three mornings during each of these summer vacations, I'd hear my dad get up before dawn, pack his camera equipment, and head out.

Sometime around 1950, my dad, his sister and his parents made a similar road trip to the same destination from small-town Ohio. They didn't have any money. They pulled a camper behind the family car. They'd spend most of their nights in the camper, parked along a minor highway or in a national park. They'd cook by the side of the road. During one trip, my notoriously ill-mannered grandfather who died last year no longer knowing who he or anyone else was, accidentally cooked Spam in dishwashing liquid. They ate it anyway. Or tried. But when they got to Grand Teton National Park, everyone's mood improved. One morning, my grandfather awoke at dawn and quite accidentally snapped a picture of Jackson Lake with the Teton range just behind it. It was such a startlingly clear and calm morning, the lake reflected every detail of the mountains in a perfect, upside-down likeness.

Two or three mornings each trip, my dad would try to replicate this shot. It was something of an obsession. He'd scout locations trying to find the exact angle from which his father had snapped the picture. He'd find weather reports in the local paper. He'd fiddle with lenses, exposures, light readings. Then he'd go in the pre-dawn hours and set up, standing in the cold with his tripod-mounted camera, waiting for the sun to hit a precise angle, for the wind to settle, for the water to calm glass-like in the basin that was the lake. Then he'd push the button and hope for the best. These were the days before the instant gratification of digital cameras. My dad could only cross his fingers and wait. The day we got the photos back after each vacation was an event but I think it was always a little bit of a letdown for him. After a dozen or so years of making that pilgrimage to the west, I don't think he'd been pleased with more than a handful of the shots he'd taken.

When we moved into our new(ish) house, we inherited a huge intricately landscaped yard. It was, and still is, intimidating. But I've taken a liking to working in it. Few of us have everyday jobs in which we can see a definitive progress - a start, an end and what our labor accomplished. The fact that it's almost September, that the summer is dwindling to the point of non-existence, made me think about all that work. It seems like I was in this perpetual state of getting ready for summer without ever really taking the time to stop, spread out, enjoy the fruits of my labor. I love the yard, we've played a lot in it and even had a couple of nice little get-togethers. But we never really lived in it. Or lived it in.

And that's how I think my dad approached his relationship with his father. And how I, to a certain more limited extent, have approached my own relationship with my parents.

My dad chased after his father using a single, perfect photograph as his vehicle. I know he wanted to show that perfect shot to his own father so he'd be proud. My own relationship with my parents feels a little like that from time to time, too. Like my relationship with my backyard. It requires attention, which I give, but I don't take full advantage of it. I just don't wallow in its beauty.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this, what prompted it or why - beyond the usual assessment of my own relationship with my own kids - I'm typing this all out. I know that in my mind there are parallels and relationships between and among all this stuff. You have my apologies if they're not one hundred percent clear. They're not to me either except in some visceral sense that's hard to articulate. I also know that I haven't hit save since I started typing. So I should probably just do that.

Posted by Chris at August 26, 2008 6:30 AM

We just got back from Newfoundland because The Man made the same trip with his dad. So he could tell him what was the same and what was different. (And sit on a rock and watch the waves too.)

Our relationship with our kids is so influenced by our relationship with our parents... all complex. Like the getting the perfect exposure for a shot.

Posted by: Nat at August 26, 2008 8:16 AM

That's one of the best things about being a parent. Getting to share the best things my mother did for me. Recognizing now what were some of the worst so that I don't repeat those. And hopefully my kids will do the same.

Beautiful imagery today . . .

Posted by: OS at August 26, 2008 8:33 AM

These are some of my favorite posts of yours. You have a really nice style when you are pensive and thoughtful. I think it makes it all the better knowing that you have many other styles, brash, impassioned, snarky, loving.
Thanks for that this morning. I love that I can almost see that picture.

Posted by: tulip at August 26, 2008 8:38 AM

Beautifully written, Chris. You gave us such a wonderful sense of place.

Posted by: Maria at August 26, 2008 8:38 AM

You said it all very well. And being caught between generations now, with elderly parents and a grown up daughter, I sort of feel all of those things all at once.

