The summer I became the last girl in my father’s house, I read Gilead for the first time. I was between my junior and senior years of college, and now that both of my older sisters were married, I had more alone time than I knew what to do with. So I decided that I wanted to go back to school that coming fall semester having read more books. I bought Gilead at the Friends of the Library bookstore on one-dollar day, along with sixty-one other books that were too cheap to pass up.
When I got the books home, I stacked them neatly next to my already-full bookshelf, pretending that I could reorganize and find a way to fit them all later, which I never did. Instead, I stacked and restacked them as I decided which book I would read next. I selected Gilead.
Gilead is a letter from Reverend John Ames to his young son. Knowing because of his age and weak heart he won’t survive into the boy’s maturity, Ames attempts to put in these pages everything he wishes his son to know. Often luminary and shamelessly sentimental, Ames shares histories of his own childhood with his son. He details meeting Lila, his wife and the child’s mother, and the revelatory joy her and then their son’s presence has brought him without skimming past the “dark years . . . [that] seem like a long bitter prayer that was answered finally” of his life before. A third-generation preacher, Ames’s writings often deal with the topics of scripture and the cosmic relevance of not only things like baptisms and communion, but also of blowing bubbles with a child or holding a newborn kitten.
Gilead, in a way, is a book of fathers. Not just one elderly father writing to his young son, but also of that father’s father and grandfather, the ways they did and did not know each other, did and did not understand each other. It’s a recounting of the actions of each father and the things he passed down, being transcribed and having the lessons distilled by this current father,
John Ames, so that the son of his old age will not miss any of his paternal heritage, so that the circle will be unbroken. His concern and compassion for the loneliness, the fatherlessness, of his son bleeds onto the page, longing clearly expressed for the moments together they will not have. Ames, with all of his softness and openness and care, is a good father.
My father was a good one too—when he wanted to be. So the book was easy to read and easy to love. I started another novel immediately after to prevent the stalling that is “book grief,” which, for me, is when a book has been so lovely that I mourn its end for weeks and can’t bring myself to pick up a new one, certain that I will never love another as much as I loved the one before. I am in danger of going through this several times a year, and I find the best solution for me is to jump right into the next. That is what I did that summer.
I’m not much for rereading books. But I am fond of slipping downstairs on sleepless nights to sit in front of my shelf, pulling books off and flipping through them to find passages I had marked, little delights I had left for myself. The next time you find that you can’t sleep, I recommend that you try this. On one of these nights a couple years later, I had pulled Gilead from its place and was flipping through its pages with this intent, not disappointed as I stopped to admire the blending of sentimentality and theology that had struck me when I read it. Until ten pages from the end of the book, I read,
I can tell you this, that if I’d married some rosy dame and she had given me ten children and they had each given me ten grandchildren, I’d leave them all, on Christmas Eve, on the coldest night of the world, and walk a thousand miles just for the sight of your face, your mother’s face. And if I never found you, my comfort would be in that hope, my lonely and singular hope, which could not exist in the whole of creation except in my heart and in the heart of the Lord. That is just a way of saying I could never thank God sufficiently for the splendor He has hidden from the world—your mother excepted, of course—and revealed to me in your sweetly ordinary face.
I released my elbows, letting the book and my hands fall onto my crisscrossed legs, and sat on the floor and cried. In the time since I had first read and marked that passage, my own father, whom I had loved, and with whom I had been lifelong friends, had left. He had created a new family and decided that his old one—my mother, my sisters, and me—simply didn’t interest him anymore. I knew that my heart was broken. But I hadn’t realized what I felt I had lost was clearly articulated in the pages of a once loved book, pressed and preserved like you might a wildflower you picked on a perfect picnic.
I put the book back on the shelf and quickly pulled another off. I wasn’t just avoiding book grief anymore: this was now my own grief. And I didn’t want to examine it. I wanted to keep moving away from it, as if putting distance between it and me would dull its edge. I left Gilead on the shelf, afraid to think about it, let alone read it. Afraid to put too fine a point on my trouble. Afraid to let myself wonder if I would ever feel love and safety and acceptance again as I had before my father left.
This year, when my friend Sterling asked me how I felt about Marilynne Robinson. I opened my mouth and said, “I love Gilead. Love it.” The next thing he asked me was whether or not I had ever read a book with someone. Not in a “book club” sense, but actually sat and read it with them. Out loud. I said no, not since I was a child.
At the end of the summer, through what feels like an inevitable series of events, I found myself suggesting to him that we read Gilead out loud together. He enthusiastically agreed, and then spent weeks waiting for me to commit to starting it with him.
Read this weekend? he would text me.
Maybe, I would text back. Then later, The weather is going to be insanely gorgeous on Saturday. We should have a picnic.
