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A Father in the Rye

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By Jeff Milligan

After another day of swinging hammers on a cold roof, I drove to the daycare and picked up my two daughters, ages 8 and 5. We drove home, and as they put their bags and coats away I started cooking. My wife would be home in a few minutes.

As the water boiled, I got on the internet to check email and saw the headline: J.D. Salinger Dead at 91. My chest grew cold and I felt a swell of emotion, but I caught myself. Am I being phony? I pushed the feelings aside and got back to the dinner routine.

But later, after homework and clean up, I thought about Salinger and Holden Caulfield.

It seemed that by Salinger's death, Holden Caulfield, too, had somehow died. And because Holden had played such an influential role in my emotional and philosophical development, something inside me seemed to die as well. Something inside me had run away forever -- through the field of rye and over the cliff. And there was nothing that I could do about it.

I looked through my bookshelf and found my paperback copy of The Catcher in the Rye and examined it: The spine is completely broken. It is actually two battered books now -- the first 94 pages and the remaining pages, from page 95 to page 214 -- held together with Scotch tape. The red cover is creased with cream-colored veins, like the imprints of fossil leaves. Nearly every page has an asterisk or underlined passage and the inside cover lists page numbers of important events or quotes. Some of the writing is in pencil, some in blue ink, some in black, some in red. The writing looks unfamiliar, but all of these words and notations were written by me.

I first read The Catcher in the Rye in high school, but it made little impact on me. It wasn't until I was in college, when I read the book for my own pleasure that it resonated with me. In fact, I dedicated myself to reading the book every year and did so for six or seven years in a row. One year, I stayed up all night and read the entire book straight through. It was, and still is, the most moving literary experience I have ever had.

I understood that beneath Holden's humor and sarcasm was a vast and deep reservoir of suffering. He burdens himself with an impossible though noble task: protecting the innocent from suffering.

Holden says while talking to his little sister Phoebe, "I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around -- nobody big, I mean -- except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff -- I mean if they're running and don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy...."

A burden so heavy could almost only end in tragedy, and yet it does not end without hope.

Holden's general perspective on the world is a sort of mental illness, one that I share with Holden more often than not. It sees only the suffering, only the phoniness, only the eventual death. Not that those things aren't true, but we forget that alongside the suffering can be great joy. Alongside the phoniness can be moments of clarity. Alongside death is the infinite possibility of life, of real freedom.

And although Holden was being smothered by his suffering, he was eventually able to see the joy. He was able to see that children cannot be protected forever, that they, themselves, will want to experience the world with all its joy and pain.

At the end of the book, when Phoebe gets on the merry-go-round, Holden says, "The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it's bad if you say anything to them."

And so as I said goodnight to my little girls, I may have squeezed them more tightly, but I also tried to let them go more freely.

The blankets were snuggled around their small shoulders and a soft light fell on their innocent faces. And although there were a million chores to do and bills to pay, I felt so damn happy all of a sudden. I really did. God, I wish you could've been there. And Holden Caufield, too.

Jeff Milligan lives, works and writes in Chester County 

 

 

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