At this morning’s Mass in my parish, a petition during the Prayers of the Faithful was “for all fathers and all others who keep us safe and secure.” The second half seemed to constitute a de facto definition of “father.” This made sense to me as I thought about it. It echoed precisely words that I had heard not very long ago from my mother. She said to me one afternoon when I was visiting, but Dad was out, “Your father is a great, great man.” Now I’ve heard my parents praise each other all of my life, but somehow something was different about the way she said this.
“Your father is a great man,” she went on, “because he’s kept us safe and secure all of these years . . . through all the moves, all the travel, even he didn’t always know what we might face.” Although she was speaking of things on many levels, I knew she was referring, in part, to the uncertainty and insecurity of a black family, even one headed by a United States Army officer, traveling around the country in the 1950s and 1960s. It took a lot of careful planning to maneuver from Kansas City to Houston, through Shreveport and Little Rock, as we did in 1958 for one e xample, not knowing what sort of accomodations would be available to feed and shelter a young family. They didn’t teach the skills to deal with that in ROTC.
In 1961, while stationed in Germany, my father, by then a captain, received orders for Fort Lee, Virginia. Much of that part of Virginia was embroiled in legal battles over school desegregation arising from the Supreme Court’s seminal decision in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, a scant seven years earlier. In some parts of the state, local authorities had decided to close their schools rather than comply with court orders to cease discrimination. My father was firmly attached to the notion that his children’s education was a first priority and that he could not go to any place where it might be in jeopardy. He used his knowledge of personnel rules and a little help from empathetic officers and NCOs to have his assignment changed, without a big fuss, to a base in New Mexico. Four years later, my brothers and sister and I watched the television news in amazement to see kids, both black and white, going to school for the first time at age ten when certain Virginia counties re-opened their schools after their final courtroom loss.
Now what kind of fathers were those who would rather close education to all children than to see children of different races sit side-by-side in the classroom?
My mother went on that afternoon to describe how, in her view, Dad had made various decisions throughout their lives to keep his family safe from divers maladies, social, physical, spiritual. (She didn’t mention her considerable role, but then, this was a discussion about him). Some of these things were fraught with risk and I’m sure that at times, he must have felt like he’d made a wrong turn. But as things turned out, we survived and more than that, we thrived.
None of this came easy for him. He had no natural models to follow. He was a child of divorced parents who lived literally a thousand miles away from each other. In many ways, then, he is quite extraordinary and I will always think that.
On the other hand, every day, millions of men wake up in tough situations and, taking life one day at a time, manage to steer their children through troubled waters. A good father is one who’s doing the best he can with what he has–such a man will succeed more often than not. What such man has is called unselfishness. It cannot be purchased with money, but only by authentic sacrifice and a view that to keep one’s family safe and secure is a duty of the first magnitude.
Today we celebrate these fathers and father-figures for the basic gfits of security and safety.
June 21, 2009 Sunday at 7:22 pm