For the past several years, I have traveled to England with my father. In 2006, 2009, 2010, 2011, and now 2012 we have (and will again, in a few short weeks) made the journey across the Atlantic. Why do we make this trip? Presumably, it is to watch football/soccer games. In fact, it has little to do with attending matches anymore.
My father has always been an avid traveler, and growing up abroad, that was instilled in me from an early age. He took my mother traveling before I was born; he has lived all over, and we traveled frequently when I was young. My father is an incredibly intelligent guy, a university professor, successful author, a loving husband; he is well-liked and respected by colleagues and friends. He was quite the amateur photographer as well–before I was born and when I was young he took tons of photographs–but that faded at some point in life and boxes of slides are all that remain of that former hobby (incidentally, he has recently begun to rediscover that passion, with a Hasselblad 501CM he picked up earlier this year…more on that later).
For all his positive attributes, he had one great failing: he was not a very good father.
When I left home in 2002 and joined the military at 19, things were strained but not awful. My father had not been a positive force in my life for most of my years, and the most vivid memories of my father were not incredibly positive. (At this point, although the essay is not about my mother, I should mention that she was everything a little boy could have ever asked for in a mother; caring, kind, and selfless to a fault, she provided a wonderful example of self-sacrifice and positivity that I will never forget. If you’re reading this, thanks Mom; I love you.) During one of my visits home to see my parents, shortly after my son was born, something happened that brought things to a head. Without going in to the specifics, I will say that some of the less positive personality traits that my father possesses took center stage and he and I had a long conversation about a great many things. Shortly thereafter, I returned home to Texas to finish out my enlistment without having resolved anything. Raw emotion bubbled just under the surface.
As a person, I am in many ways the polar opposite of my father; I am more sensitive and caring where he can be aloof and detached; more artist than intellectual; more passive than aggressive; more disheveled than organized. This has determined the kind of father that I would become, but we are–all of us–shaped by the experiences of our youth. I would even go out on a limb and say that for all the love a mother can give, men will grow into their future selves based off of their father; they will either emulate him or reject him–sometimes a bit of both. My father rejected his father, with whom he has barely spoken since he was a boy. I would not let that happen to me and my son, no matter what.
I had decided that things would be different with my son.
To the great credit of my father, he took it upon himself to figure things out. That incident was, as the saying goes, the straw that broke the camel’s back for everyone including my father. Then in 2006, my father and I went to England for the first time. My dad has worked tirelessly in his own right to rectify the faults he has, and has dealt with his own things that he needed to–some of them are surely residue from his own explosive relationship with his father, my natural grandfather of whom I have no memory at all and have not spoken with since I was a child. I credit that trip to England as the beginning of an entirely new relationship with my dad.
Since then we have been to England three more times, with another on the horizon in a few weeks; we also traveled to Japan in 2007. Calling these trips therapeutic might be overkill, but they have been something akin to that. The time alone together has been great, as well as the time planning and talking about trips. The memories have been great, and has re-launched a newer, more positive time between the two of us. Since then, my dad has been a model father: interested, involved, positive, supportive, and caring. As adults, we get along well, and I credit that in part for the reason for the improvement, since my dad has trouble relating to kids. But overstating that fact would do him a great disservice, as he has put an enormous amount of effort in to ensure a more positive present with which to contrast against the gloomier past.
And so, England has taken on a role of something much greater with the two of us, and I look forward to the trip each year. England isn’t just a physical place, but a symbol of the emotional place he and I have found for a connection in adulthood. For the trip in 2006, I carried a small digital point-and-shoot camera, and put together a small collage of photos I took of the two of us against various backgrounds (Upton Park, the Globe theater, Stamford Bridge, etc). For every trip since then, I have created a photo book (from MyPublisher, Apple’s Aperture, or Blurb) of our trip. And so, our trips are memorialized and have served to chart my progress, and deepening interest, in photography. But looking through the four books on the shelf already, one can see how my work has developed and see the things we have done over the years. Those books represent steps in our relationship and, as such, are priceless.
We don’t only go to England each year. We have also gone to watch matches at a local British pub in Minneapolis together, enjoying time together and conversation all the while. We have been to a few baseball games, but as I’m not overly fond of baseball, we have begun going to more basketball games together, and are this year season ticket holders with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Photography has also made a bit of a comeback.
Since this blog is focused primarily on photography, I would be amiss not to bring this essay around to that subject somehow. As I mentioned earlier, my father was once an avid amateur photographer. Coincidentally (or not), his father was a professional photographer. As anyone who reads this blog will know, I’m quite the amateur photographer as well. My father has now become interested in Hasselblad photography, since I showed him my Hasselblad 501CM a few months ago. Shortly thereafter, he bought an identical model himself, and has since acquired more lenses and accessories as his interest has grown ever more.
This year’s England trip will see my father bring his Hasselblad along, and I am likely to do so as well. Being in England, with my dad, with each of us shooting our Hasselblad could hardly be any better in terms of our relationship. From a time when he and I seemed destined (or doomed) to repeat the history he and his father made many years before I was born, we have gone to forge a new present that involves a bond based on common interests. Football, travel, photography, and more, have served to bring us back together to a healthy, positive father-son relationship.
Finally, I have to mention the Pentax ME Super which is, by basically any standard of measure, a run-of-the-mill SLR from the early 1980s. But the particular camera that I have in my possession is far more than that. The ME Super that I have is the one that my mother gave to my father before I was born, before they were married. I had it CLA’d a few years ago, and it works as new. Although I don’t use it much, it means a great deal to me. It reminds me of another time, when my parents were young and in love. It’s a symbol of them, and helps me to remember my parents as they were all those years ago: young, as I never knew them; passionately in love, as only young people can be; and happy, traveling around with my father shooting all those boxes of slides before they were memories consigned to a box in the basement. It’s a kind of melancholy-laced happiness that I think can only exist in the life-long partnership of young lovers growing old together. I run a roll of film through it every so often to ensure it stays in good working order, but I take it out and hold it and look at it regularly, letting it take me to another time when my parents went on camping trips together, and had their whole lives in front of them–so much was still to come.
As their future unfolded, an unexpected surprise found their way to them in January 1983. That small bundle of their combined genetic material would grow up and complicate their lives immeasurably. It would strain their patience and their finances, and even at times the burdens placed on them by that bundle would strain the very core of themselves and their relationship. My father would grow as a man as I grew as a boy, making mistakes along the way.
Then, in 2006, he bought two tickets to England.