June 17, 2018 — Peter McPheeters
Who’s your daddy?
I’m a very lucky guy. I not only had a father who was a good man, I also had a very kind step-father, a strong, loving and eccentric mother, two delightful step-mothers, and several other very strong semi-parental mentor figures in my life, both male and female. Apparently it did take a village to raise this boy.
In contrast to my rather unusual and crowded upbringing, my wife Eve’s immediate family consisted of only her mother and her grandmother. Although she never even knew her father, there were many other strong figures within the orbit of that matriarchy, who put their imprints on her childhood…and later on her adulthood—From Joey Hussey, a local lobsterman to the Weeds of the Beacon Hill Friends House in Boston. If we are lucky enough, we will have many someones in our lives, whether they be a father, mother, male, female, teacher, friend, or whatever who can help us to navigate the shoals of childhood and adulthood.
In today’s world, a family unit can take many different forms, but if they are grounded in love, they are all equally valid and special. Take for example the family that our grandchildren were born into, consisting of two wonderful mothers, two sets of loving, doting…and sometimes hovering grandparents, and a couple of uncles, one of whom, as the biological father, has a very special relationship with those kids. It is not a typical family by the norms of my father’s generation, but nonetheless, it is a wonderful and loving family by any standards.
So I guess that is a rather long way of saying that this Father’s Day message is maybe a bit unusual, in that it is not exactly gender specific…and not really narrowed by any traditional definitions of fatherhood. Most of us, if we are fortunate enough, have been nurtured in many different ways, by many different people in our lives. In truth, the traditional paternalistic societal father figures, like our city fathers, and the father of our country, probably don’t impact our lives all that much. On the other hand, everyone here hopefully shares a special relationship with Our Father with a capital F, although, as the alpha and the omega, our Father who art in heaven can also be thought of as Our Mother.
In thinking about this over the past few weeks, I realized that I have had a large number of strong and influential figures in my life, related and unrelated, male and female. I guess you could call them mentors, but to me, the notion of mentorship is not that different from that of fatherhood. Like fathers, a mentor can nurture and give life to an unrealized purpose, and add purpose and direction to a life.
Somewhere in one of the pews in this church is a hymnal given in memory of Alberta Sanders. Alberta was a live in cook for my family, the black daughter of sharecroppers, and the granddaughter of slaves. She was a devout Christian, and in the summer she worshipped in this church. She taught me many things, but what I remember most vividly was one day when I was maybe ten or so. For some reason that I have long forgotten, I had told her that I hated somebody or other, and I wondered if she didn’t hate them too? Her response has stuck with me all my life. She said, “Child, I don’t hate nobody…and you’ve got no reason to hate nobody either.” I’ll never forget that. I loved her like a mother.
In my late teens and early twenties, I worked for an old French carpenter named Rocky Roberge. He was a very good and talented man with a permanent smile on his face. I’d be surprised if he had much more than an 8th grade education, but he was a wise man, with wisdom earned the old fashioned way, from a lifetime of very hard work, first as a logger in the north woods, and later as a skilled carpenter. He was also a devout Catholic. Rocky had the misfortune of employing me in some of my wilder years. But, when I screwed up, instead of getting mad at me or giving up on me, he would shake his head, tease me gently, and move on to the task at hand. I remember one day working on this church with him. At one point in the day, while I was doing something outside, and he was inside the church, he opened the door, and waved me in. When I walked in, with a wry smile he winked at me and asked simply, “Can you feel it?” I can’t say for sure that I felt “it” from being in this space, but I knew at that moment from the look on his face, that “it” resided in him. In Rocky, “it” probably resided closer to the surface than it does in most of the reserved and somewhat guarded Christians that I have known, but in thinking about “it” over time, I am certain that I have seen “it” in my own father’s face, and in the faces of many others who have been influential in my life, spiritual and otherwise.
Alberta and Rocky were just two of many who have imprinted–or fathered–some part of themselves on me over these past 65 years. What they have had in common, what makes them feel like “father” figures to me, is that they each gave something to me that was special—memorable–and important in one way or another. They may not all have said that they gave it with love, but certainly they gave it with the same sort of fatherly patience (sometimes),and often the knowledge and understanding that they were doing or saying something important, something that I needed to hear at the time.
So my idea of what a “father” is, may be very different from yours. Interesting, isn’t it—that’s kind of the same way I feel about my relationship with God. God, to any one of us can be a very paternalistic figure, or the Mother/Mary, maternal figure, or something that is a combination of many figures. My interpretations are not likely to be any more wrong or right than yours, or anyone else’s, but they are right for me …today. And if I am paying attention, they almost surely will change again tomorrow, or the next day, or the next.
