Here’s one from the vaults: I originally wrote this some 20 years ago, before I was married, before I became a father myself. It’s aged well and I print it again here in remembrance of Father’s Day, but there’s also some more to the story which I’ll share at the end.
In My Father’s House
My father’s father died on Christmas Eve, 1973. His heart attacked him. My father and I were working at his gas station in Indianapolis when the call came. It was almost closing time, and we were the only ones left. I was out on the drive, and had just finished waiting on a customer and wishing him a Merry Christmas when my father came out.
I had a strange feeling standing there on the drive as my father’s voice, in a thin tone I’d never heard before, or since, said simply, “Pappy’s died.” The grief in his face made me look away, though he wasn’t crying. For a time, I wondered if he ever did cry. I felt sad, a little confused. I had hardly known the man who had died, and standing there in the gathering darkness, I suddenly wondered how well I knew the man that was standing before me.
We closed up then and drove home. Sentences were short. “How?” “When?” I repeated the answers as if to make it official, looking at my father out of the corner of my eye, wondering how I would react when he died, wondering if there was something to be learned here.
There’s a line in the Bible that starts, “In my father’s house…,” and to me those four words have a very special meaning and feel. A meaning of strength and a feeling of hope and bittersweet memories. In my father’s house, I have learned many things. One thing I have learned is that it is very hard to define the relationship between a father and son. There’s a common bond that connects each life. Sometimes it’s as thin as a wire, other times it’s as big as the whole world.
On one level the relationship is almost primal. The prehistoric allegiance to your protector. This man gave me life. I have this man’s name. One day I, too, will be a man. He will teach me, as I must one day teach. What it means to be a man is passed on, and the value of your life is based on how well you have learned your lessons.
This does not mean absorbing some macho ethic. Being masculine is having the basic sense of who and what you are; no apologies needed or supplied.
You develop this sense as your grow up, as nature and society shape your life and your relationships. The love between you and your father that comes naturally, the distance that is imposed by society. A man seldom says I love you, and it is even more rare for him to say it to another male.
There’s the conflict. Subconsciously, you know the love is there, yet subconsciously you are also always seeking ways to prove it. Testing. There’s challenge and there’s fear. I would rather have taken three whippings from my mother using the Air Force belt than have my father spank me once with his hand.
There’s learning. The importance of a firm handshake, of personal grooming, the confidence to look someone in the eye and to live by your word. There’s the learning of the so-called facts of life, and not only learning what a man does, but what a gentleman does. These things were never officially set down as lessons. We did not sit down every night for 18 years and discuss what it means to be a man. Even if we had, those lessons could never have been as effective as the ones that did occur.
And yet there’s always got to be the conflict. Testing, challenging. For as you learn to be a man, you learn that a man must also have independence. I’ve talked with friends, and all of us left home under good conditions and with good relations, but all of us had also had at least one battle, one challenge sometime before we left. I think the making of a man requires this fire, like the fine tempering that strengthens the metal, preparing you for your first uncertain steps on your own.
Have you ever listened to other guys talk about their fathers? You hear things like, “My old man was one tough so and so, I remember he used to…” Or, “There was hardly a day where my old man didn’t cuss me or work 16 hours a day.” There’s a mutual feeling of having accomplished something, a pride that comes from sitting there and being able to say, “My old man.”
As I prepared to finish college I was depressed and uncertain. I wondered how my abilities would stack up in the outside world. Wondering, at such a young age, if I had wasted three years. Three weeks before I graduated, my father and I were driving back from a job where we had anchored a mobile home. As usual there was little conversation. Then, out of the blue he just said, “No matter what you do, your mother and I are proud of what you’ve done and who you’ve become.”
I could have cried right there. I knew, and I still know, that there is nothing more important in my life than to be sure that that pride is well-founded and never abused.
And now, after all these years, I think I know something about life, or at least enough to know that there’s more to learn. I know my old man did his best while he could and then set me loose hoping that it would be enough.
In my father’s house I have learned many things, and I know that wherever I have my house, part of his house will always be there. And I’ve learned about him, and I think he did cry the night his father died, even if there was no one around to see or hear. I know that I will.
There have been a lot of changes in my life since I first wrote all those words. I married, had kids and learned that there were others who expected a lot out of me as well. If anything, those later events have served to deepen the bond between my father and I. Perhaps it’s the shared experience of being a parent, or just a deeper appreciation and understanding on my part for the things he had to have gone through. Now when I read this essay it seems strange to me that it was ever hard for us to say “I love you” to each other. Now we say it regularly when we talk on the phone, or when I visit. Now we even hug when I arrive and when I leave — something too inconceivable to imagine at the time I wrote the original essay.
Time, geography and differing priorities are a challenge, of course, but I’ve tried to keep up with what is important to him, and he’s made allowances for what is important to me. Since I wrote this piece one of his brothers has also died, and he lost one of his best friends in a hunting accident who I know he misses deeply. He’s seen the rest of his gang getting older and having their own scares and near misses but they keep getting together to slap golf balls around, pull legs and tell jokes about Viagra and male enhancement commercials…and they all know precisely what is so funny about Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in “Grumpy Old Men” saying “lucky bastard” whenever one of their friends dies suddenly.
It’s been a rough year for my dad and his health. He’s survived radiation treatments for cancer, he’s had more knee surgery (I think this is one area where I’m still ahead of him, however) and had his aortic valve replaced a couple of months ago. But he’s still holding on, literally, for “dear life” – for those things that have come late to him and mean so much such as grandchildren and, dare I say, perspective. There may also be a couple of lessons yet to teach, and he’s never been one satisfied to leave a job “half-assed.”
I love you, man (and you can keep your Bud Light).