Thursday, June 12, 2014

Provide, Provide

Some have relied on what they knew,
Others on being simply true.
What worked for them might work for you.

(Robert Frost, "Provide, Provide")

One of the earliest disappointments of my life was learning that I would never be as good a man as my father. I realized that, compared to him, I was more equivocating, more flexible, more subtle. These might sound like advantages in life. Life has taught me that they are not.

My father was as sound as a rock. He was predictable in the way that a child absolutely needs. He was straightforward and convincing. You believed what he told you, even if you knew he was wrong. He had failings, and a few imposing shortcomings. But because he didn't see all the gradations of gray in the world around him, he saw more clearly the differences between extremes. For example, one day he was waiting for my mother to finish shopping at a military commissary. One of my mother's latest strokes had left her weak on her right side, so she walked with a cane. Sitting at the front of the commissary next to another veteran, my father pointed my mother out to him and said, "that cripple woman over there is my wife." He was devoted body and soul to my mother. He couldn't see what we now see in the word "cripple." To him, it was an exact description of my mother's condition.

This lack of subtlety made him an invaluable resource for a child wanting to know how the world worked, and how to make his way through it. But I never saw him open a book and read from it. But he could remember, verbatim, some poems he had learned in grade school, like Longfellow's "The Village Blacksmith." One poem, "Somebody's Mother" by Mary Dow Brine, would always make his eyes grow misty and make his voice break when he recited it:

The woman was old and ragged and gray
And bent with the chill of the Winter's day.

The street was wet with a recent snow
And the woman's feet were aged and slow. . . .

His love for his mother, who died of cancer, was a powerful force in his life. It's what made him hate his father, who abused her. It's what made his buzzword, the one slur that made him punch someone in the face who called him it against him, was "son of a bitch" - because it was a slur not against him but against his mother.

On her deathbed, his mother made him promise to always look after my mother, which he did until his own death in 1988. As a father, he was primarily a provider, a bread winner, bringing home the bacon, which he did unfailingly. Though he was a career soldier at a time when soldiers' pay was dog shit, my siblings and I never wanted for anything. In fact, he made it possible for the youngest three of us to get a private school education.

Only once did he make me aware of hidden depths in him. Getting into the car one day, I asked him how he was feeling. "I feel lower than whale shit," he muttered morosely. I was astonished at his words because, never using language like that with me, I knew how very low he must actually have been feeling.

The proudest moment of my life was standing beside his Veteran's Hospital bed in my Navy uniform and seeing the pride in his eyes. He believed that I'd finally made it. Through all the tenuous accomplishments of my life, if someone had asked me, "do you wish he were here to see you on this day?" I'd have said, I wish he were here period, to see me win or lose. In a comment made to one of my older posts, some anonymous reader wrote, "I think your father would be ashamed of you." I replied, "Then bring him back, so he can be ashamed of me."

(1) The rest of the poem can be found here.

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