It is a Sunday mid-morning in early December, the high temperature for the day already having come and gone, and I am taking my daily walk (once again daily, after weeks of neglect), accompanied only by the voice of author Saïd Sayrafiezadeh reading Thomas Beller’s short story “A Different Kind of Imperfection,” from the most recent New Yorker fiction podcast.
“And then it was Christmas vacation and he was home.”
And so the story begins. I am listening to this particular podcast only because it is at the top of my iPod list, but with each word, each sentence, the story seems chosen for its themes rather than found. Grown children returning home. Our son is currently studying abroad for the fall, separated by an ocean and Skype, and this weekend we are preparing for his return, still over two weeks away, by washing his sheets, planning his favorite meals, even turning the daily calendar on the piano to December 20 in anticipation. Fathers and sons. Beller’s story, first published in The New Yorker in 1991 (the year our son was born), tells in part of the search for a parent, the yearning for a personal history no longer within reach, and the distances made more poignant by time. I am reminded of how, just two days before, a student (who, like the story’s protagonist, had also lost his father) told me of reading Franz Kafka’s rambling “Letter to My Father” and how it spurred the student to write his own letter from a father to his newborn son, in the form of a poem, asking that the child eventually look upon the actions of the father and find them blameless. Writers are all around us, I thought at the time. Writing and reading as ways of knowing. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse figures prominently in “A Different Kind of Imperfection,” especially the line “she had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness,” underlined words as clues to ourselves, to our pasts, to happiness itself, to the very secrets of life. And on this cold, damp morning, in the listening and the walking and the remembering, for a moment it all comes together—parent and child, student and Kafka, loss and recovery, family and holidays—in ways I will myself to experience rather than understand, and the words become a part of me. “And then it was Christmas vacation and he was home.”