Sunday, August 30, 2009

Post No. 133: We Should All Sing for Our Fathers, At Least Once

© 2009, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

“It does not matter who my Father was; it matters who I remember he was.”
- Anne Sexton

Last week a writer described Sen. Edward Kennedy using a long list of nouns, one of which was “father.” When society refers to famous men, it does not often highlight their role as fathers.

The above Sexton quote appeared while navigating a Borders Book Store, along with an overwhelming desire to chat about fathers. Fathers are more than convenient; they are important, as discussed during a recent Fatherhood Symposium here in town, which addressed the lack of fathers in the lives of many young men.

Patt Morrison of the Los Angeles Times once wrote a poignant piece for Father’s Day, in an effort to define a "normal" father-child relationship. Her Father never hit, abused, ridiculed, or demeaned her. She concluded those who view their relationships with their fathers as less than fulfilling, might not fully appreciate the value of peace, security, and consistency of presence and love. She thanked God her Father never achieved notoriety.

A childhood acquaintance and product of a single parent home, who the Logistician had not seen in 40 years, drunkenly mentioned he envied the two parent situation which the Logistician enjoyed. He felt those with both parents could not comprehend what that meant to a kid growing up. That this issue still loomed large for him, 40 years later, said it all.

(Comedian Chris Rock once remarked that the main job of a father is to keep his daughter "off of the pole.")

But two parents alone do not a family make.

A friend lost his Mother when she was 52, and always thought that he had a great relationship with her…she was his Mother.

But it took him more than a few years (by growing older with his Father) to realize that his relationship with his Mother remained largely unfulfilled. It did not extend long enough for them to navigate more turbulent waters: the philosophical differences, declining skills and soundness of mind, the whole sex thing, and the recognition that they both were human with flaws.

Her passing created a giant hole in his library of oral history… she took with her answers to yet to be asked questions, that create not just a memory, but a life, and the string of continuity that bonds generations together… a sense of “us,” as a family.

Some 20 yrs ago, a friend related what he recalled most about his Father, then deceased - the arguments. Another friend, whose upbringing motivated him to attend top universities, travel the world, and acquire a medical degree, rarely had anything positive to say about his Father.

Still a third, a prominent lawyer in the community, visited his Father for the first time in many years at his deathbed. He never was what his Father wanted him to be.

As age creeps up on “immune, exempt, and immortal” baby boomers, it seems that the more time spent on this Earth, the more potentially problematic and complicated our relationships with our fathers become.

As is his want (and training), the Laughingman blames this too on genetics. He claims that our (and our maternal parents’) genes are programmed to turn nasty when kids reach adolescence. Absent enough friction to cause them to leave the nest, there will be no further children, no mating, no propagation, and no future generations chock full of brand new genes to guarantee the health and well being of generations to come.

TCM recently aired I Never Sang for My Father. It is a compelling film… biological lectures not withstanding. Since then, we have been arguing about relationships between fathers and their sons, and ways in which those relationships change over time.

It is the story of a 44 yr old East Coast professor (Gene Hackman), and his relationship with his Father. Hackman has met a young doctor who practices in California, and has school-age children. He wants to marry her and move to California, to start his life afresh, following the death of his wife.

He visits his parents, and first discusses his tentative plans with his 81 year old Father. The Father still treats his son like a 6 year old, and has little time to think about his son’s desires and motivations. However, when the son brings up his potential move to California, the Father says, “It will kill your Mother.”

Hackman has the same conversation with his Mother, and relates the exchange with his Father, without mentioning the purported impact on the Mother. The Mother smiles, says that she and the Father will take care of one another, and that the Son should move to California, get on with his life, and be happy. She relates that she and her husband had their chance at happiness.

Hackman marries, and his Mother dies shortly after. He now has to consider the care options for his Father, who has advancing dementia. His Sister, who lives out of town and was banished by their Father for marrying a Jewish man, suggests he hire some help and move on. We see him visit various nursing homes, all of which leave something to be desired. (Roger Ebert has an excellent review of the movie.)

The Laughingman insists that this is all Hollywood Hog Wash, intended to persuade the gullible to buy into the magic of consumerism. By showing characters based on the figments of screenwriters’ imaginations, they simultaneously promote various elixirs… or even treatments… to dull the pain of not being just like them.

Hog Wash or not, we suggest that the young, either chronologically or emotionally, take the time to enjoy their parents in their youth, and explore the outer reaches of their connection. One never knows where the relationship will go as time progresses.

