As usual, I let a holiday slip up on me so quickly that there was no time to get a gift in the mail. When it comes to Father’s Day, though, getting my Dad a gift is always tricky—he doesn’t seem to ever need or want anything. Maybe that’s part of being a good Dad. So in the absence of anything sailing or flying some intercontinental postal route, I’m writing this post as a bit of a tribute.
When I think about my Dad now, it is not from the perspective of a son, but from the perspective of another Dad. I’ve four of my own. Once a man sires children, he can’t think of fatherhood solely in terms of his childhood.
A Dad has no idea what images will remain stuck in his kids’ minds. It’s a frightful thought, actually—I am hoping mine will have a selective memory. But here are some of the impressions left in my mind from life as a kid with Dad….
My small cowboy boot fitting within the capacious imprint of his own boot in the dirt. We had gardens on our farm. I was following Dad behind the gas-powered tiller. As the clanking machine tore through the hard soil, he pointed the toes of his boots outward. He was restraining the tiller’s forward torque, but I thought that was how a man was supposed to walk. I think I had a splayfooted gait for a few years. The important point is that I liked being in the dirt with my Dad. You know that scene in Gone With the Wind, when Scarlett cups Georgia dirt in her hand and feels wistfully identity-bound to Tara? I knew what she felt like. My Dad reared me in a lot of dirt. And I love that. Splayfooted or not.
The smell of cut wood. Every Autumn we cut trees for firewood. With my grandfather, we roared in the tractor through the pasture, eventually disappearing from the sight of the house under a canopy of hardwoods. Dad or Grandaddy would wield the chainsaw. But I… well, I got the “go-devil.” That’s the vernacular name of a maul axe, one side blade, the other side sledge hammer, as dangerously blunt as dangerously sharp, honed by the electric whetstone in my grandad’s tool shed. A heavy implement bearing the name “maul” or “devil” in the hands of an adolescent male risks awakening an ancient warrior spirit. They let my scrawny arms swing and swing on those blocks of oak and hickory. Amidst sawdust spraying and the chainsaw buzzing, eventually there would come that internal “POP” after multiple axe swings, the sound of a log’s inevitable demise. I miss those Saturdays in the woods. Three generations of men, working hard to stay warm in the winter.
The quiet search for a newborn calf. Dirt, woods… and fields. These were the settings of much of my childhood. And one of the most exciting adventures involved traversing all three in stealth mode. Somehow, my Dad knew when a cow was about to give birth. I guess he noticed she was missing from the herd. He wanted to make sure that momma and calf made it safely through that natural mystery together. He would let me tag along for the hunt. I was clueless, of course. And I think I made a lot of racket with all the evil banditry (er, briars and grapevines) that suffered the fate of my double-edged sword (er, stick). I remember slipping on a fallen old tree that he had just carefully stepped over. “Whenever you see wood laying like this out here, it’s probably going to be slick, so always step over it.”
(I passed the same wisdom on to my daughter last evening while we were outside.)
As for the cow and calf, I never remember seeing either of them. Dad was probably keeping me at a safe distance, knowing a protective bovine was near at hand. I do remember that we would make the journey home after my Dad would sneak off a ways and peek over brush or around a tree and return with a sense of satisfaction. I was just glad to be with him in the woods, in the fields, in the dirt.
“Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’” All this talk about woods, fields and dirt—all these references to axe-swinging, stick-wielding, and ground-tilling—might give the impression from all this that we were a family locked within some benighted agrarian realm. But I was reared amidst not only dirt clods and cut logs, but amidst deep logoi… that is, words. My kids get a lot of Dreamworks and Pixar these days, but I used to get a lot of Edgar Allen Poe, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Vachel Lindsay. I can still hear my Dad’s voice reciting in rhythmic fervor words like “tintinnabulation” followed by
I can hear the beat of dark drums: “boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.”
Now, I was probably too young to process the disambiguation of Richard Cory’s use of a bullet, too young to assess the racial complexities behind “The Congo,” too young to sleep well after hearing of that raven’s tapping and rapping at the door. But the offer of words that are beyond us can be a powerful gift. In those poems, my Dad was giving me words that mystified rather than explained. Explanation can lead to control. Mystery can lead to wonder. I fell asleep at night not with visions of green eggs and ham (no offense to Dr. Seuss—his stuff is brilliant and I read him to my kids), but with a disturbing sense that my world of wood and field was somehow mauled and bedeviled and in need of hands larger than my own… and larger than my Dad’s.
And I suppose most of us when we become Dads realize that we’ve entered a realm requiring hands larger than our own. Fatherhood is beyond us fathers. The formation of tiny humans entrusted to mortal men…? Now that is an overwhelming mystery. I am thankful for a great Dad. And my kids tend to think that I am pretty good at it as well (okay, it depends on when you ask them). What I am realizing, though—by necessity, almost—is that one of the noblest acts of fatherhood is pointing to a better Father. When my parents placed me in those pews beneath a white steeple, whether they realized it or not, they were placing me in the presence of Someone perfectly adequate for the mystery of forming a tiny human (or any human). Our greatest act of fathering is pointing to a better Father. Paternal mistakes and mishaps can therefore become the occasion for a type of worship. Our failures can become signposts directing their attention to the One who made them along with the woods, the fields, and the dirt stuck between their toes.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad… here’s to being in the dirt together again soon.