This past summer, rummaging through a table of used books, I found Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man. It’s her 2002 biography of Eustace Conway, a modern-day Daniel Boone who lives on a thousand acres of pristine land in the hillbilly country of the Appalachian Mountains. He has made himself an expert at everything he puts his hands to, which is mostly recovering ancient ways of farming and building and cooking and concocting remedies from tree bark and forest plants. I had not, until reading the book, heard of Eustace Conway, though he’s something of a legend, nor had I read anything by Elizabeth Gilbert, though she’s a well-known writer.
But I was captivated from her first sentence: “By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree.”
Thus begins a tumbling, wheeling, radiant portrait of a troubled and prodigiously gifted man, equal parts tyrant, visionary, romantic, adventurer, entrepreneur and utopian dreamer. He can drive a real estate deal with snaky cunning and hard-fisted resolve, then write sheer mush to yet another idealized woman for whom he’s fallen hard, then lose himself in some grand ambition to make or remake history. He wants to save America from itself – its flabbiness, laziness, ineptitude, wastefulness, consumption – and teach everyone to live free and wild. But his own compulsiveness keeps him in a perpetual state of disappointment and frustration.
Eustace is a complicated man. Many influences shape him, and much about him remains a mystery. But one theme that Gilbert returns to over and over is his relationship with his father, Eustace, Sr.. Eustace has never lived up to his father’s impossible, inscrutable expectations. Repeatedly, through childhood on, he’s tried in every way to make his father proud, and in every way has failed. When Eustace, Jr. was still at home, Eustace, Sr. had three modes of parenting him – scowling silence, withering mockery, and pummeling lectures. A typical tirade: “You are stupid. I have never met a child more dimwitted. I don’t know how I could have sired so idiotic a son.”
Never has the man reversed his verdict.
Eustace has been in every inch formed by this. He’s spent his entire life trying both to escape his father and to win him. As Eustace’s fame and influence and skill has grown, as he’s been sought and admired by more and more people, he’s remained the boy desperate for his father’s approval, crushed by his father’s contempt. In many ways, he’s accomplished so much because he’s been damaged so deeply. His success – his perfectionism, really – has been a massive gesture of compensation, a thing he’s used to try to fill a void that has no bottom. It’s been his lifelong and mounting effort to hear just one thing: You are my son, whom I love. With you I am well pleased.
Three things emerged for me reading all this. One is a deep thankfulness for my own father, now gone 20 years. Though my relationship with him was strained at times, he was a kind and good man, with a generous heart, and I never doubted his love for me. After his death, I found among his treasures all the tacky or homey little gifts I ever gave him – a metal key chain with his initials crookedly stamped into it, a wooden letter opener made from black oak and ash, and somesuch. I held them and wept.
The second thing is a fresh resolve to be a good father to my three children. To speak words to them that are kind, and true, and hopeful. To call them to be their best selves, but never impose on them my own version of that. To tell them often that I love them. That I am proud of them.
The third thing that emerged is renewed wonder at God’s love. My favorite memory of my own father was a Saturday in June 1976. I had just turned 16. We rose early and drove through the Fraser Valley, outside Vancouver, looking for a U-Pick blueberry farm. We never found one. But the whole day we talked, and laughed, and sang. We had lunch together in a 50’s style diner. We arrived home late afternoon, empty-handed but full-hearted. When I think of God’s fatherhood, I always think of that day: the gift of his sheer presence. He gives many good gifts, but always, with all of them, he gives himself.
Perhaps had Eustace Conway known a father like that, he wouldn’t have had the drive to succeed. Or maybe he would have, but with it also the capacity to enjoy his success, and yet not to define himself by it.
I want to succeed. I want my children to succeed. I just hope that what gets any of us there is not someone’s impossible, inscrutable demands, but this alone: the father’s love.