Celebrating Fathers’ Day


 

 

Tomorrow is Fathers’ Day, and I know we are all expected to celebrate it. Fathers are special and should be honored on their special day.  It is supposed to be a day of wholesomeness, warm feelings, sentimentality, and unbounded familial love. That’s what all the Fathers’ Day cards say, anyway.

But, there’s a lot of mixed emotions, and turmoil under the surface of having the barbeque, giving a card, and a nice present.  Or, to be on the receiving end, and be thanked as a father in someone’s life.

There are so many strings attached, so many thoughts and memories that come to the surface, so many conflicting and unsettling experiences to sort through and try to make sense of. All the sentimentality and idealism can be a trap for the emotionally wounded, those of us who have other emotions and memories about fathers, the ones you can’t find in a Hallmark card.

And if Dad has passed away, or is otherwise absent in one’s life, there’s grief and the psychological jungle of things left unsaid, words that we regret, or words that we are desperate to hear or speak.  Those children have no place and no role to play in a day of a sentimental card, a barbeque, or a gift of golf balls.

We don’t talk about that emptiness, that pain, but we should.

What is a good father?  Even our cultural heroes and role models aren’t really what we had imagined, or thought of as solid, stable figures in our lives.  When my wife and I were raising my stepson, we watched Bill Cosby’s show, and I thought he was the good dad — sensitive, kind, compassionate, the kind of dad I wanted my son to emulate in his life.  Yet, that image of wholesomeness and stability has been dashed on the rocks of reality, and a conviction for predatory abuse and exploitation.

In my own life, I have seen stories and accepted history and experiences being altered by unsettling revelations, confessions, and recovered memories.  The charming and comfortable portrayals of healthy and good parents have shifted, from the fall of Dr. Huxtable as the all wise and kind father figure to the realization that real life isn’t always the story of Leave It To Beaver or Father Knows Best.

 

 

One thing that is absent in our society’s Fathers’ Day celebrations is a conversation about what is good fathering, and how we can strive to be better fathers, and better sons and daughters.  We need to look at new gifts to give on dad’s special day, other than a new tie, tools for the barbeque, or golf balls.

Good parenting is a skill, and we need a day to ponder that, and have a real conversation about being the great dad, and how we can build healthier families.

In reality, living in the world of truth really is better for me than fiction, the fantasized and idealized “perfect world” created by Hollywood and our society’s desire to sugarcoat our historical reality.

Though, part of me longs for the dream world of the idealized childhood, and the warm and fuzzy images of the ideal Fathers’ Day experience. Part of me wants the nice sweetness of Dr. Huxtable, Ward Cleaver, and Sheriff Andy Griffith to be part of my Fathers’ Day party.  But, those icons of healthy fathering aren’t in my reality, and I’ve hopefully learned how to separate the television fantasies from truth.

If fatherhood had a god, it would probably be Janus, looking both forward and back, showing us how those two perspectives can often be contradictory.  Life is messy.

My experiences as a father always involves looking back as my experience as the son, and realizing that much of my fathering work is shaped by how I saw my father parented me. I’ve had other men who parented me, too, sometimes in momentary blips of insight, compassion, and correction.  And, I’ve become increasingly grateful for those fathers who took it upon themselves to get my attention and offer some kindly, and often needed, direction and counsel.

Like Janus, I’ve looked back on that work and hopefully used that wisdom in my own work as a father.

I’ve mentored a number of young men who have needed some fathering and attention to the tough business of growing up in this world.  I’ve drawn upon my own experiences as a son, and as a father, and helped guide them through their own storms and battles.

The reward in that is to hopefully give them a better experience that I’ve had as a son, giving direction and guidance, without a lot of the harsh judgment and anger that can easily derail a young man in his journey.

I’m not the perfect father.  And, I certainly wasn’t the perfect son.  I’m content with that, but I also know that this work of fathering is really never completed, that there are always going to be opportunities to be fatherly, and to give to others what I have needed in my past.

If we are mindful of that work, and those challenges, perhaps that is what we should be thinking about on Fathers’ Day.

