When I was a boy, I posed a question to my dad: “When will I become a man?”
I’m sure I’m not the first kid to ever ask that question, and while I don’t recall my age at the time of the inquiry, what we were doing when I did the asking, or what put the thought in my head in the first place, I will forever remember the answer my dad gave me.
“When you plant a tree, take a wife, and give the world a son.”
To the reader looking at those words today, my father’s statement probably seems antiquated, harkening back to a time when traditional social mores and gender-based stereotypes went unquestioned. In 2007 such advice might prompt a call to social services or become the focus of heated debate on talk radio, but in the early 1970s America’s cultural revolution hadn’t yet permeated much of the country. Indeed, communities like the one in which I was raised stubbornly resisted encroaching social change, clinging to tradition and self-reliance like a piece of flotsam after a shipwreck.
I’ve thought a lot about those words in the decades that have followed, looking for some deeper meaning. I’m not sure there is one, nor do I think there needs to be one, but if there is it can be found in the source of those words: my father.
On Sunday we celebrate Fathers’ Day. I’m not much of a holiday guy, and I’m not given to sentimentalism (to my wife’s everlasting chagrin), but I will take the opportunity to pay public tribute to my father. The treacle comes without apology.
My dad, the son of a Baptist preacher, grew up during the Great Depression, enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, shipped overseas during the Korean War, and came back to the United States to raise a family. His father, faith, and the Marines reinforced in him a set of strong values based on hard work and personal integrity. I was proud to be known as Herman Spinney’s boy because that name was always spoken of highly, and in my little hometown of Oakham, Massachusetts, I enjoyed tremendous benefit from the association.
I never doubted that my father loved me because he said it enough, and showed it constantly. I don’t recall my dad yelling at me much, though I knew without a doubt when I’d crossed him, or let him down in some way, because he set and lived the example of his expectations. There was never a chance that I could use any contradictions in my father’s life as an excuse to screw up my own.
We didn’t have a lot when I was kid, but I never lacked of anything that I ever needed. The extras (not extravagances) I had held more value that way. One year in high school, after I’d (barely) made the junior varsity basketball team, he bought me a pair of Adidas sneakers. To that point I lived in the same pair of shoes I played in, and I knew that those sneakers were a gesture of his pride in me (even though I’d spend most of the season on the bench). In those days wearing a brand like Adidas said “athlete” more than “fashion aware.” You hung around in Keds or department store sneakers, but you wore Adidas when you were serious about sports. I’m not sure if my father knew that or not, but it was a big deal to me.
After he retired, my dad went on a missions trip to Russia to help deliver clothing, school supplies, and medicine to needy children in Muscovite orphanages. When he came home he decided he needed to go one step further, and shortly after his return my parents told the family they were taking steps to adopt two children – a brother and sister – from one of the orphanages he visited. A year later he went back, my mother in tow, to finalize the arrangements and returned with a new son and daughter who would reoccupy a house that I, the youngest of three, had vacated nearly twenty years earlier. It was a huge decision and commitment for a 70-year old retiree, but nobody who knew him was all that surprised.
I’m about the same age as my dad was when he gave me that benchmark to manhood, and I can’t help but measure myself against what I observed in his life. I find myself wanting by comparison, but I am eternally grateful for my father’s influence on what I have become. My faith, my work ethic, and whatever integrity I have are thanks to the lessons he taught, the expectations he set for, and the example he gave me. I can’t say that I’m confident my daughter will see in me the same level of character that I saw in my father, that she won’t perceive the contradictions in my example that I never saw in my father’s.
I do my best to tell her and show her that I love her, but the other day I joked to her that, if I accomplish nothing else, I hope to teach her to “ridicule that which is different, and to fear that which she does not understand.”
We both got a laugh out of my little joke, but the contrast between my fatherly pearls of wisdom and those of my dad reveals a lot. My daughter is very much the product of my influence in the same way I am the product of my father’s. At times I cringe at the potential long-term consequences of my manner of child rearing, but I know the foundational elements are the same as those that were passed on to me, and there’s comfort in that. Same values, different times.
On Sunday I’ll call my dad and we’ll catch up on what little has changed in our lives over the past couple weeks since we last spoke. Maybe I’ll remind him of the benchmark he set for me those many years ago:
“Plant a tree, take a wife, and give the world a son.”
I’m beyond forty years today, and while I’ve got the first two licked, I’m out of luck with number three; my daughter is and will remain an only child. If that means I’ll always be a boy – Herman Spinney’s boy – I can live with that. Thanks, Dad. I love you.