Pop culture and world religious traditions give us wildly conflicting images of fathers: on the one hand, loving, nurturing figures, but on the other, tyrannical, selfish, bloodthirsty monsters. No wonder fathers provoke a swirl of powerful feelings! How to make sense of it all?
Father’s Very Day
Copyright Betsy Woodman 2018
When my dad, Everett Woodman, was alive, he would usher in the month of June with a predictable routine.
“Don’t forget,” he would say, stomping around the house. “Don’t forget what’s coming up two weeks from Sunday. Fahther’s Day.” (He could dial his New Hampshire accent up or down as required.) “Fahther’s Very Day. Do you suppose there will be any tangible evidence of affection?”
Well! We were put on notice! Father’s Very Day was not to be ignored.
Strangely enough, regarding the tangible evidence, he wasn’t really very enthusiastic about receiving presents. If he felt a gift was too expensive, he told you to take it back.
Also, there was a narrow range of articles that he would approve of, and, in the case of clothing, a narrow range of colors. Mostly Dartmouth green. We gave him quite a few green sweaters over the years.
Well, today is Father’s Very Day in roughly 90 countries all over the globe. A church in West Virginia was the first to observe Father’s Day in this country, in 1908. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson ordered the flag to be raised over all government buildings on the third Sunday in June.
Other countries observe similar holidays on different dates of the calendar.
In several European countries, the 19th of March is traditionally St. Joseph’s Day, to celebrate the “putative father” of Jesus.
In Germany a more secular holiday is called Vatertag. Groups of men and boys hike into the mountains, pulling wagons of beer and wine, and get roaring drunk. Alcohol-related traffic accidents triple.
In Nepal, there’s a day for “looking at father’s face.” What a powerful idea. Imagine, perhaps, that a father and child have been estranged…and then, that they actually look each other in the face. What a gamut of emotions would pass between them.
The very word “father” carries heavy symbolic overtones. “The father of…” is a man who was there at the beginning, who deserves a special place in memory.
George Washington was the “father of our country.” Many African leaders were called the fathers of theirs: Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Nelson Mandela of South Africa, and more.
In the plural, the phrase Founding Fathers takes on even more heft.
In all sorts of fields—technology, sports, music, popular culture—you can find a “father of.”
Alessandro Volta, father of the battery
Alexander Graham Bell, father of the telephone
Jacques Cousteau, father of SCUBA diving
Franz Joseph Haydn, father of the symphony
Dick McDonald, father of fast food
Fathers don’t even have to be real to be important, or loved—or hated.
Father Christmas—aka Santa Claus—brings gifts of candy and presents to boys and girls who have behaved themselves. He’s a good guy.
However, imaginary dads can be evil, too. In the Star Wars movies, the hero Luke Skywalker is the sworn enemy of the sinister, heavy-breathing Darth Vader—who turns out to be his father.
Fictional dads can be misguided and tragic, like Shakespeare’s King Lear. The befuddled old Lear is deceived by two selfish, scheming daughters—and he doesn’t realize that the third daughter is the one who’s honest and true.
As for metaphors, in the dark corners of our language, there’s the most brutal father of all. Father Time. That old guy with the sickle. Relentless, merciless, destructive. In the end, that’s the father that will annihilate us all.
“Honor your father and your mother” is the fifth of the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus.
If you don’t, you’re in big trouble.
Says Proverbs 30:17 “The eye that mocks a father and scorns to obey a mother will be picked out by the ravens of the valley and eaten by the vultures.”
It appears that the wisdom of the ages is on the side of honoring dads. Or—wait a minute—is it?
There’s a lot of anxiety about fathers in religious traditions.
Take the story of Abraham and Isaac in the book of Genesis.
Abraham, as you saw in the reading, loves his son, Isaac. But God orders Abraham to kill Isaac as an offering. Just a little loyalty test.
In a nerve-wracking drama, Abraham leads Isaac into the wilderness, and the trusting little kid follows while wood is gathered for his own funeral pyre. Abraham hefts Isaac onto the altar, lifts his knife…
This is worse than most TV dramas! God rescinds the order at the last moment, which takes the tension off.
But, my question is: can Isaac ever trust his dad again? Typically, dads are bigger, heavier, and stronger than are moms or kids, and you don’t blame a child for wondering: Will my father use his strength to protect me? Or to destroy me?
Greek mythology, too, has some pretty scary dads.
Cronos, the king of the Titans, was worried that he’d be deposed by his own children. And he should have worried. He had castrated and deposed his own father, and what goes around, comes around.
Cronos’s solution was this: As soon as each child was born, he ate it. Just plain devoured it.
His wife, Rhea, however, saved one of the children, Zeus. She gave Cronos a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes instead. This wasn’t a very cuddly bundle, but Cronos took it for a newborn, and swallowed it, too.
The children and the stone stayed in the royal stomach for years. When Zeus was grown, he returned, (his identity unknown to Cronos) and gave his father something like Ipecac, causing him to vomit up his siblings. Whereupon the children, now free, overthrew their father.
Violence, hatred, fear, and ambition were passed on from one generation to the next.
Next, let’s look at a story from the Hindu tradition, showing a conflicted dad.
As you may know, the Ramayana is the long Hindu epic poem that tells the story of Lord Rama, who, with his wife Sita, underwent a lot of trials and tribulations before gaining his rightful place on the throne of the kingdom of Ayodhya. Rama and Sita got banished from the kingdom, Sita got kidnapped, Rama had to rescue her from the island of Sri Lanka, just to name a few of the main events in this poem.
