“He is the one who gave me my name, my voice, my hair, my face. The former is my own. The latter three are his.” A poetry-prose hybrid, built around Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem Erlkönig, that acts as an ode to fatherhood…
by: Jordan Houston
Who’s 1 riding so late where winds blow wild
It is the father grasping his child;
He holds the boy embraced in his arm,
He clasps him snugly, he keeps him warm. 2
I love my father, and have many warm memories of time spent with him. I remember throwing the football in the backyard with him on Sunday afternoons, and watching television with him on school nights (if I was lucky, and my bedtime was ignored). I remember the time I ran through an airport with him and we only just made our flight. I remember going to my first (and only) NFL game with him, as well as my first (and only) WWE event. I remember him lifting me up into the air as a child, and I remember trading banter with him when I grew older.
My father is the one who would drive me to football practices, and the one who attended every game that he could. He is the one who stressed the importance of discipline, and implored me at every turn to never be satisfied, and most of all, to never to waste my talent. He is the one who gave me my name, my voice, my hair, my face. The former is my own. The latter three are his.
“My son, why cover your face in such fear?” 3
For a period of time, I was afraid of my father. For a period of time, I was uneasy around him, and interacting with him made me nervous and anxious. For a period of time, I shied away from talking to him, or involving him in my life. I reasoned that he probably didn’t care anyway.
“Sweet lad, o come and join me, do!
Such pretty games I will play with you; 4
My father is the one who introduced me to video games. I played my first ones on his Sega Dreamcast. I began playing Madden NFL so that I could play with my father, and it was through Madden that I connected with him and developed my affinity for American football. One of my main considerations when it came to buying video games was whether I would be able to play them with my father. I played Call of Duty against my father often, and played by myself so that I could get better at playing against him. When we stopped playing together, I stopped playing altogether.
“Be calm, stay calm, my child, lie low: 5
I learned to tread carefully around my father when he was in a bad mood. I would do my best to avoid making him angry, and this tended to manifest as me avoiding interacting with him entirely. I would try to make myself as inconspicuous as possible around him, and try not to give him a reason to be upset. I would make sure all my chores were done, stay in my room as much as possible, and consult my mother if I had any questions or needed any help. I learned to avoid upsetting him in conversation by ceding quickly and doing as he said.
For a period of time, I did this even when he wasn’t in a bad mood. For a period of time — for years — it became a habit.
My daughters shall care for you tenderly; 6
My family moved often when I was growing up, and my older sister was my only constant friend. When we were younger, we’d run around the neighborhood, or play in the backyard, or find something to do in the house. When we were younger, I rarely left her side. She was my role model, and by her example I learned both what to do and what not to do. When our father was in a bad mood, we’d take solace in each other’s company. When we were younger, she made sure I never experienced true loneliness.
My sister has defended me, lied for me, and consoled me when either effort failed to protect me. She has validated me when I have been mistreated by others, and she has sharply rebuked me when I have mistreated others.
“My son, my son, I see it clear
How grey the ancient willows appear.” 7
Not too many years ago, I began to notice the grey hairs in my father’s beard. I started calling him “old man,” as an affectionate jab at his age. I was joking then. I still call him that, but I’m not sure if I’m joking anymore. This year was his fiftieth birthday. There are more grey hairs than black now.
And if you’re not willing, my force I’ll employ.”
“My father, My father, he’s seizing my arm! 8
Beyond the spankings I received when I was young from both parents, my father has never physically harmed me. My mother would often use my father as a tool to enforce discipline, though. Whenever I wasn’t listening to her, or doing something she told me to do fast enough, she would get my father to tell me to do it instead. I would do it right away. He scarcely used force, or even threatened it. He didn’t need to. His word carried enough weight on its own.
The father shudders, his ride is wild, 9
You could always tell when my father was especially angry because his body would tremble slightly, his lip would quiver, and his voice would quaver, and sometimes fail him completely. His usually composed movements would become jerky and sharp. There were veins in his neck and forehead that only materialized when he was really angry. He would inadvertently spit when he talked. His eyes would grow wide, and wild.
The child he held in his arms was dead. 10
I don’t call my family often, but I call my father least of all. My mother often acts as a liaison, transferring information between us. Our phone calls are short and to the point. My mother says that he wants to know more about my life, and says that he’s upset that I don’t ever really call or talk to him often. I know that she’s probably telling the truth, but can’t bring myself to completely believe her.
Responsibility taught my father stoicism, and hardship taught him discipline. He knows no other way, although he’s grown softer and less irritable with age. I’ve laughed with my father, but I’ve never seen him cry, nor do I think he’s ever seen me cry. Issues of emotions are reserved for my mother and sister.
None of this is to say I have a bad relationship with my father, either. I don’t fear my father, nor do I resent him or hold any other negative sentiment toward him. But our relationship has been irreparably warped by many factors: his long career-related absences, his stoicism, his temper. Yet, I know that he cares for me deeply, I know that he wants the best for me, and I know that I can always count on him if I need help. Even so, I will never have the same relationship with him as I did when I was a child, for better and for worse.
Who’s driving so late in the rain, all alone?
It is the son, not yet full grown.
He turns right sharply, an action which
Sinks his truck deep in a roadside ditch.
The truck was steeply angled, its entire right side stuck in the ditch. Water enveloped it on the right side past the wheels — no easy feat, considering it was a Ford F-150. I had been driving a friend home from another friend’s party, and was on my way back to the party when I had gotten stuck. The GPS had sent me on backroads, which had flooded in the storm much more than I’d expected. The lines of the road were invisible between the flooding and the dark of night.
I was alone, shivering, and hopeless. For one of the few times in my life, I called my father. He helped me through calling a tow truck and getting back on the road. He advised me not to tell my mother about the incident. I never did, and still haven’t. To this day I know that if I ever have a problem, my father will help me take care of it. Emotional support is nice. Practical support is invaluable.
Sometimes my father and I are very close, and sometimes we’re worlds apart. Sometimes, both at the same time.
I love my father.
1 Erlkönig by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1782, translation by Edwin Zeydel, 1955.
2 The narrator sets the scene, describing a father rushing through the forest at night on horseback, his son tucked under his arm so as to protect the boy from the rushing winds.
3 The father turns to his cowering son and asks him what has frightened him.
4 The Erlkönig, an unspecified supernatural entity, attempts to entice the boy to come with him with promises of play and fine garments.
5 The father comforts his now even more frightened son, assuring him that the Erlkönig is not real, and that he is merely hearing the rustling of the leaves in the wind. It is left ambiguous whether the Erlkönig is real or a hallucination.
6 The Erlkönig again entices the boy, this time offering the services of his daughters, who he promises will rock and dance and sing the boy to sleep.
7 Again the father comforts his terrified son, telling him that what he sees as the Erlkönig is merely the willows in the night. It is left ambiguous whether the father cannot see the Erlkönig, and is ignoring his son’s warning, or if he can see the Erlkönig, and is lying to console him.
8 The Erlkönig, frustrated at the boy’s stubbornness, drops his facade of affability and reaches out to grab the boy. In Schubert’s musical arrangement of the poem, these lines are the only of the Erlkönig’s lines to be sung in minor rather than major key.
9 The father, urged on by his song’s cries, rides even more quickly, rushing to get to shelter as soon as possible.
10 Upon reaching shelter, the father realizes that his son has died. It is left ambiguous whether the child died by natural or supernatural causes.