With Father-and-Son Writers, Who Gets to Tell the Family Story?

Strangers often told me how wonderful my father was. “Wait, my father?” I’d think. They met a different man, the handsome polymath with the much stamped passport. The earnest charmer. At conference dinners, he’d linger over the Sauternes to draw out his tablemate’s knowledge of Persian poetry; once, with a Korean man who spoke almost no English, he was able to convey baseball’s arcane balk rule using only pantomime. His pockets were always full of business cards inscribed with pleas to keep in touch, as if he were a human Wailing Wall.

Theodore Wood Friend III was Dorie to his contemporaries and Day to his children, from my first tries at “Daddy.” (We’re one of those Wasp families where baby names stick for life.) A believer in letters to the editor and global rapport, he drove four hundred miles to witness Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s “I Have a Dream” speech, won the Bancroft Prize for his history of the Philippines, and became president of Swarthmore College in 1973, at forty-two. By then, he was fluent in the histories of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, Japan, Korea, and all of Southeast Asia. He possessed a resonant baritone and a self-deprecating manner, and hopes were high.

The middle years. . . middling. Nudged out at Swarthmore, he sought a spot on Reagan’s National Security Council, hoping to rise to the Cabinet. After being passed over, he ran the Eisenhower Exchange Fellowships. EEF brought foreign go-getters to the United States to trade ideas—and, at Day’s urging, sent Americans overseas for the same purpose. Like America, he had a missionary temperament, and his sweeping doctrines applied even to the three of us children, the smallest of tribes.

After twelve years at EEF, he stepped down, at sixty-five, to take care of our mother, Elizabeth. If Day was a gravel truck juddering off to mend the broken world, Mom was a coupe cornering at speed. At his retirement dinner, where she wore an auburn wig after chemotherapy, we all had our photo taken with two of the foundation’s chairmen: Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush. When the photographer pointed out that Mom’s hand was obscuring Bush’s thigh, Bush remarked, roguishly, “Leave it, Elizabeth, it feels good where it is.”

“That kind of photo costs more, George,” she shot back. Day’s guffaw made everyone except Jerry Ford crack up, and that photo was the keeper.

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After Mom died, in 2003, Day lived alone in their house in Villanova, a leafy, DUI-friendly Philadelphia suburb. In his later years, he had a bookkeeper and a care manager and round-the-clock aids to coax him out of bed and make him comfort food. Still, his once lush conversation grew as clenched as winter wheat. When Day poisoned his tea with five heaping spoonfuls of sugar, my teen-age daughter, Addison, warned him that his teeth would fall out and that he’d get diabetes—one of her periodic public-service announcements denouncing meat, cigarettes, hypocrisy , and other toxins. He just scowled at her. He didn’t fret about getting diabetes because he had leukemia, and he didn’t fret about having leukemia because he was determined to be a stoic, and he didn’t fret about failing to be a stoic because he didn’t always remember that’s what he was supposed to be.

He’d tried to bear up bravely his whole life. His parents bought him every Christmas gift he picked out in the F. A. O. Schwarz catalog, but they never kissed him or told him they loved him. Forbidden to suck his thumb, he had to wear aluminum mittens until the danger passed. Writing became his one unfailing balm. “I have benevolence and tenderness in me,” he observed, “and no way to let it out but by writing.” Day often regretted the modern obstacles to a life of contemplation. He might have been happier as a religious scholar in seventh-century Arabia, guiding the caliphate, or as a monk in medieval Japan, raking his pebble garden. He might also have been happier—if not quite happy—as Lord Byron. “Pain is inescapable, and must be met with suffering,” he wrote. “Suffering is raw and must be transcended with art. Art will be repudiated, giving one again the opportunity of pain.”

Whenever I see a father hug his son onscreen, I begin to cry. I know. I’m not crazy about it, either; a hug is cinematic mush on the level of a lost dog bounding home. And I cry at that, too!

My father hugged me until I was about seven. Then he stopped; I don’t know why. We started up again when I was in my twenties, because I hugged my friends and I hugged my mom and it seemed weird not to hug my dad. But trying to reach him always felt like ice fishing.

In my earliest recurrent dream, I’d find myself in a meadow that sloped uphill to a door set in a knoll. As I struggled through the tall grass, I’d hear banjo music behind the door; after work, my father had gone there to play. When I grasped the doorknob, the music would stop. I’d run among small, bare rooms, then return to the doorway, bewilded. Eventually, the banjo would resume, far away.

My mother had her own reasons for retreating; she later told me, “You were always spitting up and going through your whole wardrobe.” As a toddler, I ate Comet, deadly nightshade, and one of her birth-control pills. When I wasn’t having my stomach pumped, I was asking questions she found “incessant”: “’If Jesus is one of God’s helpers, and Santa is one of God’s helpers, and we killed Jesus, why didn’t we kill Santa ?,’ etc., etc., etc., etc.” I was often banished to the sunporch of our house in Buffalo so she could make tea and have some privacy in the kitchen. The air in the darkened living room between us crackled like a force field.

