Father’s Day Reflections

Gail Johnson Vaughan

June 19, 2016

Happy Father’s Day.  My thoughts for today are organized as a letter to the father I admire the most, my son Brent.

Dear Brent,

Happy Father’s Day, my heart is touched by the lovely man you have become. When you were a child your beauty was so great my heart would melt. I never dreamed it would continue to blossom, and blossom, and blossom.

As I realize that – the fact that I did not expect your beauty to survive manhood – I learned a lot about myself and perhaps about our society. What is the context, what are the belief systems, that give birth to such a thought? What have I learned from the fathers that have gone before you, and what do I learn from the fathers you and your brothers have become?

I was born into a world of war. The fathers were away. Many did not come back. And many that did were wounded – in body and in heart. Those wounds of war were visited on their sons and their daughters, wives and parents. War does not just wound the soldiers.

My father stayed a soldier – a soldier of the sea. Each fall he would leave for half a year to sail his submarine through distant seas protecting us from unknown enemies. Each time we would watch him sail away. My mother would drive us out the long peninsula to the lighthouse point. It was beautiful – graceful green lawns sloping down on either side to touch the blue water, and miles of tidy white tombstones – graves of the daddies that did not return. She would hold me high while we watched the ship grow smaller and smaller on the unending water until it fell off the edge of the world.

Things were different when my father was away. My mother was strong, confident, competent, in charge. And when he returned she slipped into the background. That was the way things were done in those days. World War II demanded that women step forward into the workplace, into self-sufficiency, into leadership. The quest for equality of opportunity, so hard fought for so many years before the war, was moot when the nation needed women to step into the fullness of their capacities while the men were away. The wheels of production needed workers, and families needed direction.

In America’s postwar “Father Knows Best” years there was a great effort to restore the imbalance. I was raised to know my place and to prepare for life as a professional wife. And then war came again – Korea and then Vietnam, and a new generation was asked to go. We were the sons and daughters whose fathers fought in World War II. We had already been wounded. The healing of our wounds made a strong in new ways. We learned, in a deep nonverbal level, that war does not make sense. We said “no”. We said “no” at every corner – no to war, no to racism, to sexism, to corporate greed, to false morality. We changed the rules.

Being a father, even being a man was not easy for the fathers of my generation.  Changing roles and expectations, housewives and mothers going on strike wearing “boots made for walking.” Being a father, even being a man is not easy for fathers today. Men and women of conscience struggle to replace the imbalance of patriarchy with the social system that gives both women and men more options. It is not easy. We have had to retool at the most fundamental level. There are still many battles to fight in pursuit of gender equality, but many have also been won.

We in this room have been the transitional generations of these great changes.  It has not been easy for any of us.  We have been confused, determined, courageous, strident, strong, broken, triumphant. It has not been easy.  And we women have not been alone in the effort.  You, our brothers, have been beside us.  Thank you for your commitment to personal growth that has allowed you to be the pioneers of the post war generations, and thank you for raising your own children with a very different set of values regarding gender equality than my generation was born into.

But I must now go back to my earlier question about what contributed to my assumption that you, my son, would lose your loveliness as you matured. I see now the impact of war – some part of me had learned that grown men fight, that grown men leave, and I steal myself for that unlovely loss. And I see now how the impact of limited role options available to men for so many years helped sculpt my assumption.

When I was growing up and considering the options for my future – teacher, nurse, stay-at-home mother and wife – my brothers were looking at options limited in other ways. The broad array of career choices men had came at high price. It separated them, sent them away from home, made them persons apart from the family. They were often resented, neglected or ignored and more often than not misunderstood.

Erma Bombeck said:

“When I was a little kid a father was like a light in the refrigerator. Every house had one, but no one really knew what either of them did when the door was shut.”

And we love them nonetheless, and fear their loss with a clutching pain, and if it comes, carry the loss with us forever.

Erma later wrote:

My dad left the house every morning and always seem glad to see everyone at night.

He opened the jar of pickles when no one else could.

He was the only one in the house wasn’t afraid to go into the basement by himself.

He cut himself with when shaving, but no one kissed it or got excited about it.

He signed all my report cards. He put me to bed early. He took lots of pictures, but was never in them.

I was afraid of everyone else’s father, but not my own.

Once I made him tea. It was only sugar water, but he sat on a small chair and said it was delicious. He looked very uncomfortable.

Whenever I played house, the mother doll had a lot to do. I never knew what to do with the daddy doll, so I had him say “I’m going to work now” and threw him under the bed.

When I was nine years old, my father didn’t get up one morning and go to work. He went to the hospital and died the next day.

I went into my room and felt under the bed for the father doll. When I found him, I dusted him off and put him on my bed.

He never did anything. I didn’t know his leaving would hurt so much. I still don’t know why.

I know why, and so do you. Daddies, absent or not, are the center of our world. That’s why we can be so hard on them when they aren’t perfect. We are bolstered by their positive regard and dashed by their indifference or criticism. We expect the world of them. We expect them to always be bigger, and better, and wiser than we are. And in the end they, as we, are imperfect works-in-progress who leave us with the strength of the bent branch.

Many of us lay the expectation of perfect parenting on ourselves as well, and become our own worst critics, carrying self-blame for the imperfections of our young. Perhaps we can give ourselves the gift of self-forgiveness and strive to be like the children – truly our greatest teachers. What do we have to learn from them? Is it their guileless honesty? Their easy access to joy? Their clear and spoken limits, the capacity to love and be loved? Their belief that everything is possible if you believe in it.

And so my dear Brent, firstborn child of my heart, I recognize the blazing light inside you. I recognize the deep and constant river of peace from which you live, and from which you father your beautiful children. You have taught me what your grandfather yearned for me to know – that men do indeed grow in loveliness, if we allow it, and that all that you had the moment before you were born is still with you. Thank you for your courage and letting your light shine. Thank you for being a beacon that shows the way for your brothers, and fathers, sisters and mothers. May we each, in turn, live our life from our light as well. I love you.