Below is the complete text of an essay from Chabon's collection
The Hand on My Shoulder
I didn't play golf, and he had never smoked marijuana. I was a nail chewer,
inclined to brood, and dubious of the motives of other people. He was big and
placid, uniformly kind to strangers and friends, and never went anywhere without
whistling a little song. I minored in philosophy. He fell asleep watching
television. He fell asleep in movie theaters, too, and occasionally, I
suspected, while driving. He had been in the navy during World War II, which
taught him, he said, to sleep whenever he could. I, still troubled no doubt by
perplexing questions of ontology and epistemology raised during my brief
flirtation with logical positivism ten years earlier, was an insomniac. I was
also a Jew, of a sort; he was, when required, an Episcopalian.
He was not a big man, but his voice boomed, and his hands were meaty, and in repose there was something august about his heavy midwestern features: pale blue eyes that, in the absence of hopefulness, might have looked severe; prominent, straight nose and heavy jowls that, in the absence of mirth, might have seemed imperious and disapproving. Mirth and hopefulness, however, were never absent from his face. Some people, one imagines, may be naturally dauntless and buoyant of heart, but with him, good spirits always seemed, far more admirably, to be the product of a strict program of self-improvement in his youth he believed, like most truly modest men, in the absolute virtue of self-improvement which had wrought deep, essential changes in a nature inclined by birth to the darker view and gloominess that cropped up elsewhere in the family tree. He didn't seem to be happy out of some secret knowledge of the essential goodness of the world, or from having fought his way through grief and adversity to a hard-won sense of his place in it; they were simple qualities, his good humor and his optimism, unexamined, automatic, stubborn. I never failed to take comfort in his presence.
The meaning of divorce will elude us as long as we are blind to the meaning of marriage, as I think at the start we must all be. Marriage seems at least it seemed to an absurdly young man in the summer of 1987, standing on the sun-drenched patio of an elegant house on Lake Washington to be an activity, like chess or tennis or a rumba contest, that we embark upon in tandem while everyone who loves us stands around and hopes for the best. We have no inkling of the fervor of their hope, nor of the ways in which our marriage, that collective endeavor, will be constructed from and burdened with their love.
When I look back always an unreliable procedure, I know it seems to have been a case of love at first sight. I met him, his wife, and their yellow beach house all on the same day. It was a square-pillared bungalow, clapboard and shake, the color of yellow gingham, with a steep pitched roof and a porch that looked out over a frigid but tranquil bay of brackish water. His wife, like him in the last years of a vigorous middle age, had been coming to this stretch of beach since early in her girlhood, and for both her and her daughter, whom I was shortly to marry, it was more heavily and richly layered with memories, associations, artifacts, and stories than any place any member of my own family had lived since we had left Europe seventy years before. Everything about this family was like that. My future mother-in-law lived in the house in Seattle where she had been born. My father-in-law had grown up down the road in Portland. They had met at the University of Washington. Everyone they knew, they had known for longer than I'd been alive. All the restaurants they favored had been in business for years, they were charter members of their country club, and in some cases they did business with the sons of tradesmen they had dealt with in the early days of their marriage. A journey through the drawers, closets, and cabinets of their house in town yielded a virtual commercial and social history of Seattle, in the form of old matchboxes, rulers, pens, memo pads, napkins, shot glasses, candy tins, golf tees, coat hangers; years and years' worth of lagniappes, giveaways, souvenirs, and mementos bearing the names, in typefaces of four decades, of plumbing supply companies, fuel oil dealers, newlyweds, dry cleaners, men and women celebrating birthdays and anniversaries.
From Manhood For Amateurs by Michael Chabon. Copyright 2009 by Michael Chabon. Published by Harper. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
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