Life With Father
I have not forgotten — nor will I forget until all memory fades — the day, the moment, in which my father and I parted. We did not put an ocean between us, or a country. He did not disown me nor I him. We parted, as a cloud passed between our hearts, shadowing what we had been, shadowing what we would be henceforth.
In this time, I was barely fifteen years old. We had come recently to America from England. There, he and I had been pals, chums, co-conspirators in fictions and fantasies. For as long as I could remember, each Sunday, my father and I would set out together for tramps down village lanes, across meadows, through churches, churchyards, and burial grounds. We explored ruined castles, fought off Norman invaders, Vikings, Black Knights.
We rowed the rivers curling through the countryside, in and out of locks, scrambled up and down brambled banks, slipped reverently past fallen abbeys. In the woods, we eluded the archers of bad King John. Beneath old oaks, my father pointed out where, in the moonlight, elves and fairies held their meetings, fairs, and dances. Plain for anyone to see, who cared to see, was the highest toadstool where the Fairy Queen held court. And there, amidst the roots, undoubtedly the entrance to an entire elfin city beneath our feet.
In a break along the hedgerows, a cow draped over a gate, munching, would draw my father into conversation. He would ask her about the quality of grass, how’s the family, looks like rain. And there across the field might bounce a rabbit who, my father would say on, was Charlie. Charlie, he would say, was going home after work to his wife, Mabel, and the kids, Alice and George. I have never hunted or killed any creature deliberately. How could one harm Charlie on his way home to Mabel and the kids?
This was who we were before the cloud passed between. Wizard and trusting apprentice. Storyteller and credulous listener. Teacher and student (my father taught me how to read and write before I started school). With him I interned in woodworking. Dallied with cooking (he had been a short order cook on Cape Cod during a sojourn to America in his youth).
Lest it seem he neglected his fatherly duties in those days, I suffered an occasional sore backside for whatever broken law, for some boy-word slipping carelessly from my lips, for once snitching a couple of shillings being saved for the gas or light meters. After one such spanking, I happened to catch the tears in his eyes.
All this we brought to America and, for awhile, attempted to nurture it, though there were no hedgerows, ruined abbeys; no hairy Vikings, certainly, no sniveling Normans. And, perhaps most telling of a coming closure, there was hardly a trace, even in that New England, of fairies, elves, or anything extraordinary. We had come, it seemed, to a land of prosaic places. Each Sunday, as in former times, we set out on a quest to keep us as we were, to hold back my years.
Then, that Sunday morning, my father came out to where I shuffled in dread in the gravel drive. I didn’t know how much damage I was about to do, but I knew I was about to cast us away. He came to me, sandwiches for us, and a thermos in his bag, and asked if I was ready to go. “Gee, Dad,” I said, “A couple of my friends are picking me up and we’re going to go over to the baseball game.” “Oh. All right.” he said. Good-bye, his face could not hide. He turned and walked away, the golden cord unraveling as he went. Somewhere on a distant hill, in the tower of an ancient parish church, a bell tolled.
We were not the same again, of course. We continued to grow apart in the years that followed until, at his death — now years ago — it seemed we were barely acquainted. My adolescence, it seemed, was beyond him. He watched, as if helpless, as I tried out various foolish and dangerous ways, to become what passed for manliness then.
As I continued in my education, pursued my own dreams and ambitions, I left his knowledge and his understanding far behind. He had left school in the sixth grade to help support his mother and sister after his father gave up and ran away. He taught himself and was often mistaken for an Oxford man. But my journey left him by the wayside — as, so he felt, had life, and all hope and possibility; and there he rooted in anger, regret, and self-destruction.
He was a man who, had he had a fathering father, had he not been born into abject poverty, had it not been for this or that, for fate or happenstance — had all that beside-the-point not been so, he would have been a man whom all the world knew by name. But the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons from generation unto generation. And, instead, he became like a trapped creature gnawing away at himself, desperate for freedom.
What did I expect from my father, I wonder? What was it I so desperately needed, after it was too late, after he could no longer give it? Robert Bly, that poet-guru of the men’s movement (whatever happened to the men’s movement?) Robert Bly said what boys and young men need from older men is blessing — because too few are blessed by their fathers. Blessing is the bestowal of approval and encouragement. “Blessing,” says Webster’s dictionary, “Is a thing conducive to happiness or welfare.” And without the blessing of the father all else, it seems, fails to be conducive to happiness or welfare.
For some of us, it seems, without the father’s blessing, his approval and encouragement, nothing fully satisfies. Always there is the rising urge to take the small or large success and burst with it through memory’s door shouting, “Hey, Dad, guess what?” And if he is not home, or occupied with his failings, or deep in his despair, his hopeless anger, his envy of his children, where, then, shall we go for blessing? Sons, daughters — longing hopelessly for the father’s blessing some seek in mis-matching marriages, some into furious and soul-killing jobs, others into the brief safety of aloneness.
Of course, parenting is an impossible undertaking — fathering or mothering. The expectations, always changing on us, can never be fully met. But it seems to me that, in general, we judge our fathers to have fallen short more than we judge our mothers. Some explain that that’s because a mother’s love is unconditional and a father’s love is not. Maybe so. When I was a practicing marriage and family therapist, I spent hours, sometimes weeks and months, listening to accounts, real and imagined, of the sins and shortcomings of the fathers. Many times I would finally have to shift the focus and say something like, “Tell me about your mother.”
