Exploring three generations of the men in his family -- his father and his two uncles, his own two brothers, and his two sons -- Bret Lott spins a sweeping true saga of the ties that bind. With quiet grace and his trademark talent for finding powerful revelations in the most unlikely places, master novelist Lott delivers a bracingly personal and honest memoir that confronts the often inexpressible complexities of contemporary maleness. Fathers, Sons, and Brothers describes not only the ways men and boys relate to one another but also how their lives evolve over decades, endlessly imitative yet varied. In the end, these essays constitute a celebration of humanity, regardless of gender -- of joy and sorrow, of intimacy and distance, of lingering secrets and universal truths.
We've been in the new house more than a month already, each day thus far filled with putting away all we own, each day filled with trying to find order in chaos. This is our dream house, after all, the one for which we bought the lot, the one we helped design, the one we plan to see filled with our lives and our children's lives here in South Carolina, so putting things in their just and proper places once and for all seems only right.
We -- Melanie, my wife, and our two boys, Zeb, age ten, and Jacob, age seven -- live a five-minute walk from the tidal marsh along the Wando River, where these spring evenings we can stand and watch the sun set behind Daniel Island, the sky above us reflected on the river to form a wide and shimmering band of blue and red and magenta, and where we can watch slender stalks of yellowgrass and saw grass and salt-marsh hay sway with the movement of the tide. A ten-minute bike ride takes us to the clubhouse, perched on the edge of the Wando, and the swimming pool there, and the marina, where on a quiet morning you can hear the breeze off Charleston Harbor gently rattle the halyards on the sailboats, the rhythmic metal tap on the masts like some impatient dream of open seas, full sails billowing.
Already there are three forts in the surrounding woods to which the boys can retreat; already there is talk of signing them up for the club's swim team. At breakfast we've seen out the bay window everything from pileated woodpeckers to Carolina wrens; yesterday morning, when I took the dog out to get the paper, there stood a doe in the empty lot next door, only to dart, at the sight of our Lab, for the woods at the end of the street.
But the garage. No matter how crisp and ordered the inside of the house, no matter how many empty and flattened boxes piled up outside the kitchen door, a house is not a home, at least in my mind, until the garage has been put together. It's only a rudderless ship set for sail, a freshly waxed and gleaming car up on blocks, a perfectly detailed map with no true North. That's what I dunk, anyway, though I know that if I were to tell this to my wife, she'd only shake her head, let out an exasperated sigh.
"Men," she'd say.
I sit on the bottom step of the stairs down into the garage and survey it all, this endless mass of material goods we've accrued: a two-car garage piled haphazardly with boxes, yard tools, Zeb and Jake's outside toys and sports equipment; and the camping equipment, recycling bins, bicycles, lawn mower, more boxes. A thousand items, all ready and waiting for me, and though I have no clue as to where to start, still my heart shines at the prospect of the job before me, as though by putting it all away I will become a better husband, a better father, a better man.
My father, I know, would have thrown as much of it out as he could. His garage was always a lean, pristine place, and it seems now, on this Friday I've cleared for the express mission of setting up the garage, that throwing things out is the way to begin. Separating the wheat from the chaff, as it were.
I stand, go to the mounds of our belongings on the left side of the garage, and pick up the first victim: an old and holey garden hose I've been meaning to repair for the last year or two. But now the truth rises in me, ugly and incriminating: I'd rather just buy a new one than seek out the pinhole leaks and replace the hardware at either end, and so I toss the hose out the side door, the one that leads off into the backyard. So begins, if in a heartless way, my association with my garage.
My father was a man of few words, and even fewer tools. What I remember of the first garage I ever knew was that it was a dark and windowless place: tar paper and bare studs, open rafters above. This was back in Buena Park, California, in a tiny stucco tract house where we lived from the time I was two until I was nine, and I can remember, too, the small Peg-Board above the workbench at the back of the garage. On it hung one hammer, one hand saw, and two screwdrivers, a Phillips-head and a flathead. That was it.
