The Heart of a Father

“The heart of a father is the masterpiece of nature.”

                                                                   – Antoine Francois Prevost

I had a father. I’m married to a father. I’m the mother of a father. So I know this to be true. Each father’s heart blooms in its own time and in its own way.

My father had to keep his heart small and tight to do his work, keep his head above water, support all of us, and keep my mother well enough to last. His heart was built for stamina and determination. He had a lot of heart, people would say when he died, but his heart was for working. It was only near the end of his life after years of having his heart softened by the troubles and care of my mother’s Alzheimer’s Disease, the days of combing her hair and dressing her and leading her by the hand, that my father’s heart had time for its intended purpose. Then he could relax and let us know he loved us.

My husband is the father of four children who have other fathers. He never says much about this but sometimes I wonder if he wonders what a child of ‘his own’ would have looked like. He says he never thinks of this. I would if I were him but I’m not. He only says what he believes. So it must be true.

He has been hard on our kids, expecting things from them I thought too difficult. He never worried about whether our kids were happy or whether they loved him. He never saw that as his job. And so he just set about being their leader without ever, a single time, turning around to see if they were following. He just assumed they would follow his example and they did. He has never been surprised by this. It’s what he expected. My kids quote their father every time they are confronted with something difficult or when they are trying to inspire others to move ahead.  Words I never heard him say roll off their tongues and they laugh with each other in memory. He is reaping now what he sowed while I wasn’t looking.

My son is the father of one child and a parent to two more. Each time I see him, he seems taller. Heftier. More substantial. He still can be sly and funny, crack the smile that got him out of trouble as a kid. For a while that confused me into thinking he was a boy in man’s clothing, just playing at being a dad. But he’s a man who sometimes pretends to be a kid again. He has man-size responsibilities, man-size worries, and I am surprised by this as I’m comforted by it. The boy who was fathered grew up to be a father. He seems to be doing what he was taught, carving out what’s right, doing that, and believing his children will follow him. They do. Sometimes several steps back, but they do.

A mistake I have made is expecting the fathers in my life to be more like me. I’ve wanted them to be more mindful, more nurturing. I wanted them to worry about whether the children were happy. I wanted them to be less demanding and more understanding. I wanted pats on children’s backs for trying. And because I’ve wanted this and the fathers in my life didn’t deliver, I faulted them. In my exhortations to be kinder and gentler, I missed the better truth: fathers are what they are for a reason. What is in their hearts is a secret, unknowable to me. I am of a different species.

I do know this, though. Finally. “The heart of a father is the masterpiece of nature.”

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The Daily Post: Blossom

Envy

I watched a video today, why I don’t know, that featured a big, burly guy sitting in his car talking to his toddler daughter who was sitting on the console. The sound was off so I didn’t get the details but I knew she was telling him about something sad. She burst into tears.

He listened to her, nodding. She talked through her little sobs. He asked her some questions. She answered. He waited for her to answer, no rushing, no prompting. He didn’t wipe away her tears or comfort her. He didn’t look the least bit sorry for her. He just sat listening until she came around.

And when she was all done, when whatever it was that made her so sad and upset had abated, she crawled on to her dad’s chest and he wrapped his massive arms around her. My God, I thought. Did that ever happen to me?

I envied her.

This old lady envied that little girl.

Oh. I had a good father. But he would have no more sat and listened to me cry than he would have roller skated down the freeway. So if I was going to cry, I had to tend to my own self. I remember hugging him but only once or twice. I was an adult by then; I’d grown up and he’d started to diminish, a man grieving the death of my mother. His arms were too weak to wrap around me.

I thought more about the little girl in the car. When she was grown up, she’d have a whole lifetime of her dad doing that – listening to her and then wrapping his arms around her.  What would a person be like who grew up with that kind of care and protection?

I don’t know but I know I envied her. I wish that little girl had been me.

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Photo: Caleb Woods

A Long Time Coming: Getting to Know My Father

My dad and I reconciled after a long estrangement. And what followed was a time of pure gold.

Red's Wrap

It didn’t take long for my father to develop an email style. His very first email carried what would become his signature farewell. TIE. Take it easy. Sometimes he added SIT. Stay in touch.