Let’s go somewhere grassy and shady. We could lie on the blanket and start our reading then.
But the picnic never came because I wasn’t ready.
It seems and seemed a stupid thing for me to not be ready since it was, after all, My Great Idea. But I kept thinking about that passage. And about how I cried on my living room floor that night in a way that I had cried so few times in my life. Primal and unfettered. And I didn’t want to feel that again, even privately, let alone in someone else’s company. So I avoided it until his birthday weekend when I had to choose between being undependable or being brave.
Sitting on the kitchen counter in pajamas, I read to him as he made cheeseburgers. And just as I remembered, just as I knew I would be again, I was lost to the story. There is something about the epistolary novel, like an open letter, that is hard to do well. Gilead makes me feel more like a recipient than an interloper. The earnestness of the narrator disarms me, and soon I am an inseparable mix of seeing my father in every passage and adopting myself to the Ames family so that John can be my father.
I know it’s a little unfair of me to try to write my father into the spaces between the lines of Gilead. In truth, my father is almost nothing like John Ames. I say “almost” because they are both preachers. I’ve always found myself squirming my way into stories with preacher fathers, my identity bending and wriggling to fit—or rather my little hands trying to refashion the preacher’s daughter into my own image.
Every time Ames speaks of his boxes of sermons in the attic, I think of my own father’s boxes of sermons that sat in our basement until he packed them out with the rest of his things. I can still picture the sermons: the thin, Bible-sized paper he would write them on, the streaks of green and pink and yellow highlighter across the lines of his scrawl that was sometimes even unreadable to him, scrawl that occasionally caused him embarrassment at the pulpit when he had to stop mid-point to try to decipher what he had written, effusing some of the power of the Holy Ghost into the air.
Maybe my father’s only other real similarity to Ames is his ability for sweetness. He somehow seemed to recognize the cosmic importance of moments much like Ames does, though often in less eloquent, verbose ways. My father, in the years he was mine, was not afraid to let it be known when he saw something special in me. This is one of the qualities that I was afraid of reacting to in my second tour through the novel.
Sterling is taking his turn reading to me, and my head is on his shoulder where I can see the page as he reads from it. I don’t bother to pretend I’m not crying. He is reading,
I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.
I don’t know if I’m crying at the memory of my father in our own shabby little town or the beautiful text or the realization that I had something that I felt was so close to this love and it has left me. I close my eyes and try to imagine these words were written for me. I try to pretend these are the lines from the email I received from my father recently instead of the ones he really wrote. The ones that said, “Life is slipping away, and I truly hope God helps you to forgive soon.” In this way, I make Ames my surrogate father. And why can’t I craft a parent for myself out of the lines and pages of a good book? Especially when the second person, the letter form, the fatherly advice so freely given, the fatherly love so evidently displayed, offers itself so simply to me.
I say that I am trying to write my own father out of my story or write myself into Ames’s. But what I am really saying is that when I read, “Supper without you tonight, a melancholy prospect,” or “I was so happy to have you home again,” or “I know you will be and I hope you are an excellent man, and I will love you absolutely if you are not,” I am asking my father, the real one, the one whom I have known, to say those things to me.
When I moved to California last year, my greatest delight was in driving the streets and highways of the Bay Area, exploring my new home. I would drive an hour or more to take a drive up Highway 1 or through the Marin Headlands. My favorite places were ones like these, where I was surrounded by hills and trees and flowers that looked and smelled nothing like the hills and trees and flowers I had grown up with.
Often on these drives, I would imagine my father were with me. I would think of how he would love the narrow, winding roads, how he would drive them in a way that would scare me if it were anyone behind the wheel but him. I imagined driving him up to Battery Spencer, my favorite view of the Golden Gate Bridge, and how he would wave his arms over his head, declaring, “This is awesome.” What my father lacked in eloquence he made up for in enthusiasm. And he would love it here.
When I was learning to drive, my father taught me that if I couldn’t see the road well, be it because of the bright lights of oncoming cars or rain or fog, that I could keep my eyes on the white line delineating the edge of the lane from the curb and follow it safely. It seemed strange at the time, to look anywhere but right ahead of me. My father is gone now, but I am still following the white line because I’ve learned that I can trust it. I have made this wisdom my own, just as I have had to make my life my own.
Ames tells me, “There are pleasures to be found where you would never look for them. That’s a bit of fatherly wisdom, but it’s also the Lord’s truth, and a thing I know from my own long experience.” I try to believe what Ames says, unlikely as it seems, and keep my eyes open for what might be the good in all of this, trusting that one day I will know this for myself, from my own experience.
Kathleen Herald was raised on home-canned vegetables & folk music in the bluegrass of Kentucky. She loves twirling around her kitchen with her corgi, Penny Lane, on her heels. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary’s College of California and is working on her first novel.