My Mother’s Day column last year—the May 18 one about honoring an ornery mom—must have struck a nerve, judging by the many letters I received. Some readers asked, What about your dad? It looks as if lots of guys on Father’s Day have a hard time obeying God’s command to honor our fathers.
One reason is that many of us retain grievances. The quirky 1989 baseball movie Field of Dreams gets to me because my dad and I never played catch, nor did he ever come to one of my Little League games. Once, at age 10, I asked him to throw me some ground balls on the street—we had no backyard or green space nearby. He reluctantly obliged, but his first throw went under my glove and kept rolling and rolling. I fetched it, waddled back, and tried to cover up my error by saying, Throw one I can reach. That was a bigger error. He walked inside. We never played again.
I can’t lose that bad memory but can push myself to trump it with a good one. At age 8 I wrote a school report on Israel’s 1956 war with Egypt. I was pro-Israel but had picked up from TV Westerns that firing the first shot was wrong. When I read an account of the war that said Israel had launched a pre-emptive strike, I discounted that and wrote in my draft that Egypt in 1956 invaded Israel. My father was also pro-Israel, but he corrected me. I’ve never forgotten the importance of factual accuracy.
Part of honoring a dad is to let memories of his strengths outweigh the grievances. My father knew calligraphy. He knew the odds against a hand in bridge having no card higher than a nine are more than 1,000 to 1. He knew the frequency distribution of English letters: “e” most often, but folks who think the other vowels follow immediately are wrong. (“T,” “a,” “o,” and “n” come next.) He loved magic squares, arrays of numbers in a box on paper so that their sum in any horizontal, vertical, or main diagonal line is the same.
If we can’t forget our dads’ limitations, at least we can push ourselves to consider them as suffering human beings and not as icons (our childhood reaction) or icons to be shattered (often our teenage reaction). My father was extremely introverted and uncommunicative—once he totaled the car yet neglected to tell my mother—but through his consistent work I always had food, clothing, and a roof over my head. I’ve never had the experience of a wife screaming at me as my mother screamed at him weekly, but he didn’t strike back either physically or verbally—and they didn’t get divorced.
What I don’t have from my father is much of a theological legacy—or maybe I do, in a negative sense. He was an anthropology major in college from 1936 to 1940, a time when not only Nazis emphasized the centrality of ethnicity and race. Many professors stressed being a member of your clan because it’s your clan: Stay within it. Follow its customs, regardless of your own ideas.
The clan teaching struck home for my father, who stayed within Jewish culture although he apparently had no belief in the God of the Bible. I’m thankful that he introduced me to Adam, Noah, and Abraham: Judging from his senior thesis, he did not think they existed, but he never told me that, and my childhood faith valuably left me with unanswered questions. Those questions propelled me into atheism but made a difference in my mid-20s when I learned the answers are in the New Testament.
My father died of cancer three decades ago. He was 67 and I was 34. Three months before he died he didn’t respond to my questions about what he believed, but I should have persevered in asking and did not: Once he dropped the ball, I went inside. So one way to honor fathers still living, even those who seem distant, is to try doubly hard to draw them out while there’s still time. I wish mine were still around. I have no confidence that I’ll see him again, but the Judge of all the earth will do what’s right, and maybe someday, somehow, my father will throw me another ground ball, on grass.