When I was seven, Day recorded that “Tad wrote a composition about his mother. She was afraid of it. She forced a smile and asked, ‘Is it full of bad things?’ He said he didn’t want anyone to read it. Going to bed, she worried about it, and next morning, while he was upstairs, she peeked at the composition. It says, ‘Her voice is like a moonbeam, her living room is a palace and I love her. She would have been a princess. She is very pretty and she is interested in sports (at least she listens) and I wouldn’t want another one.’ She leads me out to look at it, and when I’ve read it, I look at her. Tears start from my eyes, and tears from hers.” My first big descriptive lie.

You are a flat stone. You begin to skip across the lake, generating ripples that spread with unpredictable effect. According to the theoretical, math that attends moving water, there’s nothing to stop a skipping stone from—once in a great while—causing the lake to explode. My father expected an exploit at that level.

Day and Mom wrote up life plans every few years, so they could embark on more projects, develop more friendships, and wring more from each day. My father envisioned his working life as a tripartite affair, like the US government or the Christian godhead. History, fiction, action. Whichever arena he was laboring in seemed less promising than the others. When he sent poems such as “Torpor, Wrapped in a Turkish Towel” to small reviews, they boomeranged back. So he turned to his history, a comparative study of Indonesia and the Philippines under Japanese occupation—and then began to doubt the book’s merits. Should he junk the project and really do something with his life? Mom told him, “A cook doesn’t commit suicide because the soufflé has fallen.”

Like many public men, Day bloomed at the lectern. But he bloomed even more abundantly in private, writing of the delight he took in his fresh-cut lawn and in the fragrant steam rising from a cup of Lapsang souchong—and of his shame at failing to live up to his image as a public man . His mind poured compulsively onto pocket-calendar pages, hotel stationery, envelopes, Post-it notes, and restaurant menus, covering them with aphorisms, poems, fears, regrets, and prayers—a red thread of fervor woven into the snowy vestments of his rational mind. He kept detailed records of haunting dreams: of thwarted urination, of futile effort, of erotic reveries of all kinds. His nightmares mortified him; he lived in dread of his unbridled imagination.

Family life consoled him, somewhat. “I woke up the child and put him in the back of the station wagon with a blanket and pillow; and she climbed back there too with a comforter, and I drove us over the bridge to the Lake’s other side and looked at the city, the city’s lights, with the eye of a tourist,” he wrote, in 1965. “She was droopy as a fern. And said the next day it had been one of the happiest times in our marriage.” In his journals, he usually called me “the child” or “the boy”; people often struck him as ideas incarnate, as Jesus was. Even as his children grew up and acquired professions (my brother, Pier, in finance and my sister, Timmie, in interior design), we usually appeared as subsets of his own capacities. In 1990, he wrote, “One son likes money; the other, words. My daughter likes massage. I like money, words, massage, and sacred music.” OK, Zeus.

During the nine years my father spent at Swarthmore, I don’t remember ever talking to him for long before his attention reverted to some faculty uprising or administrative perfidy. Constantly simmering, he often boiled over. Once, on a call with his stepmother, Eugenia, a world-historical harpy, he began waving the phone at his crotch. In a note to himself, he wrote, “I knew, in my narcissism, that I saw myself as Saint Sebastian, and loved the role. That I would will a suffering, so long as it were significant, and neither accidental nor degrading. I suppose I have found it in a college.” Meanwhile, I’d slink off to my room to listen to songs like “Bad Company” and “Dream On,” because they suggested a world beyond Swarthmore, a world full of drugs and outlawry and skintight pants—a world that was not actually in my future, but that gave me hope for a future somewhere else.

Mom was a poet in college and took up painting in her forties, but letters were her chief expressive form. In 1980, she wrote me a prismatic note about how she and my father had gone to New York, “Day on college business, me for fun,” and a friend from Long Island “whisked me to La Grenouille for lunch. The room is filled with fresh flowers + the light bulbs have been dipped in some scarlet pink glaze so that all who enter look ravishingly healthy + glowy: apparently the same technique used to be used on the Orient Express + Garbo had the famous interior designer Billy Baldwin steal one of their silk lampshades so he could reproduce the color throughout her boudoir!” She refracted life into bright bars of color.

Day, too, preferred to communicate with us by mail: a letter not only foreclosed an immediate rejoinder but could be revised until it was nearly rejoinder-proof. When I was four, Mom noted that when I saw one of his edited drafts I said, “It looks like it was in a fight.” While traveling, he corresponded photocopied hisence and mailed or faxed it to each of us—twenty-page analyzes of cultures we were unlikely to experience and people we’d almost certainly never meet, which seemed aimed mostly at posterity. Though he often lodged a personal PS in the margin, to close the distance between us, his letters began to have the opposite effect.

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