So, as I was forced this week to think a lot of things through that I normally have shoved off into the dusty attic of my mind, my relationship with my father changed….again. Mind you, he’s been dead for over 30 years, but the way I think about him, the ways in which I remember him, are constantly evolving, and I expect they will continue to do so until I join him under the sod. As Mark Twain is purported to have said, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant that I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”
My father was a very complicated guy. Many people basked in his warmth, others thought him to be cold, most thought he was brilliant, and from what I have heard, I guess he was a pretty brilliant lawyer. He was an indomitable man, but admitted to living in fear of Eve’s grandmother. My friends described having dinner with him as akin undergoing a cross examination–always probing, looking for inconsistencies, or insight, or at least a glimmer of intelligence. He was an accomplished public speaker…, but he rarely showed the love he had for his family in any verbal ways. He was a terrific and highly competitive card player, tennis player and golfer, in spite of the fact that he couldn’t straighten one arm beyond 90°. From early childhood, he loved Biddeford Pool, but could rarely spend enough time here. He could be a very wonderful, fun, and supportive father, but he was also a master of the most withering put-downs. As I grew up, into my late teens and early twenties, and began to chose paths that he either did not approve of or did not understand, I found myself sparring with him more and more. This was not always fun because, even though I was pretty good at appearing outwardly self-assured, I was young, and I did not have a veneer in my repertoire that he couldn’t see through with ease.
At that time, my father…to me….was a dinosaur, in my eyes the product of an imperialist, racist generation, one that my idealistic generation was going to supplant with our superior, enlightened, and open minds. I had completely lost sight of the fact that my father was a very good man, with equally valid opinions, strong values, and one who loved me unconditionally in spite of our differences and disappointments. I think he eventually forgave me for being such an intractable brat, and probably a heartbreakingly difficult son. I believe that I have forgiven him for not coming around to see everything my way, and for all the things that I may have found wrong in his fathering at one time or another. Truth is, most of those things were not faults of his at all, but faults of mine, or of the colliding cultures in which we attempted to co-exist. I expect that the understanding and relationships most, if not all fathers, and parents, and parent figures will continue to evolve throughout our lives, and long after the deaths of those figures. But the bottom line is that love defines the measure of a person, and my father loved his children as well as a father can, but only as he could in his own way.
Oscar Wilde said “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.” When I think about this in the context of my own role as a father, I think that the greatest gift that a child can give back to a parent is that of forgiveness. I pray that my many trespasses against our kids may be forgiven by them over time.
Heck, the truth of the matter is that every parent, step-parent, half-parent, foster parent, mom, dad…or whatever, is going to screw up somehow, given enough time. That is one of the reasons that God gives us multiple parents, mentors, and other influential figures in our lives. As far as I know, there has only ever been one perfect Father, and his son ended up on the cross. To paraphrase Dickens, the good news for my children at least is that while the sins of the fathers are visited upon their children, so are the virtues of their mothers.
My father, as imperfect as he was, was a good man. He was to many a quiet patron of good works. He never bragged about his giving, but he was a generous man with his time and his treasure. He patiently taught me the rudiments of many of the diversions that I still love—boats, books, baseball… singing badly in church, to name a few. Some of them I got better at, and some…like singing in church…are still a work in progress.
After listening to the admonitions of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephisians that Eve read, I do have to wonder how often I “exasperated my children”, and if they have been able yet to forgive me for those most of those exasperations. I know that they have been much better children to their parents than I was to mine. I also know that they have had many good and important influences on their lives well beyond the reach of their mother and father, and I have come to embrace that as well.
So, it is my belief that being the “natural” parent to anyone is not a pre-requisite to offering “fatherly” help, advice or wisdom, to or offering the helping hand one that might expect from a loving parent. Not everyone has a father, or any variety of loving parent for that matter, but maybe I have…or maybe you have…some little something to offer that can stand in for some of the nurturing that they may otherwise be missing.
David Brooks said, “Life is not really an individual journey. Life is more like settling a sequence of villages. You help build a community at home…at work…in your town, and then you go off and settle more villages. The essence of the admirable life is community before self.”
As much as I admired him, I can’t be just like my father. His world just doesn’t exist anymore. But any of us can follow his example…and the examples of so many of the others who helped any of us down through the years, and offer a kind, supportive, or even inspirational word, or a helping hand, or just a quiet pat on the back to someone who needs it.
And if you’re lucky, and if the person that you give a hand to is young enough, maybe they can help you in return by setting up the remote for your TV.
Happy Father’s day to everyone here who is or ever was a child.
Let us pray:
O Lord, please bless all the children of all the fathers and mothers…and bless the children’s children “who are a crown to the aged”. Let their hearts forgive their parents for their exasperations, and let their parents honor them for the goodness and joy that they bring into their lives. Lord we know that the parents in this place are good and imperfect humans, but we know also that their children are blessed to have them. We pray for a day when all parents…and indeed when all of our leaders…will provide their charges with the nurture and the love and the hope that we all long for. We ask all this in the name of your son, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen