Thursday, February 25, 2016
When I was a kid, I always had trouble remembering when my dad’s birthday was. “It’s just like Christmas, but in February,” my mother told me when I was a teenager. I never forgot the date again, but it turned out that by that point I had very few birthdays to remember while he was alive. Still, I haven’t forgotten it even in all the years since he died.
Even so, I’ve never done a blog post for my father’s birthday, as I have for my mother’s, though I’ve talked about him in several posts (a few are listed at the end of this post). There are reasons I haven’t blogged about his birthdays, but the main one doesn’t speak particularly well of me.
Mainly, I’ve tended to forget to write a post about my dad’s birthday because nearly all my blog posts are written just before they’re published. That meant that if I didn’t remember it at the time, I didn’t write about it all. My dad’s birthday was one of those things I always forgot to write about until it had passed (in my defence, there have been other topics, too—actually, I guess that’s not much of a defence after all).
However, another reason, as I’ve mentioned many times before, is that my mother was a bigger influence on my life, especially until I was a teenager. It’s probably the reason I remember her birthday and forget his: He just wasn’t at the centre of things when I was growing up because he was always so busy. I just accepted things as being as they were and certainly didn’t resent his absence—how could I resent not having something I never had in the first place? Also, most of my friends’ dads were similarly busy, so I thought it was normal.
I remember him most as being a minister, and in my mind’s eye, he looks a bit like the photo above, though I think it may have been taken before I was born. He retired early in the mid-1970s for health reasons, and ended up working part-time to help make ends meet. He did a variety of jobs, some of which he must secretly have hated, but he remained positive about them when talking with me. I was in high school and university in those years.
As a church pastor, my dad had a lot of things to tend to. Being a pastor is like being the CEO of a company, and my dad’s “company” was fairly large when I was a kid, and it faced the same problems and challenges as a for-profit company, such as, balancing budgets, staffing, maintenance of buildings and infrastructure. Money for many churches was in short supply, and this was a major worry for my dad.
But he also had to tend to the congregation, visiting people in hospitals, or in their homes, performing baptisms, weddings, and funerals, leading two (or more) services every Sunday, teaching older kids to prepare them for Confirmation. And, he had to be available to counsel anyone at a moment’s notice.
There was the time a man was suicidal, so my dad took his shotgun away from him and stored it at our house. I know this because my mother told me about many years later, and because I found the shotgun in my dad’s closet one year when I was snooping for Christmas presents (I was smart enough to know that it was real and not to fool around with it; I never said a word about that).
Obviously, it wasn’t all dour or dire. For example, one time a couple was at the church, wedding about to begin, and my dad checked their license. It was issued in Cook County. “We were shopping in Chicago one day and decided to get it,” they told my dad. This was a problem: The church was located in a different county and the license wasn’t valid (a stupid system, but I digress).
So, my dad phoned a parishioner who lived in Cook County, which was nearby. “Are you busy at the moment?” he asked the woman. “Oh, just vacuuming,” she said. “Okay—would you mind if we had a wedding in your living room?” And that’s what they did: Held the church wedding as planned, then dashed off to the lady’s house for a quick official ceremony, and the couple could then get back to their reception.
My dad loved telling stories like that, and always said he was going to write a book about his experiences, though he never did. He loved telling jokes, too, and some of them may have been a bit racy, a few I now know were racist, but most were just kind of silly. My dad loved to laugh, and he was really good at telling stories, so jokes were a natural combination for him.
The fact he could laugh was a bit of a surprise.
My dad was the youngest of four children, and the son of a Lutheran minister. His mother died from tuberculosis when he was quite small. His dad (my grandfather) used to take him and his three siblings to play on the lawn of the TB sanatorium so that their mother could watch them through the windows. I never knew what, if anything, he remembered from that time.
His dad remarried, and his stepmother was a fairly stern, sometimes dour lady—but who also liked to laugh. I had a lot of sympathy for her, not just because she was taking on four kids and a preacher husband, but mostly because when they were married, my grandfather said to her, “I’ll marry you, but I’ll always love” his first wife. My mother told me that, too, because my dad didn’t talk about any of that with me.
His stepmother had some odd traits. Quite short, she sawed off the legs of their antique furniture so they fit her frame better. She forbade the reading of the “funny papers” (newspaper comics) on Sundays. When my dad went away to university, she moved his bedroom up into the attic so she could use his room. He claimed he loved it, more privacy or something, but my mother—who told me this story, too—never really believed him. Still, he may have been sincere: His stepmother was probably the only mother he ever knew.
That’s my dad. That’s the man I knew and think of all the time. But, like everyone else, he was so much more—and less—than that: He was human. I long ago forgave his faults, and also learned to appreciate his good points, and what I got from him.
For example, he was absolutely the best preacher I’ve ever heard in my life. In fact, I’ve never heard any preacher who could hold a candle to him: No matter how famous they were or how much money they made from preaching, my dad was better than them all. I modelled my own meagre efforts at public speaking on what I heard him do, and to this day at least some of my efforts in podcasting and video narration are directly attributable to him and what I absorbed from listening to him. I just wish his sermons had been recorded.
He had a keen and analytical mind, and was unafraid to examine his own assumptions, especially in later years. He could be moved in his opinions, and this is what I remember most: Toward the end of his life, we had full and frank discussions, even if we didn’t always share the same viewpoint. I still try to be like that, and sometimes I even succeed.
And yet, I wonder sometimes what life might have been like if the dad I had for the last five years of his life had been there throughout my life. We started to become friends in those final years—would an earlier start to that have mattered? Unlike my parents, I don’t believe in an afterlife, so I’ll never know. This life, as far as we can tell, is all we get.
So, I’m glad for what I got from my dad, the lessons learned, the values instilled. I am who I am, in part, because of my dad. It’s not just the genes, important as they were for creating me. What matters is that he was a good man who did his best and mostly succeeded. I never for one second doubted that he loved me, and he told me often in his final years. I hope I told him enough. Imperfect though he was, and even though he was a work in progress that was never completed, I owe him more than I can say or ever repay.
I loved my dad, respected him, and admired so much about him. I miss him terribly, even after all these years, and I know I always will. But it also makes me smile how he still just sort of “pops out” from time to time: It could be I find myself standing in a pose like he used to do, or maybe I say something he would have said, or maybe I repeat one of his silly jokes, whatever it is, it always makes me smile.
The tragedy in all this is that the story never got to the point where I wouldn’t ever forget to do a stupid blog post on his birthday. Maybe a few more years would have been enough—but we never get enough time, do we?
Happy 100th birthday, Dad. And, thanks.
Sunday Quiet (2009) – What Sundays were like when I was a kid
Easter (2009) – Where I talk about my dad’s stage management
Good Friday Flashback (2011) – More about his stage management, with a photo
Arthur Answers Again, Part Two – Religion questions (2013) – I talk about being a preacher’s kid
AAA-14 Answer 7 – Loss and memes (2014) – I talk about the death of my parents
New Year’s Eve 2014 – In which I talk about one of my favourite memories of my dad