One of the breakout sessions at the Mockingbird Ministries Conference in late April was titled, “Grace for Those With Father Issues, a.k.a Grace for Those With a Pulse.” I liked the honesty (and grace) of the title. We probably all want to believe our relationships with our Dads are totally loving and completely comfortable. And maybe they are for some lucky few. And then there are the other 99%.
I went to the session partly to think about my relationship with my own father, but as much to think about my three adult children and how all this is for them.
The presenter, Dave Johnson, said, “No one is neutral when it comes to their Dad.” Apparently, I’m like most of the rest of humanity as my feelings about my Dad were mixed. He was a kind, thoughtful guy in many ways. He had a great smile. But he could have outbursts of anger that were frightening. Mostly, though, he was polite and well-mannered, perhaps to a fault.
Even in his last years, when afflicted with Alzheimers and in a care home, his good manners did not abandon him. Which was a marked contrast with some of his fellow residents who were pretty abrasive. One particularly regal looking woman, who was always dressed to the nine’s, often cussed a blue streak for no evident reason. I figured she had never been allowed to swear in her pre-AZD life and was now making up for it.
My father worked for the federal government, first the Interior Department and, later, Geological Survey. This is what took us from Oregon to Washington D. C. He was dedicated to his work, putting in long but regular, hours. I never had much sense of what he actually did. He was in the Office of the Under Secretary for Administration. He would leave home about 7:00 and return at 6:00. When I was old enough to drive I would sometimes pick him up from work. We would do a half-circle around the north side of the Lincoln Memorial, then merge onto Memorial Bridge over the Potomac and back to Arlington.
Dinner was at 6:30. He and my Mom were big smokers, like most everyone back then. After dinner they would push their chairs back, pour coffee and light up. Under a cloud of smoke they talked over the day. My sister and I had by then excused ourselves, so I don’t have much sense of their conversations. Mostly, I think my Dad was updating my Mom on office politics, maybe hearing something about her part-time work as a librarian.
I held it against him that he was deeply un-athletic. He really couldn’t throw a baseball or a football. If I played catch with one of my parents, it was my mother. Mostly, I badgered her to throw me ground balls so I could practice my fielding. Hiking and back-packing were also foreign, as were hunting and fishing, though my grandfathers did both. On a Father/ Son Boy Scout campout, my Dad went home after I went to sleep, then snuck back in the morning before I was up, a maneuver I learned about only much later. I guess sleeping on the ground wasn’t his thing.
He was ahead of his time in some ways. He helped with the housework, for example. Which got passed on to me, a good thing as the world of men and women’s roles changed a lot in my lifetime. That said, I pretty much absorbed the idea that a man’s life was his job. What you do for your family is go to work. These days men have a more diverse portfolio and many strive for “work/ life balance.” Not a term I heard from him, or anyone, until maybe 30 years ago. I admire my sons for the work/ life balance they manage.
Dave, the workshop presenter, said that “rejection — at some level — is at the heart of all the father issues. The feeling that you are never good enough.” There probably was that, but I think both my parents had that going on. With my Dad it was more the sense that we just didn’t have that much in common, and between that and his work, not much shared experience. He was, however, more of a church-goer than my mother. I have good memories of sitting together in the early, 9:30, service at Rock Spring Congregational Church. If my mother went, any service before 11:00 was completely out of the question.
Late in his life, when he was in a care facility, Linda and I visited him on one of his more lucid days. We were crossing the dining room on the way to the garden outside when he stopped and looked up at me and said, “You are a good man.” Linda looked at me and said, “Did you hear that?” She meant, “Did you really hear that? He was giving you his blessing.” He died several months later.
One of my big regrets is that I wasn’t there when he died. We lived five hours away and I was probably busy, with work.
He was a WWII vet. Like most of his generation he didn’t talk about that experience much. Although, in his declining years, I would take him on drives to the Oregon Coast, which he loved. I would try, while on the road, to prompt him to talk about the war. He was not in the front-line infantry, but a Master Sergeant in charge of supply lines. Many of his wartime memories were actually from the period after the war ended when he lived for the better part of a year in France, in Lyon, awaiting de-mobilization.
Dave Johnson went on to try and help people separate their own father experiences from the other Father, God. “God,” he said slowly, emphatically, “will never reject or forsake you. The rejection is never from God.” I expect that’s a hard distinction to make for some people. On the other hand, I remember Will Willimon quoting Carlyle Marney to the effect that he’d never meant a minister worth his salt who didn’t have some Daddy issues.
Toward the end, Dave mentioned Bono and his recent autobiography Surrender. Bono writes about a rough relationship with his own father. But someone Bono talked to turned the tables, telling him, “I think you need to apologize to your Dad.” Bono was still looking for an apology from his long-gone father. But that got turned around. “Maybe, you need to apologize to your Dad.” That rang true. I was too hard on my Dad. If he expected things from me that I didn’t fulfill, it went the other way too. We always want those closest to us to be someone other than what they are.
As time ran out, Dave Johnson’s last words to the standing-room only crowd, were, “You will have the chance to play catch with your Dad someday.” Given my experience of playing catch, actually of not playing catch, it was a poignant, really heart-wrenching, final word. I so hope he’s right.