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What a Father Taught Me

Sunday, June 15, 2014

He helped me penetrate the mystery of fatherhood, even if it is a bit late.

Editor’s note: this article first appeared in THE AMERICAN on June 16, 2013.

Father’s Day always leaves me a bit uneasy.

It’s like a pair of really big shoes. Every year, I have to walk up and put my feet in them and look silly because I can never fill them.

And there is more than a whiff of coerced obligation to the whole thing, a sense that “Well, we have a Mother’s Day, so we probably ought to...” You know what I mean.

Fatherhood remains a mystery to me despite the fact that my wife and I have raised a son and daughter and now have five grandchildren. I lived inside that mystery for years — too close inside it to ever have perspective or fully understand it.

Adlai Stevenson — he of scholarly mien, presidential pretensions, and worn out shoes — once observed that “Paternity is a career imposed on you without any inquiry into your fitness.” Indeed, when I look back on my career as a father, it seems as if I was thrust into the middle of a wild and woolly game with only a vague idea of the rules, the boundaries, or the score. It was a game played hard and very fast, and I still don’t know whether I won or lost, or whether the game is even over.

Oh, and there’s another complication. I never saw my father. He left my mother before I was born. I never knew anything about him; never even saw a picture of him until I was nearly 60 years old.

I can’t say that I missed my father. I never really thought about him, that I can recall. I was raised in a strange sort of sitcom of a household with my two brothers, mom, grandmother, and two unmarried uncles — something now called an “extended family.” All in all, it was a happy family despite its fair share of Sturm und Drang. It was what I knew. It was “normal.”

One of my uncles, George McDonald (my mother’s brother), was probably the nearest I had to a “father figure.” I didn’t call him “Uncle.” He was always simply, “George.” He always drove when my twin brother and I went to church on Sundays with our mother and grandmother. After the movie or the dance at the youth center on Friday nights, I knew where to find him for the ride home. He would be nursing his single beer at the end of the bar in the Commercial Hotel, talking with the owner, Red Fiorina, one of his best friends.

If I have learned anything over the years it is that every father more or less writes his own manual.

George was a practical, affable, and unassuming man, who wore his unmistakable Christianity with a tolerant, comfortable grace. I could see that people liked him, trusted him, and could count on him. Now I know that I admired him, though I was not conscious of it at the time. I certainly loved him more than I ever showed, and was deeply saddened by his sudden death the summer I graduated from high school. I have missed him ever since.

I’m not sure; perhaps when I was very small I saw George as a father. But as I grew, I did not confuse him with the fathers I saw around me — “Dads” who seemed a little distant and drove nicer cars and appeared younger than my uncle, although my friends often referred to them as “my old man.” They smoked pipes, took their sons fishing or to ball games, and sat on porches reading the paper after dinner on summer evenings.

I certainly didn’t equate George to the “real” fathers I saw on television — level-headed Ward Cleaver on Leave It to Beaver, or the admirable Jim Anderson, played by Robert Young on Father Knows Best. I say “real” fathers because, as I look back, I never thought of those TV fathers as particularly idealized. They seemed like pretty realistic role models to me, and when I became a father (one year out of college) I may have subconsciously tried to be like them a bit, because I never found any reliable or successful manuals on fatherhood. Like most men, I wouldn’t have read them anyway. Indeed, if I have learned anything over the years it is that every father more or less writes his own manual.

Bennett Father’s Day 6There is, of course, all sorts of wisdom about fatherhood scattered throughout literature. From the sternly Biblical, “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes” (Proverbs 13:24), to the classically cynical, “Throw between yourself and your son a little estate, and you will know how soon he will wish to bury you and how soon you wish your son to die” (Epictetus), to the simply obvious, “There must always be a struggle between a father and son, while one aims at power and the other at independence” (Samuel Johnson).

We pay a faint respect to such wisdom, but at the practical level, we tend to learn late what we wish we had known earlier. This is exquisitely so for me. As I look back over the decades, I find myself very fortunate to have found a father who has helped me penetrate the mystery of fatherhood, even if it is a bit late.

He has helped me see more clearly the fine balance between a godly code of conduct and the way it is taught and tempered — with love and understanding and, above all, a sense of humor.

He taught me that anger and impatience may be instinctive, but must not be inevitable.

He taught me that you teach love by loving, and forgiveness by forgiving, and that there is no surer teaching of the beauty of married love to your children than the love demonstrated every day by thought and gesture to their mother.

He taught me that self-esteem develops in a very complex and even mysterious way in children. It is not produced by the phony fiat of a framed “certificate of participation” or a gaggle of meaningless trophies. It emerges — sometimes a little bruised and askew — from winning and losing, from finding that some people are indeed smarter or faster or more comely and appealing, from encouraging a child’s strengths even in the crucible of disappointment, from the give and take of daily life with siblings and friends, and from the genuine respect inside a father’s forgiving love.

He taught me that there are life lessons to be learned in knowing how to score a baseball game.

He taught me the virtue of simply making do or doing without.

He taught me the consummate importance of the sacrifice of time for your children — a sacrifice often neither heralded nor understood by them.

He taught me the consummate importance of the sacrifice of time for your children.

He taught me the moral genius of being adamant at the proper time — sometimes with grace, sometimes not — but adamancy for a purpose and to those good ends foreseen by past experience.

He taught me to lighten up, to be funny and have fun with your children, and to have the wisdom and wit to see inside what they think is funny.

He taught me the importance of the “co-” in communicating with children — exasperating and embarrassing and sometimes boring as that can be. But he taught me, too, that sometimes, in talking with your children, you do have to talk “down” to them.

He taught me that when you must choose between being a father and a friend to your children you must be a father first. With love. With understanding. The friendship will come.

This father amazes me. The things I stumbled over in raising our kids, he seems to have negotiated with a sure foot. He seems to take fatherhood seriously, but not too seriously. He has, quite simply, done the job better than me, and I admire him for it. His name is George McDonald Bennett, and he is my son.

Ralph Kinney Bennett is a contributing writer to THE AMERICAN.

FURTHER READING: Bennett also writes “Duty and Sacrifice,” “Funny Thing about Christmas,” “Remembering: With Pain, Anger, and Vigilance,” and “An American Thanksgiving.”

Image by: Dianna Ingram/Bergman Group; photo credit: Joe Belanger.

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