about the “balms” in my life, inspired by the book, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.
In Gilead, the Rev. John Ames reflects back over a long life that, while full, did not include the opportunity to watch his children grow up. He lost his wife and infant daughter while still a young man and later, as an old man with a heart condition, knows he is unlikely to see the 7-year-old son of his much later marriage turn 8, let alone 28. As such he easily ascribes gracious expectations of their character and what they might have, or will have, accomplished. The memoir he is writing, in fact, is intended for his son to read after he has become a man, meaning that the wisdom and explanations in its pages will have largely been unavailable to the youth in his formative years.
Not that the Rev. Ames is naïve. He has watched, often helplessly, as his best friend’s son has careened from one mischief and misadventure to another. That the man is also named after him further cements the empathetic anguish he feels for his friend’s fatherly agony and embarrassment. Young Jack, like most of us, is a man of more conscience than character, with a fatalistic dread of his shortcomings. Both he and his namesake have a sincere desire to reach each other, but are constantly confounded by their own missteps and the other’s misinterpretations.
The good reverend, however, never had the opportunity to convene a meeting in his parlor, to rest his own arms regally on the wide, wooden arms of his patriarchal chair, to fix a steely eye on an anxious young man across from him and, as I did, state the question, “What, good sir, are your intentions regarding our daughter?”
December 11 is an important date in our family. It was December 11, 1987 that my wife and I discovered we were pregnant with our daughter Faith, the incipient Mall Diva. On December 11, 2005 my wife was ordained at our church and we doubled (or tripled) up on the occasion by also having a graduation ceremony to honor Faith’s home school and beauty school graduation, also at our church. It also turned out to be the day that Ben first saw Faith. He had arrived early that day, specifically for that special service, probably without much thought of ever returning. He watched our musicians rehearsing and noticed an especially attractive singer. He told me, much later, that he thought she was cute, and then saw her flit over to me. “Oh no, his daughter!” was the sobering revelation.
He had many more sobering revelations to come over the next year or so as he learned where the latch was to the cage he was in and decided to finally quit running from the calling he had long sensed was on his life. Over the years I have known and counseled with many men who were battling their demons. In many cases, I sensed these battles to be more like a series of lover’s quarrels with an eye to a future reunion. In this young man, however, was a different kind of resolve and even a note of quiet triumph. He became a regular at our church and, as my friend, a regular guest in our home on Sunday afternoons. His goofy wit, easy-going manner and political insights made him a welcome addition to our afternoon activities and dinner conversations and favorite of everyone, though it was becoming apparent that he was perhaps becoming a special favorite of one in particular.
I watched the interactions with no little interest. Every action and conversation was appropriate and above-board, the way friends should speak to one another. We became aware of email traffic between them, as Faith would share these with her mother, and these showed the proper respect and concern for one another’s well-being. Proper, but not necessarily harmless. It was time to bring things out in the light and examine the situation. Driving back from Missouri after my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, the Reverend Mother and I (who had talked already) questioned Faith as to what she thought was going on, and where she thought things were going between her and Ben. She loved him as a friend, and thought the potential was there for more than friendship in time, but there seemed to be any number of obstacles between them in terms of where they each were in their lives and what they both hoped to accomplish — things that would literally take years for them to complete. Regardless, the situation no longer had the luxury of staying the same; it either had to advance or diminish.
That is a difficult point we all come to, often many times, in our lives. We tend to stay with the status quo, even past the freshness date, for fear of change because of the potential that that change could be for the worse. In this case it was time for Faith and Ben to act as true friends, out of sincere concern for what is best for the other. Their path ahead was apt to be a long and challenging one, and it was better to count the cost now than regret it later. For one thing, this would not be a worldly relationship where a couple decides to date for awhile and see where things lead. That is a dangerous and deceptive trail that has crippled many a hiker.
Well. If this friendship was going to continue it would be based on clear rules and objectives and in front of watchful eyes. Ben was due to come over the following evening for our New Year’s Eve gathering, and Faith was asked to invite him to come earlier in the afternoon for a family discussion.
And so we found ourselves in the living room tableau mentioned a few paragraphs ago as I presented my statement/question. Whatever it was we were expecting it certainly didn’t include, at this point, Ben saying that one day he hoped to marry my daughter. Fortunately, my recliner provides good, solid support. We came to what the Victorians probably referred to as “an understanding.” The end proposition was not out of line, but there were many checkpoints along the way. First, they would continue as friends but with this understanding between them and the family. Things would continue much as they had been, but with new and important roles for all of us, including my youngest, Tiger Lilly.
I could no longer be Ben’s “friend”, not in the way I had been, because there was something different at stake. Same for my wife. As a father, I was naturally concerned about the “prospects” of any suitor for my daughter. I also realized, however, that prospects have more to do with what is inside a person than what happens to be in front of him at the time. Part of my responsibility was to watch and see if Ben’s moral progress would continue. Some facades are easier to keep up than others, but few can bear continued, close scrutiny. Part of what Ben was asking a year ago, whether he realized it or not, was for a new level of this scrutiny. The fact that he is still around, and with all his limbs more or less intact, indicates that some success and sincerity on his part.
Faith and Ben, meanwhile, were to continue as friends, free to talk about a shared future and explore what special challenges might present themselves in achieving that, but also free to step away while remaining friends if these issues became unworkable. The news of this new status would be kept mostly within the family for the time being, hopefully freeing them from social pressures and expectations and again allowing for a dignified and private retreat if it became clear that things were not going to work out. Finally, it would not be a physical relationship, even in ways the world might think innocuous, and they would not have “alone” time together. They would be expected to conduct themselves before the family or responsible friends, while Tiger Lilly would assume the roaming chaperone responsibilities for propriety’s sake, escorting them from place to place if family and friends were otherwise unavailable. Restrictive, yes, but also freeing for them in a way because they would not have the distraction of a physical relationship clouding the important things they had to discuss.
Back in September I was talking to my friend Harvey after church. Harvey is a quiet guy of few words but who doesn’t miss much. Faith and Ben drove by in the parking lot below us with Tiger Lilly in the back seat. Harvey turned his head to watch them drive by, then said to me, “Ben seems to be paying a lot of attention to Daughter Number One.”
“Yes,” I said, “Which is why you’ll notice that Daughter Number Two is paying a lot of attention to him.”
Harvey smiled. He has daughters a couple of years younger than mine. “We’ve noticed,” he said. “We’ve got a couple of girls coming up on that age, and we’re very interested in how this comes out.” I related this story to Ben and Faith later, as another reminder that the way they live their lives will be an example to others.
They have not appeared to chafe under the rules of their responsibilities, demonstrating true affection (in an acceptable manner) rather than mere infatuation. They have been a delight and an encouragement in our family and in our church. A few months ago their relationship progressed into official courtship, with an eye toward engagement and marriage. They have a lot of time still to wait, as Ben has a couple of years of Seminary yet to complete, and Faith has plans of her own. Yesterday, one year from the date we had our little meeting, they were comfortable enough to take their courtship public in the blogosphere, ready for the additional scrutiny that may bring.
What has been especially gratifying over the last year is to see how eagerly two young people (three, actually) have embraced their new roles and responsibilities. To see one’s children not only doing right, but wanting to do right even when it is inconvenient or directly opposed to their more fleshly desires, is a balm indeed.