What is it about fathers that has them brought so often and kept so late in the court of their children’s judgment? I’m not talking about the obvious failures, the drunks, abusers, and the runaways. I mean what we call the “ordinary Joe;” your father; my father. You. Me. What is it about the task of fathering so many fumble with and finally put aside?
Well, I have a theory about fathering. It needs work and, like any good theory, many will find good reason to find it implausible. But I propose that much of what makes fathering so difficult is that fathers are men. That’s not the whole of the theory. That’s the reality, the ground on which the theory is built. I’ll go on to propose that men — most men, the vast majority of men — focus the greater part of their attention, their mental and emotional energy, and their time and attention on achieving and maintaining what they have been led to believe it means to be a man.
From the beginning, it has been required of men that they be strong. Dependable. In charge. Be all that Rudyard Kipling in his poem “If” says one must grow to be to be a man. Man is a Viking. A Hannibal. A Caesar. A hero. Invincible. Man stands like the king of creatures in the veldt, unmoved by whatever threatens.
I mentioned Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If.” I believe it to be one of the most frightening poems in the English language.
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run –
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!
That’s only half the poem. Those are only half of the requirements for manliness. What do I find frightening about Kipling’s poem? Well, I remember one of my psychology professors, talking about all these “ifs” for becoming a man and saying, “Your work, ladies and gentlemen, is to be done among those who whisper to themselves, ‘But what if I can’t?'”
Kipling’s man was the idealized Victorian model. He was epitomized by the British Officer, ramrod straight on his white horse, buttoned up to his beard in a wool uniform in the middle of the desert prepared to show those ragged beggars screaming before him how an Englishman dies. “Mad dogs and Englishmen,” wrote Noel Coward, “go out in the noonday sun.” If, by some chance, this quintessential male did not die out there buttoned up with his boots on, he went home to teach his children how to be just like him — endeavoring not to get too close to them in the process. His children, like those ragged beggars out there, were in need of being civilized.
Obviously, most of our fathers and most of us have not come home fresh from gifting the world with civilization at the point of our ceremonial swords. But what all that really boils down to is — Success. It is impressed upon the male — which is what fathers are made of — that, whether they live in the age of Hannibal or Hank, they must, above all, be successful. And they must be successful at everything from running companies, preaching sermons, playing basketball in the driveway, earning a living, staying alive, and obviously, above all, not failing. For some men, successfully cutting in line at the exit is about the only hope for self-esteem they’ll have today. I contend that that’s a lot to handle and that, for most fathers, it doesn’t leave much left over for blessing our children, for being a successful father, or for even being conscious of what that might mean.
I never met my father’s father. To the best of my recollection, my father never mentioned him. Certainly, there had been no blessing there, no approval, encouragement, nothing conducive to happiness or welfare. And so my father strove to succeed without blessing, and always success eluded him and with that, he failed to bless his son. And the sins of the fathers, visited upon the sons, from generation unto generation.
Well, a sad story — mine, maybe yours. What’s hopeful about sermons is that there’s usually some hint of redemption at the end, otherwise why preach them. A couple of weeks ago, Kate read a poem here by David Ray. It’s called “Thanks, Robert Frost.” I want to repeat it here, by way of the redemption of fathers.
Do you have hope for the future?
Someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end.
Yes, and even for the past, he replied,
that it will turn out to have been all right for what it was.
Something we can accept,
mistakes made by the selves we had to be,
not able to be, perhaps, what we wished,
or what looking back half the time
it seems we could so easily have been, or ought…
The future, yes, and even for the past,
that it will become something we can bear.
And I too, and my children, so I hope,
will recall as not too heavy the tug of those albatrosses
I sadly placed upon their tender necks.
Hope for the past, yes, old Frost,
your words provide that courage
and it brings strange peace that itself passes into past,
easier to bear because you said it, rather casually,
as snow went on falling in Vermont years ago.
That’s what redemption is. That’s a way of thinking about what redemption is: giving the past hope where the past itself held none. How do we redeem the past? Surely what was, was? No. What was always is, blessing the present or reliving its sin generation after generation. A book that has stayed with me many years is called “The Dead Father,” written by Donald Barthelme. It is, essentially, one long metaphor in which the dead father has become enormous, a veritable giant of a corpse, who must be dragged about on a long, long journey by his children.
The only hope for breaking the cycle, for our children’s sake, is for us to redeem the past, which is to forgive it all, to bless it — a thing conducive to happiness or welfare. For whatever else it may have been worth, I have made some beginning in doing that for myself with this sermon: saying, yes he did those things, did not do those things, and he suffered this at the feet of his father — bless him, too — and carried all he suffered into the present, as do we all.
And it is not too late for me, still, in frequent tears and much puzzlement, still putting it all together and finding it not too late, now even past fathering and into grandfatherly-age, it is not too late to bless my children, seek their blessing upon the self he and I and he before him had to be, was not able to be, perhaps, what we wished or, looking back, what we could so easily have been.
To those early into fathering and yet-to-become fathers, I say this:
- Nothing is required of you by the past.
- Never read Rudyard Kipling.
- Never wonder what it means to be a man.
- If you think your father was a good father, he probably was.
Above all, continually give your children your blessing, that is to say, your approval and your encouragement. This is a thing conducive to happiness and welfare. And it is what your children seek when they turn and look at you.