Published March 1, 2023
My father’s idea of a good time was digging a ditch. Like my mother, he’d been born in the first years of the 20th century. His father had been an immigrant. His parents had been poor. He entered adulthood with (just barely) a high school education. But he was a relentless worker and master mechanic—a resourceful “grease monkey” in the parlance of the day—and by his mid-forties he owned his own trucking company. All week long he’d push papers and talk to clients. So by Friday afternoon he was ready to tear off his white shirt and lose himself in some serious manual labor. That was his way of relaxing. Painting the garage, mowing the lawns, pruning trees, tending a gigantic vegetable garden that finally swallowed our backyard. And digging ditches for drainage on the acre of land we owned.
My mother was different, and blazingly smart. She never went to college, either, but she loved to read. She came from a big, poor Irish family—ten kids—that was long on religion and short on everything else. Books, for my mother, represented the good things in life, the quality. So she made sure that all four of her own children, by hook or by crook, got great educations. For years during my childhood, she’d critique every composition I wrote. Every line had to pass inspection, and every day there was mandatory new vocabulary to learn. “Words,” she said, “are like an artist’s paints.” So I’d sit, working at the kitchen table with this loving, thorough, gray-haired female copy editor who had delivered me into the world, while outside, framed by the window, my dad would lug wheelbarrows of dirt and fertilizer back and forth, happy as a clam.
What a mysterious man he was. I never really knew him, not the way I knew my mom. My mother was the family’s religious anchor; my father, though a convert and believer, was mainly the enforcer. For Dad, books were weird—not bad, just impractical. We never had a lot to talk about. Part of it was because my parents were older when I was born, but it was more than that. And it wasn’t all my father’s fault. I remember one particular Saturday afternoon in my teens; I walked out on the back porch and saw, way out at the far end of our acre, my father—up to his waist in dirt. He was shoveling away at another ditch, but he stopped and gave me a big, long-distance grin. “Hey, gimme a hand,” he shouted, “spend some time with me.” I thought: The man is nuts. But instead I just waved the keys to the car—his car—and drove off to meet some friends.
All through college I tortured him: drugs, bad grades, threats to run away and get married by an obliging Reform rabbi who taught Jewish theology at Notre Dame. And when I finally brought home the extraordinary woman that I would marry, the woman who went through the debris of my life cheerfully cleaning up the mess, I remember him leaning across the dinner table and saying, with an expression that looked two hundred years old and wearier than death: “It’s about time.” Only later, a lot later, did it occur to me that the worst sorrow my father had during all those years was the anxiety I caused my mother. Because despite all the things in him I saw as mistakes and failures, he loved her better than I did. And he loved me more than I loved him.
Maybe all young men are selfish. It’s tied up in our drive to be independent, to succeed. Maybe without that selfishness, or at least some of it, the world wouldn’t work. But God has a funny way of catching up with you as the years go by. Sooner or later something happens that provides a key to understanding. And once it occurs, the way you look at everything changes.
For me it was the day my mother died. I was alone with her in the hospital; it was my turn on the watch. She’d been sick for several years, and eaten up with illness. My emotions were bone-dry. I assumed the rest of the family felt that way, too: It was time for her to let go, and she did. She slipped away as I sat there beside her. I telephoned my father, and he arrived in fifteen minutes. I waited in the corridor while he went in alone. When I looked inside a couple of moments later, my dad—the big, strong, inarticulate guy I had spent most of my life misunderstanding—was down on his knees with her hand on his face, weeping. I had never seen my father cry before. I never saw it again, ever. But nothing has ever affected me the way that moment did. We too often take for granted the love between our parents, and so we never fully appreciate it.
In my father’s tears were forty-two years of love, marriage, sacrifice, failure, and trying again; of never being able to tell my mother enough that he loved her; of struggling through the Depression together and then pouring out their lives for their kids; of having, at the end of it all, just each other. The story of two people is only really known by God and themselves. And every marriage sealed by love, whatever its mistakes and stumbles, is better than the best novel, because it’s real.
Our own children are grown now, and I’m the grandfather of 11. My dad’s been gone for nearly half a century. I’ve got all the usual distractions—projects, bills, you name it. But I still think of my father, and stop and wonder at his love. He was great at basketball. I was crummy. But he would patiently shoot baskets with me every once in a while on a Sunday afternoon. Funny how you don’t remember that sort of thing until it’s too late. And he would take me to the office and sit me behind the wheel of the huge trucks he sold when my feet couldn’t reach the floor. And he gave me the money to act like a bigshot on my first high school date.
These personal anecdotes are common things. Everybody has memories like these; mine aren’t special to anyone but me. But I’ve learned something from them, finally. I’ve learned that father love is a hard love; hard because a father is rarely understood by his son until the son too is a father. So much of a father’s love can seem stern; so often a child sees no further than a father’s discipline. But ask around: The father who says he likes being tough on his kids is a liar. Fathers want to be loved, and too often they’re lonely.
I’ll close with a note about my own middle son, John. He’s a civil engineer these days with his own beautiful family. But his early years are fixed in my memory. I have lousy business skills; I couldn’t sell water in a desert. John could sell sand in a desert—and that, already when he was six years old. A couple of times a week he would sit down and draw two or three dozen pictures. Then he would set up a table on the sidewalk outside and cajole pedestrians into paying a quarter each for his “art.” I used to watch him through our front window, envious and flabbergasted. How did he do that? And what did he think of the books I buried my nose in every weekend?
John and my dad would have been thick as thieves. Children and their grandfathers share some secret; some sameness or bond of understanding that fathers, because of the responsibilities they carry, just never figure out. But I think God made it this way for a reason. The role of the father is to give; and through that giving to overcome, little by little, the selfishness and ingratitude that come so easily to every child.
That’s the kind of father God is to all of us. That’s the kind of father God put into my own life. So while it’s decades late to say it, though it’s overdue and not enough, I’ll say it anyway.
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center.