His emails were short, very factual, reporting on his bowling score or his search for an even cheaper internet provider. He ended up going to Walmart for their $8.99 a month deal after changing providers three or four times in the eighteen months he owned a computer, the time between the death of my mother and his own death. It amazed me that he’d buy anything from Walmart after the years of being a small dime store owner always trying to outsmart the ‘big guys.’ In our house, a whole dinner would be spent discussing how to beat K-Mart’s price on Aqua Net, the essential ingredient in the 60’s elaborate beehive hair-dos.

“You just have to…

View original post 851 more words

Father’s Day Post #1

It’s not so easy being a dad. I know. I’ve watched somebody be one for a very long time.

Red's Wrap

IMG_2502

I think being a father is a tougher proposition than being a mother.

I think mothers do more work, carry more burden, actual and abstract, and spend more time on a very sharp hook. But I think fathers have a harder row to hoe.

Why?

It’s not as clear what you’re supposed to do. If you’re the mother, you start with the premise that it is your job to do everything. You have the baby, you give birth to the baby, you feed the baby, but most of all you decide how it’s going to go with the baby. If there is a ‘decider’ with child-rearing, it’s the mother nine times out of ten.

Sure, fathers weigh in. But unless the power balance is way out of whack, bringing up baby is going to start as the mother’s complete and total turf. Smart men quickly realize that there’s little to…

View original post 529 more words

Father’s Day Post #1

IMG_2502

I think being a father is a tougher proposition than being a mother.

I think mothers do more work, carry more burden, actual and abstract, and spend more time on a very sharp hook. But I think fathers have a harder row to hoe.

Why?

It’s not as clear what you’re supposed to do. If you’re the mother, you start with the premise that it is your job to do everything. You have the baby, you give birth to the baby, you feed the baby, but most of all you decide how it’s going to go with the baby. If there is a ‘decider’ with child-rearing, it’s the mother nine times out of ten.

Sure, fathers weigh in. But unless the power balance is way out of whack, bringing up baby is going to start as the mother’s complete and total turf. Smart men quickly realize that there’s little to be gained by competing for ownership of that turf. She owns the turf, fine, let her mow it. Oh, she needs some edging work done? Okay, I can do the edging. I don’t mind, he says to the mother. Just tell me when you want me to do the edging. You decide.

After a while, though, most mothers get tired of being the deciders and wish their partners would decide a few things. But because they don’t have a lot of practice in deciding, like an adolescent who never made an actual decision before some 14-year old boy offers her a beer, a lot of fathers mess it up. They bobble and weave, do what they think they see other fathers doing, improvise based on their vague memories of having been a child under the wispy supervision of their own fathers. What was it my father would do in this case, they ask themselves? Nothing, buddy. Your father was at work.

So I think it’s tough for men to figure out their role beyond that which is delegated to them. They kind of stand around waiting for the task list while their partners get increasingly irked that they don’t remember the task list from yesterday or the day before or the day before that. Not a lot changes with raising children. It’s repetition city. Carpel tunnel of the brain.

Even though so much of day to day child-raising is the same, fathers tend to wait for instruction, lurching to the fore when prompted but otherwise lying on the couch listening to the ball game. The sad news is that a mother’s command and control strategy makes their partners parenting eunuchs. Useless for anything important.

Every time my husband looks at this picture, he says, “That’s the first time you let me take Joe anywhere by myself.” I tell him that’s ridiculous. Why would I have not let him take his own son anywhere by himself? When I say this, he looks at me over his glasses like “are you serious?” Twenty-five years ago and he remembers the day I decided my son was sturdy enough to survive his father’s care.

I remember this day. They went to a neighborhood street fair in the not so great neighborhood where my husband worked. I think I was parked around the corner when this picture was taken, maybe, I don’t remember. Actually, I was probably home preparing the interrogation. You know, getting the right watt light bulb swinging from the ceiling. Did you buckle him in? What did he eat? Did he cry? Questions to assuage my anxiety or to reaffirm the chain of command? Like the nutty parents of new teenage drivers, I wanted to install one of those dash cams aimed squarely at the car seat, if, in fact, he’d actually put the boy in the car seat. I had no way of knowing.

