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.

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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.

As I had thought back on the restraint we had shown, I had resolved to break through it now that I was the initiator. This time there would be more directness between father and son, less need to hold back. My son and I would hug. I would massage the feathery nape of his neck with gentle fingertips, and he would feel the love.

When he awoke that morning, already crying, his lips blurred in a tremble that quickly became a wail, I gathered him up and drew his mouth toward the downturned bottle, rudely forcing his lips to explore this object. At first they refused, shaking with added rage. But eventually they relented and took eager hold. Half splayed across my chest, he rhythmically sucked and sighed, and the bottle was drained.

In the days that followed he came to welcome this time together, his fingers idly slapping the plastic tube as he drank, his eyes focused elsewhere, sometimes half-closed, soberly content.

Over the coming years we found other ways to touch and hold: He would bounce wildly atop my shoulders as I raced across a sloping yard; he would vault into a cloudless sky with a gasp of pleasure, then fall like a doomed parachutist into my spread fingers; as he grew bigger, he would every now and then come over and drape his cranelike arms casually around my shoulders, half in repose, half -- it seemed -- an act of returning.

But his growing up since then, to the very edge of manhood, has blurred those clear lines between us that once, ironically, had allowed us to reach out. Now, barely 12, he stands over six feet tall and contemplates me, eye to eye, wary, preoccupied. There is no more room now for casual play. Other things have crowded that out, made it impossible. We can no longer wrestle on the rug, fit on top the same red saucer sliding downhill. Nearly equal in size, we have become shy with one another.

Clipped questions and more clipped answers are now our meager daily fare, exchanged in the car on the way to baseball practice. Those hands of his, which once reached up to pat my nose, I only now catch glimpses of, plucking the strings of a guitar or rifling a comb through wet hair -- glimpses from afar.

Still, I feel no need to reach out and grasp them, to offer that father-to-son gesture of mature, distanced respect. In the absence of that wish, I hope I've gleaned some small measure of progress as one generation slowly yields to the next.

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