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Father-Son Distance Bridged By an EmbraceHL:

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IN the beginning, there was only the boy -- and the bottle and me. We were perfectly alone. The boy slept on bent knees in his crib, under a menagerie of circus animals -- like him, frozen in time. The sun crept westward out of the dark trees, shafting the windows, blanching the desk where I sat and wrote. The bottle waited in the refrigerator.

It was an October morning. Earlier my wife had disappeared down the overgrown aqueduct path to catch a train to New York City, back to work. In her place she had left the bottle. Three months old, the boy was now mine to take care of.

It was unsettling to think what he would make of this: his mother gone -- that supple, unquestioned bond to her rudely broken off -- and replaced by a plastic bottle calibrated in deciliters. Some said he might protest at first, refuse the bottle, but when he was hungry enough he would accept this substitute, this cradle of less familiar arms. He would adjust. All children did.

Beneath the doubts there lay opportunity for him and me, here inside this onetime horse stable along the Hudson, in this undefined expanse of shared time. We would grow close; we would grow accustomed to each other's voices and moods, the prying of moist fingers, the clasp of unequal arms. It would be different between him and me from what it had been like with my father and me.

My father was a quiet, studied man, with an even manner rent only on rare occasions by an outburst of laughter at some repeated joke. It was the lawyer in him, perhaps; he was the counselor in a polka-dot bow tie, consigned to console and absorb others' tribulations.

From the day I left for college we always shook hands, coming and going. It was practically the only time we touched, in that brief firm grasp that funneled our emotions. It was a ritual grasp, repeated over and over as I grew older and apart from him -- when I returned home that first college summer from Europe; in a Newark diner shortly before I was drafted into the Army; when I first brought my wife-to-be out to New Jersey on a bus to meet him and my mother.

It was a handshake between men, a logical carry-over -- I could imagine -- from his Germanic roots and sense of propriety. It leveled us, made the notions of ''father'' and ''son'' less discernible -- and perhaps that was his wish, to ''normalize'' our tie somehow.


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