And why? It was Rama’s father—Dasharatha’s—fault. Dasharatha had gone and made a foolish promise to one of his wives, that he would banish Rama (who should have been the heir to the throne) from his kingdom. King Dasharatha supposedly loved his son, but a promise is a promise and he felt he had to keep his word. He had a choice between betraying his wife—and betraying his son. He did the latter.
Rama, interestedly enough, accepted the judgment without whining and went off into the forest, eventually returning in triumph. But by that time, his father had died of a broken heart.
In the Ramayana, even a supposedly powerful dad—a king—ends up looking frail and conflicted and sad and human.
The wisdom of the ages contains plenty of contradictions.
Honor your father—but watch out! Like Abraham, he might be holding the knife over you as you lie on the altar. Like Cronos, he might gobble you up. Like Dasharatha, he might kick you out of the kingdom, just to appease your stepmother. Like King Lear, he might favor your undeserving siblings instead of you.
So much for bad dads. Let’s forget demons and monsters and demented kings and return to the real world.
Who are we honoring on Father’s Day? Not mythological figures. Not founders of nations.
Most of us are acknowledging in some small way—a phone call, a gift, a restaurant outing—one of the two individuals who gave us life.
Each of us got half our DNA from our dad. Our fathers—even those in the grave—are alive. They’re in us. We can’t get rid of them.
My own dad has been dead now for almost seven years, and I often think I’m channeling him. He used to eat toast with both butter and peanut butter on it. When he was alive, I found that mixture disgusting, but now I think it’s delicious. I think of him every time I eat it.
On Father’s Day, maybe the most affectionate way we can honor our dads is by thinking not about big things—but about little things.
My own dad had a distinguished career, with all sorts of accomplishments, but what my sisters and I remember him for has nothing to do with all that.
What we loved was his quirkiness.
We loved his homemade slang. A mucket was either a hat or a beer. A pelican was a dollar. The microwave oven was the rototiller, because the plate inside went round and round.
My family identified itself as Unitarian, but the religious training we got at home was decidedly sketchy.
In fact, sometimes I ask myself: How was it that we came to know the Lord’s Prayer?
Our father, which art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name….
The prayer has a three-part structure—praise, requests, praise—and the economy and power of a stunning poem.
The requests are deceptively simple.
Give us this day our daily bread…. Just daily bread, note—what we need to survive. Not palaces or massive riches.
The next request thrusts some responsibility on ourselves:
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us…
The final request acknowledges our human frailty: And lead us not into temptation But deliver us from evil….
Temptation and evil are always out there, we are reminded, and they may be more than we can handle. Please, give us the good luck that we need.
Did we learn the Lord’s Prayer at home? Or at school? I don’t remember. It comes as easily as breathing.
One thing we did learn from our dad was basic gardening skills.
My father was an avid gardener. Every year, after much study, he would order seeds from the Burpee catalog. He started his plants under grow lights, in the basement.
When the sprouts popped up, he moved them to the sun porch. He sketched out garden plans.
Then, when the snow was gone, he spaded the soil and worked in manure with the rototiller. After marking off the rows with string, he put in the seedlings.
All summer long, we ate out of the garden. Early harvests of spinach and radishes and lettuce. Midsummer rounds—seemingly endless—of zucchini.
We ate corn, picked while the water was boiling, and raced to the pot. And tomatoes, sliced, with fresh basil.
We all put in quite a few involuntary hours of weeding and thinning and harvesting and we ate rather more Swiss chard than we might have preferred.
As my dad aged, it grew harder and harder for him to tend his garden. The cranky old rototiller shook and rattled his fragile, arthritic skeleton. But still the sink was full of greens ready for rinsing and the refrigerator was stocked with little bowls of radishes in ice water.
“Have some more Swiss chard!” was his incantation.
It was partly in tribute, partly in revolt against Swiss chard that my sister Lee cross-stitched a sampler, which promptly went up to a place of honor on the wall above his desk. The prayer on the sampler went:
Our father which art in the mulch pile
Hallowed be thy Brussel sprouts
Thy corn has come, thy will was done
On earth as it was in the sun porch
Give us this day our daily tomates
But deliver us from Swiss chard
For thine is the most glorious green thumb ever
Just recently, Lee wrote a poem about the sampler and about my dad. The piece was published by Vox Poetica, an online site for contemporary poetry. It combines lines of Lee’s original sampler with other memories, such as the following. Still speaking of our dad, she says:
He was proud of his fruits and roots, sweet “bluebs” and rutabagas— He’d plea with us to weed with him; I’d skitter off after two hard tugs.
Although he could rototill no more, he’d stoop with aching joints and pull, Shaking loose rich mulch from carrots, praising lush abundant squash.
He confessed once before he died he and Mom recited the Lord’s Prayer, every night holding hands in bed, tending the earth again under starry sky.
Beneath those beets and lettuce leaves, he planted his brand of bountiful faith I sent a joyful message skyward, sailing right past pews of red zinnias:
For thine is the power and the most glorious green thumb forever . . . Amen.
That was Lee’s poem, a tender and gently humorous tribute to our dad. Fittingly for our Unitarian family, it was a mixture of the religious and the irreverent.
So on this Father’s Day, I thank my sister, and I also thank my dad.
For his Brussels Sprouts and even for the dreaded Swiss chard, which I now love, with its taste of the earth…
For his planting and weeding and picking, which showed us about work and process and faith in nature….
For his delight in compost and seedlings, which showed us where growing things come from….
My dad was, as are we all, a speck in the universe.
A unique speck, yet connected to generations of other specks with a simple and powerfully familiar prayer…which he said, holding hands with his wife, our mother, before he slept.
Lee Woodman’s poem can be found here: http://voxpoetica.com/a-mulch-pile-prayer/