My husband has had many heroic moments as a father, times when he ran into crazy traffic to rescue some or all of our kids from terrible situations. He forgot then that I’d taught him to stay in his lane. Thank God for his poor memory.

Stogie

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Across the room

My husband lights a cigar

He asks first, a reflex

Won’t the smoke bother me

 

My answer always the same

No, go ahead, I say

He waves away the smoke

Apologetic, grateful for my indulgence

 

The smoke takes me back

The announcer calling the play

My father’s halo floating above his chair

All is right, whistles blowing, tackles made

 

Later the smoke hangs

Draped on the flowers in the vase

Used, the fresh air spent and gone

I yearn for the window to be open

Caught

I’m hard pressed to write about fathers. I had one and I’ve known several, one or two very well, but I don’t think like a father so everything I write is from a spectator’s point of view. It gives the whole challenge of ‘voice’ another couple of degrees of difficulty.

So I have no option but to tell a story.

When I was a teenager, the last child to live at home, my brother and sister both several years older than me and already gone on to their own lives, my parents and I would spend a week every summer in a cabin on Gulliver Lake in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Every morning before dawn, my father would get up in the dark of the one room cabin, put coffee on the gas stove to perk and pack his gear to go fishing. From my rollaway bed, I’d hear him lumber out the door carrying his tackle box, a few minutes later, there’d be the sound of the rowboat pushed into the water, the oars dipping into the water, and, in a bit, the tear of the boat motor. If I looked out the window, I’d see him headed to the center of the lake, the sun just rising. He would be sitting in the back of the boat, his hand on the throttle, with his rounded shoulders and tractor baseball cap.

This was his vacation from working six days a week, 12 hours a day, getting up before dawn to fish by himself.

By mid-morning, he would be back, a row of fish on a stringer. In the fish cleaning shed, he’d put one big finger in a fish’s mouth, clamp his thumb around the gill, and scrape the scales off with a little metal tool with mean-looking teeth. It bothered me that he didn’t cut the fish’s head off first because it seemed that the scaling would be painful. To me, it was more evidence of my dad’s lack of something, empathy? He didn’t care about the fish. It never occurred to him.

One night he laughingly suggested that I get up early the next morning and go fishing with him. “Okay,” I said, surprising both of us. This meant being alone with my father, probably for several hours in a boat in the middle of a lake without my mother to mediate. It seemed a cross between a dare and a nightmare.

He decided we should fish for Northern Pike, big long fish with mean teeth, impossible to filet and worse to eat because they have a million tiny bones. But they were ‘scrappers’ as my dad said and would be fun to catch. We started trolling, the low hum of the boat motor the only sound on big Gulliver Lake, hardly a light on in any of the cabins, the V-shaped wake flowing out behind the boat like a long skirt.

Every now and then I’d get a strike but unless he saw it, I’d just keep my line in the water. Reeling in a pike opened the door to all kinds of trouble, breaking the line and losing the lure, leaning over the side of the boat with the net, the pike flopping and arching with its fins ready to slice up my legs, and finally getting it into the boat where it would lie on its side, the hook in its mouth, flapping and moving and waiting for what would happen next.

“Get the pliers out of the tackle box. Put your foot on him right behind the gill and pull that hook out.” With that, my father turned to cast his line off the rear of the boat. We’d stopped trolling but we were still moving ever so slowly. He didn’t want to waste the time and he didn’t want to look at me. Looking could be interpreted as sympathy or interest or even a prelude to helping or just doing what needed to be done.

“He’s not going to take himself off the hook.”

So there, with five minutes to spare because it’s now 11:55 p.m. CST, is my story. My father would have waited all day for me to take that fish off the hook. There would be no point at which he would feel sorry for me or decide he was tired of waiting. There was no question about it, no shirking of my responsibility and no un-catching of the fish.

That’s all. That’s my reflection tonight on fathers and what a good one might teach us.

__________________

Photo by Steinar Engeland on Unsplash