Sure, there must have been other stuff somewhere in there, but back then garage paraphernalia wasn't important to me. What was important was that after Saturday yard work, we three boys finally done pulling weeds along the fence in the backyard, my dad would hose out the entire garage, giving the concrete floor a slick sheen, a temptation too great for us. Brad, Tim, and I had no choice but to take turns running as fast as we could along the asphalt driveway, then jumping flatfooted onto that cement, blasting from pure California Saturday morning sunfight into the black garage to slide barefooted as far as we could, arms out like surfers' for balance.
And of course my mother forbade our doing this, hollering from the front porch each Saturday about broken arms and concussions. But my father only shook his head at us, gave what we supposed was a smile, then set about sweeping out the water, his garage once more pristine, every item in its place, we boys sliding and laughing and falling and laughing again.
But when I was nine, my father was transferred, and we moved from Buena Park to Phoenix, a place so strange and alien it might have been another planet: saguaro, cactus as decorative landscaping, snakes sunning themselves on warm driveways at daybreak, coyotes rooting through the garbage cans.
And nobody had garages.
Instead, we all had carports, open-air structures under which you simply parked your car. Gone overnight was the sense of mystery about the garage, the dark and cool of it, the bare studs and tar paper replaced with eight painted wooden posts holding up a roof.
Though there were still weeds to be pulled, there was no grass to be mowed; instead people had gravel yards, and my father had us out there every Saturday morning raking the gravel into careful, thin lines while he swept the driveway. Gone were the days of slick and wet concrete, the hose replaced by a push broom. This was the desert; hosing down the carport was a frivolous waste of water.
We lived there until I was sixteen, seven years that saw momentous changes in the life of our family: We three brothers entered our teen years and splintered up, Tim, the youngest, following in my dad's footprints, raking the gravel in a manner that would, later in my life, remind me of Japanese rock gardens; me, the middle boy, burrowing into books and band; and Brad, the oldest, falling in with the wrong crowd, turning rebel, finally dropping out of high school his senior year to join the navy.
I can't help but think that, somehow, this loss of a garage had something to do with it. Back in California, we three boys used the garage as a haven from Mom and Dad, built extravagant forts of blankets and chairs and the grille of our '62 Dodge once Dad got home, the engine warm and ticking beside us. In that garage we rode our bikes in endless figure eights all summer long, passed time in the cool dark; in that garage we gave each other practice swats with the Ping-Pong paddle, the three of us having put on two pairs of pants and three pairs of underwear apiece, all in anticipation of what was to come once Dad got home and Mom told him of how we'd raided the garage refrigerator, had eaten every Kool-Pop and Fudgsicle and even the watermelon that afternoon.
It was in that garage that we became, it only occurs to me now, brothers.
There is no there there in a carport, no sense of place other than one to park the car in; instead of riding bikes in the cool dark of a garage all summer long we stayed indoors, where it was air-conditioned, and watched Gilligan's Island reruns until we could guess the episode before the opening credits were over. We took our swats without the luxury of practices with the Ping-Pong paddle, forced to gauge solo how many layers to wear, Mom too nosy and poking her head into our bedrooms whenever we attempted mock tribunals. We tried building our forts in the living room, but the lack of the engine's tick and the absence of the dangerously sweet smell of gasoline revealed to us the sad truth of our improvised architecture: Here were only chairs, here were only blankets. No wonder, then, we each broke for our own lives.
By the time my father was transferred back to California when I was sixteen, we brothers were as good as strangers: Brad somewhere in the South Pacific on the first of his three SEAPAC cruises, Tim attending the new high school, Shadow Mountain, me the old one, Paradise Valley, this split a result of overdevelopment of the area and the opening of a new district. I was first tenor in the jazz ensemble, Timmy a hack tuba player. We three bore nothing in common, though I suppose, of course, it was inevitable, this splintering up; all of us, for better or worse, grow up and away.
