Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Our Fathers, Who Art....

Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays”

Discernment is key to the religious life.
The roots of the word  dis/cern mean to divide, to separate. To decide, what to keep, what to let go of.
Whatever our beliefs, whatever our faith tradition, we become mature in faith when we practice discernment….we become self-differentiated, no longer at the mercy of every thought, memory, and impression. We discern. We decide.
This is maturity. This is faith.

We live in a  time when the patriarchy has died, or is dying, at least in Western society. Where it isn’t defeated, it’s doing a clownish dance, like the American Bishops who are trying to bring the nuns back in line, (can you say GO SISTERS!) but the power struggle has shifted, away from male/female; to have/have-not, or at least the 99%/the 1% with far less regard to gender. What does that mean for Fathers?

In my lifetime…. Fathers, who were ALWAYS RIGHT, aligned with God/Santa Claus/the President/the Pope and the preachers/ the military/everything powerful and productive, have been  unseated, attacked, demeaned, examined, analyzed, prodded, put in their places, and thoroughly mocked. Once “Father Knows Best,” proud and parental, dads are more like father of the bride, Steve Martin style, buffoon-ish and berated.

What happened?
We grew up.
We got educated.

The UU church and other faith traditions began to question the patriarchy that had ruled for centuries. In our tradition it started with programs like Cakes for the Queen of Heaven, where women and men learned that it was not always this way, that once women had power, prestige, and authority. Women became ordained in most denominations. Women are no longer understood to be the property of their fathers, or their husbands, at least in this culture and in Western, European culture, and we surely trust this evolution will continue.

Question: In rejecting the patriarchy and its control and demeaning of women, which we women internalized, must we reject and even despise our fathers?

I am speaking most directly to women and men of my generation and a bit beyond, women forty and over, whose dads still strove to be the traditional “father,” the last of what has become a dying breed: we didn’t know it, but we were the daughters and sons of men who were confused by a shifting and turbulent future and who were fighting to maintain and preserve what they saw as their duty and their obligation as men in an increasingly chaotic world.

My dad was nothing if not the quintessential twentieth century father.
He was stern, quick to judge, had very high standards, and was never, ever, ever, not once, not even one time ever in my whole entire life! ....was he questioned. 

He had to raise twin five year old girls and a seven year old boy after the sudden death of his wife. His answer was to marry very quickly, someone whom he saw as able to do the task. His work at an executive job in Philadelphia and later stiff drinks and many outdoor hobbies and pursuits filled his time enough that he never examined that choice, or, if he did, never discussed it with us.

My own life has been a long series of choices, many of which I now see were attempts to please my Father. If he was pleased, he never said so. He said two things that I should have let go of long before I did: one was, “You could be Miss America someday!” (we always watched it on our B&W TV). The other was, “Why go to college when you will just get married and have children?” 

I stayed in my own first marriage longer than I should have, just because I didn’t want to admit any failure. But he was still living when I divorced and I did something I will never regret. He was in his eighties then (he was nearly 50 when I was born, having led a long and colorful bachelor /sportsman life) and had suffered some health problems. I went to his home every week and took him out for lunch, then spent the afternoon talking with him. I asked him lots of questions about the grandparents I’d never met, his childhood, his life before we were born, my mother. What I learned could fill … an index card. He usually changed the subject. 

Still, having tried to make this contact, I finally stopped longing to please him. I began to understand that his own mother had been a demanding perfectionist. I didn’t have to carry that forward within myself, or with my own children.

I’ve done a fairly good (but far from perfect, which is just fine) job of incorporating many, many good aspects of my father into my own being. That’s how I honor him today, Father’s Day, and almost every day.
Just a few of those are:
·        He was scrupulously honest, hated lying, deceit, and manipulation.
·        He had no toleration for fools (shotgun)
·        He loved the outdoors: plants, trees, birds
·        He was a great cook, and a passionate eater and food connoisseur
·        He was a great reader, and loved music, although not a musician himself
·        Loved thunderstorms and sitting on a screened porch
·        Fresh cut flowers, hated anything plastic
·        He had a good sense of humor and warm heart
·        He would have loved to travel more.. life’s circumstances prevented that, so I feel he’s with me when I do!
·        He admired and cultivated order, symmetry and simple beauty

I am 100% certain that he loved me. This I choose to keep; the rest I can let go.
He lived to see his granddaughter whom I named after his beloved wife, my mother Marjorie. He held her when she was just a month old and looked at her with such tenderness and said something I have told her many times. I think it showed that even though he had to live through almost ninety years in which fatherhood went from being on the pedestal to being in the dustbin, and even though he must have been facing the end of his own life rather confused about the future of the family and of humanity, not being a person of traditional religious beliefs. He said, not, “She will sure be pretty,” or “I hope she finds a good husband,” or, “She’s my granddaughter,” but:  “She will be a strong woman.” And, she is.

I hope you carry the best of your father or forefathers within you today and every day.