6/20/2018

Fathers’ Day — Shifting The Sun


Fathers’ Day raises a wide range of emotions and reflections for me, giving me a rollercoaster ride of thoughts.  This poem helps me sort all of that out, and make some sense out of being a son of a number of men who were dads to me.

 

Today, I was a dad to a young man in prison.  We were out in the garden, admiring his gazebo he had built.  It is his first experience with wood, hammers, nails, and drills.  He has struggled with its design and construction, but has accepted the help of others, and has applied his own talents, and his own eye for beauty and simplicity.

 

His gazebo is a work of art, and his very own creation. It looks good, and fits well with the rest of the garden.

 

I expressed to him my thoughts on its stability, its beauty.  He tried to put himself and his creativity down, but I kept at him, praising him and his talents.  He told me he wanted his dad to be happy with it and tell him he liked it, but he was afraid of letting his dad know what he had built.

 

I saw that familiar fear of rejection, that sense of “I am not good enough” in his face.

 

I became his dad for a few precious moments, letting him hear words of praise and adulation fill his ears. I let him know he was a good man, a man of talent and ability.

 

He smiled, and shook my hand.  And, perhaps, in all of those few minutes, there was a feeling that he was, indeed, a man of worth, a man of value and talent.  And, there was a dad in his life who thought he was worth something after all.

 

Shifting the Sun

When your father dies, say the Irish,
you lose your umbrella against bad weather.
May his sun be your light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Welsh,
you sink a foot deeper into the earth.
May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Canadians,
you run out of excuses.
May you inherit his sun, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the French,
you become your own father.
May you stand up in his light, say the Armenians.

When you father dies, say the Indians,
he comes back as the thunder.
May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Russians,
he takes your childhood with him.
May you inherit his light, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the English,
you join his club you vowed you wouldn’t.
May you inherit his sun, say the Armenians.

When your father dies, say the Armenians,
your sun shifts forever.
And you walk in his light.
~ Diana Der-Hovanessian ~

Fathering Time


 

Fathering occurs unexpectedly, often in the richest, most productive ways.
Undefined, unlimited by the clock and the calendar, those moments of rich, intense interaction suddenly come into our lives, without us often being aware until it comes upon us. In the moment, space opens up between us, and the energy, the love, flows.
Wisdom comes out of our heart and, often unspoken, shared. Emotions pass between us, and the gifts of the moment are exchanged.

The refrigerator calendar announces that Fathers’ Day is coming, but the fathering moments don’t pay attention to that, nor do these heart to heart conversations need to have a Hallmark card or a boxed up tie to get the juices flowing, to say what is deep inside of us, as we reach out to someone we love, and just be a dad.

This work we do, being the dad, a small moment of reaching out, giving a compliment, a hug, sharing a few words of wisdom, comes at unexpected moments. The phone rings, there is a welcoming silence in the car, or time to put your arm around someone and give a squeeze, and then, the moment is gone.

Life gets busy, and the daily to do list is calling. But, I try to find those moments to do my real work, the important work, of just being there, listening and speaking with my heart, just being a dad.

—Neal Lemery 6/16/2015

Gift Suggestions for Father’s Day, Gifts That Make A Difference


Father’s Day is coming, but I’ve already received my presents. And, I’ve given some, too. There’s no place in my life for ties. I’m not a golfer, and I don’t need cigars or fine whiskey. I don’t have dads around anymore to celebrate Father’s Day with, but I do have sons. Sons need gifts, too, and they need to be part of celebrating fatherhood.

“My father gave me the greatest gift anyone could give another person, he believed in me.”
—Jim Valvano

“It is not flesh and blood but the heart which makes us fathers and sons.”

—Johann Friedrich von Schiller

There are a lot of sons in my life, young men I listen to, and talk with about their lives. My task is giving them what I hope are some good examples of how to live one’s life, and how to grow into healthy manhood.

I take time for them, listen to them, hear what is truly on their minds, their fears and their dreams.