One thing is certain - all the real world history, to wit: the whys, the why nots, the pain, the failures, and the triumphs that make you, will be gone with your Father… and a great gaping hole will be left in the questions you can’t answer for your own kids.

Be sure to sing for your Father, at least once, before it’s too late.


  1. Well written piece. It explores the complexities of the father-son relationship, raising questions without implying an empirical set of answers. My relationship with my father was, while always strained and full of discomfort, was a strong influence on my life and my own fatherhood.

  2. Thank you Douglas, and we appreciate your continuing visits, even though we can not visit the blogs of our long time readers with the frequency we once did.

    It becomes more complex with each passing year of the relationship.

  3. Laughingman suggests that the friction between parents and their offspring is somehow genetically driven, to encourage the offspring to leave the fold. Does he believe that infidelity, namely one spouse seeking sex outside of the marriage, is similarly based?

  4. Inspector,

    Thank you for your thoughtful treatise on fatherhood.

    I have suffered that "gaping hole" for forty-five years as I lost my Dad in 1964 when I was just a lad. The long-term nature of the absence of that paternal influence does not make it any easier to bear.

    Jeff Dreibus

  5. I've been a long time follower of your blog. Some months ago, in your post entitled, 27 Situations Where People We Respect Claim that Lying is Appropriate, you raised the issue of whether caretakers or children of senior citizens suffering from some type of mental decline should be lied to. Over the past few months, have you changed your view on this subject? At the time of the original article, you suggested that lying to children and senior citizens was inappropriate.

  6. Complex multi-faceted relationships as one, seemingly identical to another, will never be the same as the other.
    In today's world, where our parents are living longer and exposing their children to the world of extended care, etc., that's no consolation to those who've lost parents too soon.
    Whether good or bad or somewhere in between, I hope everyone makes the efforts, whether believed to be their responsibility or not to do so, to re-evaluate those relationships and assign them their proper places in our lives and hearts. It's not about them. It's about you.

  7. Thanks much Anonymous/Blondetwit for your comment. Now that you have discovered us, we hope that you become a regular reader.

    Your comment highlighted the fact that there is no neat, simple, formula to exploring the relationship between fathers and their offspring. Of course, much of the same analysis also applies to mothers.

    In our next post, we hope to explore ways in which conflict between fathers and their children might be minimized, by recognition of the reasons for their different world-views.

  8. At this moment, Turner Classic Movies is airing a Vincente Minnelli film, Tea and Sympathy, starring Deborah Kerr and John Kerr. In a conversation between the two main characters when they first meet, the younger, male student Tom relates that his Mother and Father are divorced, and that he has not seen his Mother since he was 5 years of age.

    The older woman responds that she is sorry, to which the student replies, "Don't be; they aren't."

    He then goes on to explain that he was brought into the world to keep them together. Since they are divorced, he notes, "It's a terrible thing to know that you flopped at your first job in life."

  9. While surfing through Twitter, someone tweeted a quote attributable to Margaret Mead which we found interesting:

    "Motherhood is a biological fact. Fatherhood is a social invention."

  10. Inspector C: very interesting post... My father died at 62 (my age now) when I was 28. I understand very well that lengthy piece of personal history left blank, void by the absence of a parent. What might have been...

  11. Thanks much ConcordPastor for your comments. Visit us often.

  12. Earlier today, NatGeo re-aired its program on Rumspringer in the Amish community. During the period, teenagers are free to explore activities not otherwise tolerated within the church, and after the completion of the period, they must either commit to the church for life, or leave. Interesting concept.

  13. As we type this, the movie which prompted us to generate this post is being shown on Turner Classic Movies.

  14. While surfing through Twitter, someone tweeted a quote attributable to Margaret Mead which we found interesting:

    "Motherhood is a biological fact. Fatherhood is a social invention."

  15. Laughingman suggests that the friction between parents and their offspring is somehow genetically driven, to encourage the offspring to leave the fold. Does he believe that infidelity, namely one spouse seeking sex outside of the marriage, is similarly based?

  16. We just came across this again Independent Cuss, while reviewing some older posts retweeted by others on Twitter. We did not recall that you lost your Father that long ago, and while you were relatively young. We all have some degree of complexity. Based on what we know of you through your writings and our conversations, we think that you did just fine, and that your Father would be proud.


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