Posted by: Maribeth at August 26, 2008 8:55 AM

You have an incredible talent for descriptive writing.
The parallels are clear enough, we can see them. Now go live in that yard! :-)

Posted by: diane at August 26, 2008 9:27 AM

Wow Chris, this is an excellent post. I do get where you are coming from. I like posts like this, and the best part is you didn't mention the baby Jesus once!

Oh wait, now I did it.

Posted by: Jeff A at August 26, 2008 9:48 AM

it funny how those moments with our parents and with our children shape us. i have often found myself chasing what i perceived to be the perfect daughter in my father's eyes or the perfect wife in my husbands eyes only to come up short in my eyes, not theirs. it's a good revelation to see that the whole is much much greater than the sum of it's parts when it comes to these relationships. it makes me sad beyond words to say that it took losing my dad to learn that.

Posted by: jen at August 26, 2008 9:49 AM

Your analogies were perfectly clear. We look at our signposts and search for what we can do better. You're mindful, which I'm sure helps you to be an excellent father.

Posted by: Writer Dad at August 26, 2008 10:09 AM

It's posts like this that make me sad that I don't have children and probably won't. There are things I'd really like to pass on to them that I got from my mom and dad. Our relationship has been very rocky in the past and we're just now learning to become a family once again. And now that I can see them for who they are, I'd love to be able to show my children what it is of them that I have loved.

Posted by: k8 at August 26, 2008 10:12 AM

When you have kids it puts a whole new perspective on your own parents and your relationship with them. That's what happened to me, at least. Except in my case I was never close with either of my parents growing up, and I still am not today. When people talk about the closeness and bond they feel with their parents, I don't relate at all. I don't feel or sense it.

But I don't want my daughter to grow up and say the same thing. My goal is to give her what I did not experience- because I do think it is important. While every parent starts from scratch, in a sense, I often feel that I have to scratch the scratch to start from in the first place. Being conscious, IMHO, is the most important thing. We all just do our best with what we have and hope it is enough to make a difference.

Posted by: jessica at August 26, 2008 11:15 AM

Hi! I wanted to let you know that if you follow in your Google or bloglines reader, you will need to unsubscribe and then resubscribe to get the feeds. I switched my platforms from Movable Type to Wordpress and so the feed switched.
I hope you''ll follow me!
The Dackel Princess

Posted by: Maribeth at August 26, 2008 11:42 AM

To me, this post meant that your dad was trying to understand his father's POV, but could never be there, truly, in his shoes. That we all try to understand those who raised us, but it's very hard, especially when negative emotions are involved.

Perhaps that says more about me than you, though.

I can't wait until Mia and Owen do their own version of blogging.

Posted by: alektra at August 26, 2008 2:17 PM

Moving and reflective!

Posted by: Amber at August 26, 2008 2:19 PM

Beautiful and moving!

Posted by: Amber at August 26, 2008 2:20 PM

I'm glad you hit save. I know what you're feeling in a sense. My post today was a bit of a rambling, just letting feelings out. Sometimes it's a good thing to do.

Posted by: Dianna at August 26, 2008 2:36 PM

I'm glad you hit save. I know what you're feeling in a sense. My post today was a bit of a rambling, just letting feelings out. Sometimes it's a good thing to do.

Posted by: Dianna at August 26, 2008 2:36 PM

Great post. Thanks for hitting save - I have posts like these and never post them, mine always seem too rambly and pointless. But now I see the point, sometimes we all just need to get things out there.

Posted by: Mandy Lou at August 26, 2008 4:19 PM

This is a beautiful post, Chris.

Posted by: GreenCanary at August 26, 2008 7:09 PM

The story of your dad trying to replicate the perfect shot - it's such a sharp metaphor. I know that as parents, most of us do step back and reassess how we want to do our own version, how we can improve - and yet, our relationship continues to evolve and grow. All relationships require time and work and effort. We're growing and learning and hopefully inching towards becoming better humans all the time. Love this post.

Posted by: Sam at August 27, 2008 12:14 AM

Beautiful, honest post Chris. When are you going to write a book Chris?

Posted by: Nadine at August 27, 2008 5:20 AM


Makes me wonder how I chase my dad and how my son chases me.

Posted by: Johnny Smoke at August 28, 2008 12:50 AM