My most important gift to them is a steady, sincere belief in all of their possibilities. If they sense my intention to completely and unconditionally support them in their struggles to be good sons, to be healthy, productive young men, then I have done my job as a friend and as a father in their lives.

I show up, and I am present in their lives. I listen, I try to understand, I am with them in a bit of their journey in life. Other men in their life, other fathers, aren’t around, and aren’t there for them, when their journey gets a bit tough, when they’re not sure of their way in the world.

I’m there. I fill up their mug of coffee, and I look into their eyes. I’m open to hear about their lives, and I care.

Sometimes, there’s awkward silence, and sometimes, there is a torrent of stories and emotions. Sometimes, we just sip coffee and play cards, or talk about the weather, or what they are doing in school. But, even then, we’re reaching out to each other, learning how to do this fathering dance, and opening up their hearts.

These sons need someone to believe in them, to give them that sense of importance they need to find their place in the world, to be confident in who they are and where they are going.

I give them my heart, and I listen to their stories. I cheer them on, and am the quiet, steady voice in their corner, urging them forward, letting them know they matter.

I receive a lot of gifts back from these young men, these sons who are going out in the world, and making a difference in their lives, and making a difference in the world.

They are taking on the tough issues, and working hard to change their lives, moving ahead, and taking on the tough jobs to reorder and reshape their lives. They are in school, working in demanding jobs, having meaningful relationships based on love, mutual respect, and self actualization.

They are reshaping their lives, and helping others change, and become the person they want to be.

They’ve learned to ask the tough questions, and to reform their attitudes and their ambitions, growing into healthy young men, and truly being productive.

They are believing in themselves, and seeing all of their possibilities. They take on their struggles, their self doubts, and they are learning to not listen to those voices in the past that told them they were failures, that they weren’t good enough. Instead, they are the believers and the preachers of love and compassion, the builders of a healthier family and a healthier community.

These are the gifts that matter. These are the gifts on my list for Fathers’ Day.

—Neal Lemery, June 10, 2014

Finding The Right Fathers’ Day Card


I walk past the large display of Fathers’ Day cards in the store, not even stopping to browse, to find the perfect card to send to a father. A twinge of sadness stings my gut, bringing back that old feeling, a mixture of grief, loss, and an emptiness that can’t be filled.

The greeting card companies and the TV ads tell me I’m supposed to make Fathers’ Day a special day for my dad.. But, they’re missing the point, and they sure don’t understand my life and how I think about Fathers’ Day.

Dad has been gone for most of my life. And even when he was around and I got him a card, he’d just nod, barely saying the “thank you” I’d been craving. My step dad has been gone a long time, too. I knew he liked my cards. He’d smile and give me a hearty handshake. We knew where we stood with each other.We just didn’t say them. Talking about love and fathering wasn’t part of our conversations. But, we knew. And, that was enough for me.

My father in law liked my cards, too. He’s chuckle and laugh, and there’d be a twinkle in his eye. He got a lot of attention on Fathers’ Day, and he knew he was loved. He gave it back, too. In spades.

This is the second year without him, and the emptiness inside of me as I look at all the choices on the card rack gets a bit deeper with me.

I’m on the other side of the coin now. I have a bunch of sons. My step son and I are close, even though he’s about six hundred miles away. We can share our love easily, with just a smile, a joke, or something funny we e-mail to each other. We still joke with each other, still playing pranks on each other with a silly plastic lobster. A few weeks ago, I found Mr. Lobster, again, and he starred in my movie, the one I made on my iPad, and sent to my 42 year old son.

A few hours later, my son sends me an e-mail. He’s in hysterics over my three minute movie, and invites me to share it with the rest of the family. I’m not sure he thought I would, but I did, showing him I, too, can make my way around You Tube, and make some jokes again, with Mr. Lobster.

One of my foster sons flies his paraglider way up in the air, sending me videos once in a while, looking down at the far away ground, or a jet liner flying under him. He knows I’m scared of heights, and I worry about him jumping off cliffs and flying high in the air, turning summersaults and making loops. I know he’s laughing every time he sends me his latest aerial adventures. It’s his way of saying he loves me, that he’s doing just fine.

