Fathers and Daughters, by the Book

Recently, I overheard my girls singing the words to “Daughters” by John Mayer. This pleased me, but perhaps not for the reason you’d think. Although I like it when my kids sing, I generally don’t like them singing songs like that written by a guy like this.

Nonetheless, I am a big fan of any art that celebrates the relationship between dads and their daughters. And, as luck would have it, around the time they were crooning “fathers, be good to your daughters,” I received a review copy of My Father’s Places, a new memoir about growing up with the poet Dylan Thomas, written by his only daughter, Aeronwy. It’s a lyrical, episodic, and entertaining little book, revealing an intimate side of a man who cultivated a very commanding public persona. It’s also somewhat of a cautionary tale for any father who wants to be a famous writer, or vice-versa.

It should be no surprise to anyone familiar with the facts of his bio that Thomas, also a playwright and the author of one of my most cherished holiday stories, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, proves to be an overgrown child at home. According to his daughter, he shirked his work whenever he could, producing a “sea of sorries” for publishers, and spent most of his time (and money) in local restaurants or pubs — from which his young daughter often had to collect him and help him “negotiate the path down to the front door.” And though he was a kind and loving head of household, he didn’t exactly rule the roost. Once, as Aeron vividly recalls, Dylan came running into the kitchen from the lavatory, “braces falling down over his two-sizes-too-big trousers, [and] shouting, ‘Rat.'” He climbed onto the table, “screaming like a stuck pig.” It took all the women, including his wife, Caitlin, his daughter, and Dolly, the housekeeper, to chase the “dark-grey-mud-coloured creature” out into the garden.

What’s more revealing is that, though he wrote in grandiloquent detail about his own carefree and wondrous childhood — most famously in the poem, “Fern Hill” — the hard truth is that his daughter’s upbringing was anything but idyllic. The book opens in 1949, with six-year-old Aeron and family moving to a dilapidated boathouse on the edge of the small Welsh village of Laugharne (the real-life setting for his masterpiece, Under Milk Wood). The family had very little money, suffered a continual influx of Thomas-seeking revelers, and navigated a watery landscape that, though rocky, bird-filled, and generally a “place to explore, to run around,” was muddy, damp, and cold most of the year.

And the estuary wasn’t the only chilly feature.When her father was able to write, Aeron recalls, he spent long hours locked in a shed, with the shutters closed, because he “loathed the noise of children more than the sun.” Or, as he put it, in a letter to a friend, “Our little spankers make so much noise I cannot work anywhere near them, God grenade them.” An exaggeration, for sure. But not exactly a nurturing environment, either, where a small child would feel “tickled by the rub of love.”

Thomas did dote on his daughter, however, when he chose to pay attention to her. (In addition to competing for his affection with her father’s work/play habits and long absences due to reading and lecture tours in Europe or America, another child, a boy, arrived shortly after they moved to Laugharne.) For example, Thomas loved reading books to his daughter “once or twice a week, usually on bath night,” and the passages detailing these moments are the most endearing in the book. The two Thomases would settle into “a capacious armchair … with Dad modulating his voice differently for each character,” discussing the merits of each of the books (everything from Grimm’s fairy tales to Wind in the Willows), and debating which wonder-world was better than the other. The true life of the father, then, for Dylan Thomas — who died tragically in 1953, at 39 — was steeped in fiction.

Somewhat coincidentally, I have been reading To Kill a Mockingbird at bedtime to my youngest womanly warbler. I say “somewhat coincidentally” because I originally picked the book in honor of its landmark year — it turned 50 on July 11 — and because it’s one of my “fraverits,” as my niece says. But what I’ve come to realize is that it provides an interesting contrast to what I encountered in the Thomas memoir. Although a work of fiction, Harper Lee’s prize-winning novel offers a very realistic portrayal of a positive relationship between a dad and daughter during difficult times.

Like Dylan Thomas, Atticus Finch worked long hours away from home and left others to do much of the work of raising his kids. And although his relationship with Scout was anything but “close,” at least compared to the way I interact with my daughters and son, Atticus was loving, kind, and understanding.

Unlike Dylan, however, Atticus serves as a sort of moral hero for his family. I don’t think I need to repeat any plot lines here (and I think Gregory Peck would frown if I did), but suffice to say that, through both actions and words, Atticus shows his children how to grow up. That, as he tells his daughter, Scout, “sometimes we have to make the best of things,” and show empathy for others and learn humility for yourself. Traits that, sadly, Thomas didn’t share. Sure, Atticus is a made-up character, but one that I think most real-life dads would like to emulate.

So, if you want to celebrate, and perhaps enhance, your relationship with your female children, I recommend buying a copy of My Father’s Places, or even dusting off your copy of To Kill a Mockingbird from 8th grade. But don’t waste your time learning the words to a song written by a guy you wouldn’t want anywhere near your daughter.

As always, tell us what you think. Are you a fan of Dylan Thomas? If so, which is your favorite story or poem? Do you think characters in a novel can serve as role models? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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Originally posted on August 10, 2010.

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