It is now fifty-four years since my father died at age eighty-one. And though I am now ninety-five, I still think of him nearly every day. Sometimes when I’m shaving I see traces of his visage looking at me from the mirror.
He was a little man, 5′ 4” and 125 pounds, but when I was growing up he was strong, and I never thought of him as other than the main man in my life.
He (and my mother) came to Canada from the Lancashire coalfields, near Manchester, England, at the turn of the twentieth century. Long before I was born, he and my mother homesteaded in southeastern Saskatchewan. There, he was from first to last an immigrant. In his Lancashire dialect he could speak in one sentence about “the ‘air on his ‘ead” and in the next about “the hair in the hatmosphere.”
He did not finish even a year of formal schooling; quarantined in grade one due to a scarlet fever outbreak, he never returned to school, for reasons the family has never been able to explain.
At twelve, he went into the coal mines as his father’s helper. He told horror stories of those years — of fistfights underground with other boys over filled coal cars, of the hardship of going underground before dawn and emerging after sunset, thereby seeing daylight only on Sundays during the winter months.
Across his long life, he was a coal miner, a market gardener, a Watkins door-to-door salesman, a merchant, and, especially for me — a father.
You will understand that Dad was not a cultured man, but from his coal-mining family and village society he absorbed solid Victorian values that worked well then — and might add something worthwhile to our values today.
He was exceedingly motivated and worked hard. He stood by his family through thick and thin. He had vocational ideals for his children. For example, he told me that when I was born he envisioned that someday he might provide for me a little service station in town where I could pump gas for a living. I honor him for that long-distance plan.
Even though not an active believer until late in life, his values always included church attendance. Out of family solidarity, he sat with the family faithfully Sunday after Sunday. At sixty-one, he experienced a Christian conversion.
When, at nineteen, I made public that I would go into some form of Christian ministry, he was supportive of the idea; without any fuss, he put aside the plan he had made for me to manage a clothing store in our home town.
I don’t recall that he gave me a lot of time as a child, but he gave enough. I recall the time he took me north of town to the fairgrounds where he helped me fly my homemade kite. He took me and my younger sister out to the open spaces near the high school to play catch.
He had done a lot of boxing in the coal-mining communities of his youth and in turn taught me a little about it, passing on what he himself was good at.
I still think of him nearly every day because the importance of fatherhood has been cultivated in me through a lifetime of ministry. I’ve gone to the maternity ward of hospitals often to congratulate new parents and in some cases especially a starry-eyed father. I’ve visited in homes where things were not going well between a father and son. I’ve preached often on the Fatherhood of God and the light God’s fatherhood casts on human fatherhood.
Sadly, I’ve seen the fading of the vision for fatherhood in society and even in the church. From my perspective, young men who lack the courage to marry and embrace the challenge and responsibility of fatherhood suffer from a lack of imagination. At the same time, I’ve watched new fathers take over the assignment with inborn paternal instincts.
Experts might give my father a “B” grade by today’s standards. He didn’t do for me everything a father could do, but no father ever does. The point is, he did the things that matter. He showed me the value of hard work. He taught me early (and with some fear that the lesson wasn’t sticking, though it actually did) that “money doesn’t grow on trees.”
He valued honesty. He had respect for God. As I grew up and after I left home he showed quiet pleasure when I succeeded in getting the education he only vaguely saw the value of.
And for all of these simple reasons, even though he has been gone for fifty-four years, I revere his memory and thank God almost daily for what he gave me.
Photo credit: Jon Mitchell (via flickr.com)