I have other sons now, too, the young guys I mentor in prison, and some of the other guys there, too. The young man who makes the coffee drinks at the prison canteen on visiting days knows my usual order, and gets it started the moment I walk in the door. Other guys show me their art work, or tell me about doing well on a test, or moving ahead in their treatment. I get a lot of “Hi, Neal”s when I show up on their special days, or sit in on one of their activities, being a dad in their lives.

Their own dads don’t show up much, if at all. So, I like to give them a smile and a handshake, just to say hi, just to say that they are important.

I don’t find the “sons” section in the Fathers’ Day cards. There are the golfing joke ones, the religious ones, the silly ones, even the stepdad ones now. But, there aren’t any cards that say what I want to say, “Good job, son. Thanks for being the son. Without the son, there’d be no Fathers’ Day.”

“I’m proud of who you are, what you’ve become.”

That’s what this day is really about, sons and daughters. The dad takes on the job of helping to raise the child, to teach, to listen, to wipe snotty noses and change dirty diapers, and help them with their homework. And, to listen and counsel, and show them, by example, how it is to be a man, to move along in the world, being healthy, and wise.

I don’t have daughters, but I know they’re watching their dads, too.
“How are you at this man stuff? How do I live with you? What kind of man do I want in my life? And, while you are at it, teach me about trust.”

It is the biggest job I’ve ever had. A lot of teaching of respect, and capability, and a lot of unconditional love.

We’re supposed to show them what love is all about. And, respect. And, compassion and learning about this crazy world.

Being a dad is really learning how to be a good example, to be watched, and judged.

“How ARE you doing as a man?”

“Show me. But, I expect you to do it right.”

No pressure there!

And, by the way, the manual on all this stuff is out of print, and I can’t find an old copy on Amazon.

We’re the guys that wait by the door at night, making sure they get home safe from that party, or that big date. We’re there to listen, to nod, to simply be there, keeping the porch light burning, to be the guy who cares that they do have a home to come back to, after a day of being a teenager in a harsh, often indifferent, cruel world.

We give the hugs, wipe the tears, and look them in the eye, quietly telling them we believe in them. All things are possible. And, they are loved.

Such simple things we do. But, when that simple stuff gets neglected, or no guy is behind the front door when they do come home late at night, then all hell can break loose, and their fragile ships at sea too often crash onto the reefs and sink in the storms.

And, we’re the guys that haul the laundry sack to the laundry room, when they come home for the weekend. And, we fire up the barbecue, and cook their favorite foods, letting them hang out with their old friends. We often take a back seat then, letting them visit and laugh with their friends, as we flip the burgers, and get more potato salad out of the frig.

There will come the time when they’ll sit down with us on the couch, after the party, and after a long day at the beach with their friends. Then, they’ll talk, a bit shy at first, then going deep, talking about the serious questions of life that a young man has, once they get out in the world, and have to deal with all of life’s adult problems and worries.
Then, we listen, and we listen hard. Sometimes, they ask for advice, but mainly, they just want to talk, to show you they are doing OK, that they learned a lot from you about life, that they are doing pretty good at it.

And, we let them know, right back at them, that they’re doing a good job, and they we believe in them, and take pride in who they are becoming.
It’s pretty easy to sit there and listen, and to nod, to say a few words of encouragement.

You see, fatherhood is a whole bunch of just showing up, just being present in someone’s life.

You don’t need to give them your DNA, but you do need to give them your time, and your love. That’s fatherhood. That’s being a real man.
The good work comes in just answering the phone, or texting something sweet back, in the middle of the night, letting them know you are around, that you care.

I get my thanks, then, for being the dad. I get that when they don’t call for a couple of weeks at a time. I know they are fine, they are making their way, needing their independence, flexing their big boy muscles and making their way through life.

Someday, Hallmark might figure it out, and start selling “I love my kids” cards for Fathers’ Day. But, until they do, I’ll just keep on doing what I do best, loving all my kids with all my heart, and telling them, every chance I get, that I love them.

–Neal Lemery
June 11, 2013