My father, despite writing letters filled with life and curiosity, saw nothing wrong with consigning my mother to four decades of cooking and cleaning at home while he was enjoying his agency out in the world of men. It seems to be the rule, in both the small world of marriage and the big world of American life, that those without agency have sentimentality and vice versa. The various post-9/11 hysterias, both the plague of I love yous and the widespread fear and hatred of the ragheads, were hysterias of the powerless and overwhelmed. If my mother had had greater scope for accomplishment, she might have tailored her sentiments more realistically to their objects.
Cold or repressed or sexist though my father may appear by contemporary standards, I’m grateful that he never told me, in so many words, that he loved me. My father loved privacy, which is to say: he respected the public sphere. He believed in restraint and protocol and reason, because without them, he believed, it was impossible for a society to debate and make decisions in its best interest. It might have been nice, especially for me, if he’d learned how to be more demonstrative with my mother. But every time I hear one of those brayed parental cellular I love yous nowadays, I feel lucky to have had the dad I did. He loved his kids more than anything. And to know that he felt it and couldn’t say it; to know that he could trust me to know he felt it and never expect him to say it: this was the very core and substance of the love I felt for him. A love that I in turn was careful never to declare out loud to him.
And yet: this was the easy part. Between me and the place where my dad is now–i.e., dead–nothing but silence can be transmitted. Nobody has more privacy than the dead. My dad and I aren’t saying a whole lot less to each other now than we did in many a year when he was alive. The person I find myself actively missing–mentally arguing with, wanting to show stuff to, wishing to see in my apartment, making fun of, feeling remorse about–is my mother. The part of me that’s angered by cellular intrusions comes from my father. The part of me that loves my BlackBerry and wants to lighten up and join the world comes from my mother. She was the more modern of the two of them, and although he, not she, was the one with agency, she ended up on the winning side. If she were still alive and still living in St. Louis, and if you happened to be sitting next to me in Lambert Airport, waiting for a New York-bound flight, you might have to suffer through hearing me tell her that I love her. I would keep my voice down, though.
Jonathan Franzen is the author of the novels The Twenty-Seventh City, Strong Motion, and The Corrections, as well as the nonfiction works How to Be Alone and The Discomfort Zone.