A disagreement between his father and his older brother led to the sale of the family business and the suicide of his brother. Not long after, his father succumbed to cancer, leaving the young fifteen year old in charge of his family. The fact that these events caused Roethke to look at his father with ambivalence seems to be reflected in the poem, as its tone is a strange mixture of the affectionate love of a little boy and a slightly more suspicious and adult distrust and betrayal.
The very first impression of the poem is one of a joyous frolic around the house and the happiness of the young boy at this special moment with his father comes out very clearly, especially in the beginning of the second stanza; "We romped until the pans slid from the kitchen shelf" and at the last stanza where he describes his father keeping time on his head as he danced him off to tuck him into bed. That the memories are very personal stands out in the details of the poem; he describes the whiskey on his father's breath, the fact that his father's hands had dirt still on them. Since his father worked in a greenhouse, these details are no doubt drawn from his memories and show his father as the slightly rough, honest hard worker he was. It is clear that this memory is a happy one for him and is also reminiscent of my own dances with my father.
However, the later experiences also colour this memory. It is not the unadulterated memory of a child. Certain words and phrases jar a bit with the pleasant nature of this picture. When he describes hanging to his father "like death" it is a little out of place. However given that his brother committed suicide after a fight with their father it seems plausible that Roethke might have held his father responsible for the death and as he matured into adulthood inappropriately early following his father's death he might also have felt resentment towards his father for leaving him with such a burden. These undercurrents of adult feeling do mar the perfect picture of an otherwise normal and happy episode. However, the fact that he describes this episode with such feeling and vividness also emphasizes the fact that he did indeed love his father when he was a child, and it also has a touch of longing and loss in its tone. It seems to imply that he misses those small moments of intimacy with his father, and knows they will never come again. It is for this reason that I connect with the poem so much, as I myself lost my father three years ago when I moved to new York, leaving him in Taiwan. I shared many moments like this with my father and these memories are tinged with the knowledge that I can never have them again.
There is also a resentment that they finished too early in life. He was thrust into an adult world too early and therefore this memory is even more special as it will never come again, and perhaps did not happen enough when he was a child. This emotion and memory perhaps has more meaning for me as I too used to have these moments with my father, before he passed away. The happiness of the memory is tinged with regret for its loss.
There is an undertone of near-violence also in this poem, in the description of the father's knuckles, and death. Though there appears to be a school of thought that thinks this represents an abusive father ( Ref;Byrne) and cite the fact