The drives seemed to be endless, those he took with his father. An endless motor hum, and endless drone of rubber on the highway, an endless silence choking the air between driver and passenger. The silence was unbearable. Paul always wondered what was going through the older man’s mind as he sat silent behind the wheel and why he, in turn, had nothing to say. He wondered if one silence bred the other. Observing the interaction, one might ascertain the two men in the car actually did have nothing to say. Perhaps they were tongues mutes. Au contraire. Mountains of thought piled in their minds, but never did even a single stone of an idea tumble from the cliffs’ edge and pass from their mouths. Nary a word was said. Nary a word between the father and the son, until, on a long stretch of road leading to Paul’s mother’s house, a momentary exclamation about the arrangement of a flour-coated rolling pin on a Sara Lee billboard resonated from the driver’s side of the car. Paul’s father, after a moment, began a soft-spoken monologue about the way his mother spend the afternoons in the kitchen covered in flour. His memories sprung into language as soon as they budded in his mind. Paul wondered if he was verbalizing their existence for the first time. He told his son how his mother used to set the dinner table for seven even after the eldest sibling had married, had flown the coop as they say. The first few times she did it he wrote it off as accidental. It was no accident, but that did not mean it was explainable. She continued to lay empty plates at the empty chairs, night after night, year after year, until Paul’s father would sit in the presence of six absentee siblings of his mother’s peculiar creation. It was the meatloaf, he told his son, that made him go back to see his mother the few times he did after he left for college. Other than the meatloaf, there was little else he cared for in her home.
Paul had quietly developed a romantic notion about his father’s college experience. Perhaps it stemmed from old reruns of ‘70s television and outdated films depicting early adults walking around their autumnal college campuses. Like Love Story. The soft filter fuzzing the light on the edges of wool sweaters and bellbottom jeans that make them appear to have a haloed border the way things look in the evening after a day spent in the swimming pool with your eyes open under the water. Paul’s version of his father’s days in higher education were filled with mustached young men with leather satchels slung across their shoulders, pipes stemming from their mouths as they walked to the library. He was captivated with the way his mind would write them to appear with such honor. Last year, he’d come across a yearbook from his father’s alma mater and as he delicately turned the yellow-edged pages he watched them carry with their bundles of books an unseen sense of make-something-for-themselves responsibility. He could see them mapping out their lives on those pages. They were lucky enough not to be at war. They were lucky enough to dream of starting a family. They were respectable. He revered them for the straightness in their stride and the sternness in their faces.
Perhaps Paul’s romantic notions came also from the way those men seemed to wholly invest themselves in their educations, but this of course was not always the reality. It was the ideal. It was the idea that the current generation could learn from the wisdom of their fathers because they passed through those institutions with a confidence and determination to better themselves and their country. Maybe they really did have it differently when it came to earning and paying for their degrees. Maybe they didn’t have gripes with loan companies and politicians and the futile job markets and people making it big by not following the crowd and getting a college education. But maybe they did. Or, maybe they were focused on other kinds if obstacles and fears and growing national and global anxieties. Those men, who he’d imagined being vastly different from the irresponsible lot of contemporary college students, he’d come to the conclusion that they were not all that different. He held his father to a higher ideal, however. He likewise strived to face his education with the same steadfastness and stoic perseverance.
Paul had been in college for only a few weeks before he started to understand the impact of the silent car rides with his father. His father’s silence had taught him an important philosophy in that there is no purpose to be found filling the air with mindless banter, despite what might be broadly accepted socially. Internal reflection is sacred, even in the presence of another and even if that other is the closest of kin.