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July 16, 2015

How Fathers Figure in Our Lives: Then and Now

This past year, the fathers of three friends of mine have died, two last week. I've had very meaningful conversations about this transition with my friends--each one so very different in circumstance. I could relate to what is hard to express about the loss of a father. We could speak in a kind of short-hand together.

When my father died, I felt someone had torn the curtain off the world and exposed me, naked, to the entire universe, no veil between the infinity's chasm and me. This was not because my father was some macho figure, controlling, or overly protective. Tall and slender, but always fit, a first impression would not lead you to equate him with force of any kind. Until you looked in his eyes, crystalline, sometimes blue, grey, green, and then, despite his silence, or his few and measured words, you would know by the light in those eyes that he was a powerhouse of spirit. My brother referred to our father as having the energy of tectonic plates. He would move the earth. He would. And in many ways he did.

Shortly after my friends' fathers died, I found this book in an estate sale. It's a souvenir book for a young woman who attended college in Louisiana the year after the Civil War ended. The tradition of a souvenir book was alive and well during my childhood summers in the South. I still have one of them with camp friends' silly and secret messages inscribed within.

At the back of this souvenir album was a lovely letter from the father of the young woman who owned the album: Miss Ella.

Many things about this letter moved me. Its gentleness. The willingness and eagerness (and courage) of a 19th century man for his daughter to have a college education at a time when women were to be dedicated to marriage and servant-hood to their husbands. This father could very well have suffered severe economic reversals during the Civil War; yet he was committed to his daughter's progress and education amidst the ruins left from the war and flying in the face of tradition. Then, even then, there were strong and gentle men, good and guiding fathers. We seldom hear about them or from them unless we find jewels like this.

I share this treasure from the past with those friends who have have recently had that veil against the universe ripped from their daily lives, and to others who remember clearly the day their fathers died. I share it to remind us that neither the light nor the love ends. I offer it in the place of the letters that I know some of your fathers felt, but did not know how to write. One hundred fifty years later on a hot Saturday afternoon, this simple note appears. The odds? There are none.

Colquitt, La. Sept 8th, 1866

My Dear Ella

You ask me to write in your New Album. I can not, nor do I wish to write after the fashion of the day on such pages--mere playing on words and dealing out of flattery.

Yet I am disposed to do what I can to comfort or benefit one, who is so precious in my sight, as yourself.

My child, you are now passing a very important period of your life (the last year at college) never before has time been laden with such momentous matters with you. Your future for time, and perhaps eterntiy, will be foreshadowed by the close of your collegiate course. Shall it be bright!

Will my dear daughter try to write her name high in all that is good and lovely? And make glad the heart of her Father, who is willing to do or Suffer, that she may be wise, good and happy, for this I live and labour.  God has given you the ability. Only use the means in your reach, and I fear not the result.

"Come, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, To whom we for our children cry:
The good desired and wanted most,   Out of thy richest grace supply."

Your Father,
John Wilson