My father tells me to grip the seven-iron "like you're holding a bird in your hands and you don't want to crush it," and I say "okay," which is what I always say to my father when I think he is criticizing me, or when I have absolutely no idea what he's talking about, or when I'm filled with a vague and guilty rage toward him, or when all three are happening at once. I say okay when he talks about investment strategies and tax shelters and the enduring value of discipline and why I should buckle down and write a best-seller and when he tells me the story of the ant and the grasshopper, which he started telling me when I was two years old. I'm forty-nine now, and I've been saying okay for forty-seven years.
"You want to sit, not bend," he says after I slice one.
"Okay," I say.
"Both hands working together now," he says. "Belly-button focus."
I hook one.
"Keep your lower body still."
I swing with savage intent, and miss.
"But not completely still."
"Oh, I see now. Okay. Yeah. Okay."
We face each other, holding clubs, alone together on a weekday afternoon at a driving range. It is a brilliant, sunny spring day in St. Louis, home of my father, and of his father's father, and—after he'd immigrated from Hungary—my father's father's father. I have come here from New York City, where I moved to twelve years ago, because my father has agreed to teach me to play golf.
I asked because I wanted to understand his life better, because I wanted to find out what he was doing all those Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings and Sunday summer evenings, whether golf was a cause or a symptom of his failed marriage to my mother. I asked because I wanted to learn what my father found in the fairways and on the greens that he didn't find at home, or at work, and whether he was still looking for it.
After he'd agreed, I put off the trip for five years. Because I was busy. Because I wasn't sure I wanted to know the answers to my questions. Because neither my father nor I had ever discovered much joy in our teacher-pupil sessions, whether they involved cutting grass or changing oil or polishing shoes. And then my father had emergency bypass surgery and a subsequent bout of mild depression, and shortly after that his parents got ill and died. I helped write the eulogies that my father delivered. And so, filled with a sense of loss and impending mortality—his and mine—I called to finalize the details of the golf lessons.
There would be three days of lessons, he said, at least a few hours a day and maybe more, culminating in a nine-hole match for which we would be joined by my older brother, who was flying in for business. Okay, I said.
He told me to read Harvey Penick's Little Red Book. He told me to buy or borrow a couple of irons and go to the driving range and work on my swing. He told me to practice, especially the short game, "because if you really want to play golf, if you're serious about this, that's what you do, you practice the short game."
What I heard was, "You don't really want to play golf. You're not serious. You're not serious about the short game, not serious about making money, not serious about getting married and having children and not serious about making a success of yourself."
"Okay," I'd said, half a country away. "Okay, okay, okay."
And now, hour four of day one, I'm hooking and slicing and whiffing and topping in St. Louis. If I'd read a solitary page of Penick's book, would I be wiser?If I'd made a single trip to a driving range in New York, would I be better?If I'd done my homework, would either of us be happier?Does my father sense how I have already failed him?
"We're going to work on the fundamentals this week," my father says. "Stance, grip, putting, the short game and the basic swing."
"Okay," I hiss, and when I look up, he is frowning, in pain, as if he knows what my okays really mean. I think he does know. I hate when he worries about me. I like it, too. I think he has been worrying about me for a long time.
"But most important," he says, "is that we're going to teach you to have fun. That's the most important thing."
He tries so hard. He worries so much. I want to reassure him. I want to make him proud. I want to promise that I will practice the short game and hold my club like an endangered bird, that we will stride down lush fairways together for many years to come.
But I don't, of course. I can't.
"Okay," I say.
My father and I are walking in a parking lot, and from time to time I reach out to feel his thigh. I'm nine years old. This is my earliest memory that involves golf. My father tells me that next month he is going on a weekend trip with some of his friends to Illinois to play golf, and he says I'm a big boy now and I can keep a secret and not to tell Mommy, he's going to surprise her. Okay, I say, and I touch his thigh again, which is knotty with muscles. It's a big parking lot. I'm a worried child and I blow saliva bubbles to pass the time and to calm myself, and I am fiercely concentrating on blowing a big one as we walk and I reach out again to touch my father's thigh and then I hear a strange voice and something is wrong and I look up and it's a strange man and then I'm sobbing and here comes my father, laughing, rubbing my head, picking me up in his arms. Somehow I have wandered off, lost in my head, but never out of sight of my father, who has watched his dreamy boy with what?Amusement?Bafflement?Fear for the future?I bury my face in his neck and his hand covers my entire head.