Then, literally overnight, there we were, once again in a stucco tract home in Southern California, though this one was bigger, closer to the ocean. More importantly, we had a garage once again.
Saturday mornings we two remaining boys helped with the yard: Tim with a religious fervor that would later find its release in the opening of his own landscaping business, me with the begrudging attitude of the unjustly persecuted. I was a sixteen-year-old who only wanted to live back in Phoenix, where his friends were, no matter the carports or gravel yards. While my dad, oblivious as far as I could tell, only hosed out the garage.
I was a hayseed from Phoenix dropped square in the middle of the surf capital of America: Huntington Beach, California. Timmy was now at the same school with me, though I acted as though I didn't know him, a freshman. I still wore bib overalls and flannel shirts just like everyone else back at Paradise Valley, even when I was surrounded by longhaired blond surfers, male and female alike, wearing Hawaiian shirts turned inside-out, corduroy shorts, and thongs. Timmy took on that disguise with ease, shucking his overalls for colorful rayon hula girls and those shorts in a move that further distanced him, the traitor, from my peripheral vision. Finally band, my refuge back in Arizona once we boys had made our split, turned its back on me: I couldn't even make the band at Huntington Beach High because, the director quietly explained to me my first day there, their jazz ensemble was going on tour the next month, and everyone had had to sell cheese in order to go, and since I hadn't sold any cheese I couldn't truly expect to be included in the trip to Modesto, now could I?
So my days were spent inside a funk of the first degree, me silent save for the muted grunts around the dinner and breakfast tables, a shorthand of squelched anger at my parents, at my little brother, even at Brad. Nowhere to be seen, he was somehow nonetheless implicated in my getting shafted by the world.
Then one morning a month or so after we'd moved, my father of few words nudged me awake in the predawn dark of my bedroom, and I opened my eyes to see him above me, a silhouette against the light from the hallway, there, in his business suit, briefcase in hand, faceless for the dark. As every weekday morning of my entire life, he was dressed and ready to walk out the door before daylight, and I remember sitting up in my bed, rubbing my eyes, then looking up at him again, wondering what the heck had made him wake me.
"Read this," he said, and handed me an index card.
I took it, then reached with my other hand to the desk beside my bed, put on my glasses. I blinked a few times, held the card so that I could read it in the light from the hallway behind him. On the card was typed the words, "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
"Someone gave it to me at the office," he said. He was quiet a moment, then said, "He heard me talking about you to one of the guys. Thought you'd appreciate that." He paused again, then turned, headed for the hall. He stopped once he was out there, and now I could see his face, could see his eyes on me, his middle son.
He was the man who'd looked at us three boys lined up on the living room couch in our protective layers of clothes that day we'd raided the garage refrigerator, only to pierce us each with his eyes and say in a voice so strong and solid we'd had no choice but to obey: "Boys. Don't do that again." He was the same man who parked the Dodge just so, one or another of us directing him into the garage like a ground-crewman for a DC-8, him setting the brake and smiling, shaking his head while he climbed out of the car, we three already setting up the chairs, unfolding the blankets.
He was the same man who, on Saturday mornings, worked the hose inside our garage, the man who seemed to smile while our mother hollered, we boys having no choice but to run for the cement, blast from pure California Saturday-morning sunlight into the black garage, then slide barefooted as far as we could.
I looked at the index card, then back at him. I said, "Thanks." I paused, shrugged, a little stunned at this moment of help offered by a man of so few words. "Thanks," I said again.
He gave again what I supposed was a smile, then headed down the hall to the stairs, turned out the light. I lay back in bed, heard a few moments later the slow groan of the garage door as my father pulled it open, a sound I almost never heard for the fact I was usually stone asleep this time each morning. I heard the car start, heard it back out. Then came the same slow groan, the cold twist and strain of metal springs, as he eased the garage door closed.
