The following is a huge departure from our usual topics but every now an then it is important to write about things that really matter.
I don’t have to buy Father’s Day cards anymore. Haven’t had to in a long time but I still slow down by the greeting card aisle this time of year wishing I did.
Greeting cards in our family don’t mean the same thing they do to others. We never go for the sappy sentiment. Our ability to pick the most sarcastic, obnoxious or oddly funny card is a badge of honor on birthdays or any other special event. We don’t celebrate Kwanzaa or Hanukah – for what should be fairly obvious reasons if you know me but it didn’t stop me from buying Daddy cards for the occasions every now and then. It always made him laugh. Especially when I would write a sweet note with some Yiddish thrown in on Rosh Hashanah. Such a mensch.
Lately I’ve been thinking allot about the fact that I miss this silly little tradition we shared. It was not about the card – or the occasion – or what was said. It was about the connection. Especially on Father’s Day. I’ve started wondering who I could send one to, if for no other reason than to make me feel better.
My paternal grandfather died before I was born. From what I’ve been told I didn’t miss much. An alcoholic house painter, withered by the Great Depression and selfish beyond description. I try not to be judgmental. After all I met my grandmother. It struck me that as Daddy got older there was nothing that would sadden him more than thinking about his father.
As I pondered this I began to wonder. If this was the example of parenthood he had, why was he so good at it. There are countless examples of the sins of the father burdening later generations. Broken homes are hereditary but the cycle was broken here and there had to be a reason. Exactly who taught him to be a good father.
I’ve come to the conclusion that in the areas that count, there were two surrogates that really taught my father to be a daddy. The most obvious is the Heavenly Father. Before he became a Christian though there was an influence on my father’s life that forever broke the cycle for us.
Ironically, you could say we got lying honest. My grandfather was famous for it and this is at the heart of so many of the issues we suffer. Years after my grandfather died I went to work for the same lumber and construction company he had worked for some thirty years earlier. There were some great old men still on the yard that knew him. They had nothing but fond things to say. Especially about his story tellin
Mr. Willie White told me once “Mr. Tom was braggin’ about shooting in a bush and killing 98 birds with one shot. Somebody asked him why he didn’t say it was a hundred. Old Tom said – There’s no point in telling a lie over two little ole birds.”
As funny as it was the story itself was a lie. Not the telling of it, but the image of a jovial life of the party who in truth, was a selfish and bitter man, drinking his pay and denying his kids the simplest of affections. This was the world my father grew up in. He was just like the rest of them until something happened that changed his course and a new paternal influence came into his life. In earthly terms at least my real grandfather is the US Army.
Daddy enlisted in the last days of WWII as soon he turned seventeen determined to find revenge for his older brother killed in the Normandy invasion. He was assigned to the Navy as in those days you didn’t get to choose. He hated the water. But even though he was discharged as soon as the war ended he had experienced discipline, structure and order. He realized that there was something different than the turmoil he knew at home. He didn’t last long when he got back. His mother didn’t want him back. His father was a drunk. He was 19 and really had no where else to go. In 1946 he enlisted in the Army.
He told me many times that it was the Army that changed his life. I know very few of the details but a sergeant took him aside one day and taught him the value of a simple word. Truth. That lesson burrowed its way inside his character. Telling lies had been the rule rather than the exception in his childhood. Say anything to get what you want. My childhood could not have been more different. There was no offense worse than lying to him.
The Army taught him both integrity and sacrifice. That giving of yourself for the benefit of someone else – like your kids – is what a parent is supposed to be. Other lessons too. Obedience and respect. Strength in silence. When not to fight. Standing up for what is right. All of these were lessons learned and passed on literally from the trenches rather than from the dinner table.
I am not naive enough to think my father’s experience was universal but I am optimistic enough believe and I know from experience it was not unique. I travel a good deal these days and I have begun to take notice of the young military passing through the airport. Whether in uniform or not they are easily recognizable. It is not just the close cropped hair. It is the demeanor. Polite respect with strength and confidence. I never served in the military myself but in each one I see a family resemblance. I see a bit of the character instilled in my father.
So this brings me back to the card. Where would you send it? No one would understand our oddball tradition anyway. In the end it is not about the card. The card is an excuse – an opportunity to say thank you for the sacrifice of being a good Daddy. Now that I have my own boys I understand that more than ever. There is joy in that sacrifice that Old Tom never knew.
This year I am making this my Father’s Day Card. Sorry it is so late in coming.
To the drill instructors, company commanders, first sergeants, etc. who over the years have turned broken boys into whole men. For my boy’s sake – Thank you.
Never forget that you build more than soldiers. You build fathers.
Happy Father’s Day.