We have survived. Brad is a carpenter in Sequim, Washington, where he lives with his wife and their two daughters. Tim designs and sells wooden playground equipment, those huge structures you see in city parks all over the country, and lives with his wife and son and daughter not three miles from our parents' house in Huntington Beach. And I am a writer in South Carolina, a land so alien to Southern California and Phoenix, Arizona, it might as well be another planet. I'm still stunned at a deer in the yard next door, at woodpeckers and wrens out the breakfast-nook bay window, at yellowgrass and saw grass and the shimmering face of a river at sunset.
And now, at a little after two on a Friday afternoon, the garage is finished. It's a different garage from that one in Buena Park., the walls here Sheetrocked and painted, the two windows that look out on the front lawn filling the place with light, no tar paper, no bare studs. To the right I've stacked a box filled with bats and badminton rackets and the volleyball net, another packed with baseball gloves and various Nerf balls, Rollerblades, and radio-control cars. Above it all I've nailed a metal rack for yard tools: two shovels, two spring rakes, a push broom, and an edger.
To the left are the boxes of gardening paraphernalia, my wife's obsession: hand shovels and garden hose fixtures, sprinIders and sprayers, fertilizers and insecticides and empty terracotta pots, all waiting for her gentle hand. Next comes the electric blower, next to that my Weedwacker, next to that the lawn mower. There sits my toolbox, the small gray plastic one; inside it a couple of screwdrivers, a tape measure, a small socket set.
That's it for my tools. Like father, like son.
I'm planning on building a workbench in here, planning to hang a Peg-Board above it to give a home to those tools. Eventually I'll build shelves in here, too, and place these boxes on them so that on Saturday mornings, after the lawn is done, I can hose the place down and teach my boys the finer points of garage sliding. But not before I buy that new hose, the one to replace the holey one buried beneath the discard pile outside, a pile so high I know I've done my father proud.
It's time now for me to pick the boys up from school, Melanie having gone for groceries, and I step out of this pristine garage, this newly waxed hot rod finally off the blocks, this map of my life finally given its own true North. Time, too, to make some phone calls this evening: one to Washington to talk to a carpenter, one to a man who designs toys for kids like my own. And one to a man of few words, even fewer tools.
I stand back from my garage, hands on hips, to survey it all, then reach to the garage door above me, take hold the handle, and pull it closed.
The New York Times Book Review Lott observes and beautifully renders those small moments that can change a life.
Andrea Barrett National Book Award-winning author of Ship Fever Moving, gentle, and full of heart, this wise memoir begins by illuminating Bret Lott's family but sheds its light on all of us in the end.
Washington Post Book World In fifteen affecting pieces...Bret Lott tells of loss and growing up and the tensions that echo from one generation to the next....Lott achieves poignancy by holding fluid relationships steady for a moment and seeing them in the context of all families.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Lott writes about the men in his family with a rare mix of objectivity and loving regard.
Robert Olen Butler author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain What an astonishing book. Bret Lott understands why photographs fade faster than memories, why lost innocence is sweeter than innocence itself, and why every man needs his own garage. Fathers, Sons, and Brothers is a brilliant evocation of that weight that is no weight, love.
The New York Times Book Review Captures the rough-and-tumble of men growing up, through his honesty, lyricism and eye for the telling detail. Some powerful moments in these essays are also the most emotionally charged, as Lott tries to make sense of an uncontrollable world.
Charles Sermon The State (Columbia, SC) A book of small epiphanies, full of love and tenderness, curiosity and disappointment, innocence and guilt, questions and answers.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution I suspect that what Lott has written is paradigmatic, a parable of the changes in the way fathers, who are always caught between generations, understand their roles.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel In turn son, grandson, brother, husband, uncle, nephew, and father, Lott uses his vivid, elegant prose to shine the twin bright lights of truth and love on the evolving relationships among male family members.
Elinor Lipman author of The Ladies' Man When Bret Lott wears his heart on his sleeve, it is a wonderful sight to behold....Tender, funny, bittersweet, and satisfying, Fathers, Sons, and Brothers is a treasure map to what most men keep buried -- or at least a visa to those shores.