I was once like you are now, and I know that it’s not easy,
To be calm, when you’ve found something going on.
But take your time, think a lot,
Why, think of everything you’ve got.
For you will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not.
– “Father And Son” by Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam), 1970
My father died when I was 13 on Mothers’ Day, the year before my freshman year at Archmere. This year marked the 42nd anniversary of his death. It is hard to believe that it has been that long, because I often think about him.
My father was hard working and family-oriented. I remember my dad working around the house on weekends, fixing the cars, repairing window screens, digging in the garden, and taking care of projects for his mother – my grandmother, who lived next door to us. On Sundays, he wore a white shirt and tie all day, from morning Mass to afternoon walks with me along the Delaware River, sometimes to get an ice cream cone at one of the only places open on Sunday in those days.
My father had to quit school when he was in the eighth grade at age 13 or 14, because his father died suddenly at age 50, leaving behind his 40-year-old wife and eight children. My father, being the oldest, had to grow up quickly and take responsibility for providing for the family. He and his oldest sisters left school and began to work – his sisters in the mills on the Brandywine, and my father in a variety of jobs that led him to become a mechanic on the Penn Central Railroad.
Every morning, my mom and dad woke up at 5:30 a.m., and she would send him off to work with his lunch. Sometimes, I would wake up and hear them talking over morning coffee, not understanding the words, but knowing that the conversation was about my three brothers and me, about the extended family, and about getting through the day, the week, the year.
At 4 o’clock every afternoon, my dad would return home, eager to hear about all that happened in my day at school. We would sit down to dinner at 4:30, and sometimes not leave the table for more than an hour or two. My dad was interested in everything I was learning, and everything I did, as he was with all of my brothers. But I recall that as I got older, and my brothers who were 14 to 18 years older than I were married and moved out of the house, I enjoyed the sole attention of my dad at weekday dinners.
Twenty-six years after he died, it was memories of my dad that encouraged me to pursue my doctorate degree. Because he was only able to have an eighth grade formal education, my father instilled in each of his four sons the belief that education was critically important, not just to be successful, but to complete a life journey of inquiry, discovery, and fulfillment. Not having the opportunity to receive advanced degrees, Dad schooled himself by regularly reading the Bible, pouring over the daily newspapers faithfully, and listening critically to the nightly news. Debate on any subject was common in our house – that’s how I knew my Dad.
I have often wondered what our lives would have been like if he had not died so young. While I have so many wonderful memories, it is curious to me that they are not focused around those things we had in common – hobbies, father-son projects, and other bonding experiences. I know he enjoyed music, as do I, and he was always interested in my academic studies. But he and I never spent long periods of time together doing things. We didn’t fish, or hike, or camp together. He was not a sports enthusiast; nor was I, so we didn’t go to games or even watch sports on TV.
My father enjoyed repairing cars and fixing things, and I had little interest in any of it. But I will always miss him, and I will always think of us as close.
In 1990, my wife and I had our first child – a son. Two years later, we had our second child, a daughter. Through the years, I often thought about my relationship to my children as their father, reflecting on my own relationship as a son with my father.
Particularly as they moved through their teen years, I thought about how I never had the experience with my father that were having with me as theirs. Sometimes, I felt disconnected from their interests and daily lives, and I did not have my experience with my dad to know if that was “normal” in the growing up process.
As an example, our son is artistic and athletic. He enjoys all sports. My foray into sports was trying out my freshman year for Archmere’s Track team. Let’s just say I “hit the wall” about a quarter of the way through the second lap. I can still point to that spot on the track where it wasn’t pretty. And that was the extent of my Archmere athletic experience – one and a quarter laps.
Now I have a son who is a three-season sports enthusiast! I wonder how our relationship will mature in the coming years, particularly our conversations using sports vocabulary.
Just two weeks away from Fathers’ Day, we finished the impressive Baccalaureate and Commencement Exercises for the Class of 2014. This emotional time of beginnings and endings, punctuated by thoughtful speeches and heartfelt congratulations, often causes us to pause and reflect on what we truly value, and what is most important in our lives. We recognize the commitment, resources, and relationships that have been invested in these wonderful graduates, with the hope and prayer that they will live fulfilling and happy lives.
As they grow and mature, I pray that you, their parents, seize those opportunities when you can enjoy their successes and support them in their difficulties. And I also pray that you not be discouraged or feel as though you have lost touch, should there be times when you may not feel connected or even shut out from their lives, wondering about how relevant you will be when they become independent adults.
I believe that, while I may not have fished with my son or my father, took apart and reassembled a car engine with my son or my father, or even used the correct terminology to describe a play in hockey, football, baseball, basketball, soccer, rugby, etc., with my son or my father, they both know how much I love them. And the same is true with my daughter, who has an incredible work ethic and unique creativity that continually amazes me.
From my humble experiences, I can say that love supersedes all experience. And if we continue to express the love that creates us and binds us, as we palpably felt at the Baccalaureate and Commencement Exercises for the Class of 2014, then we can only provide the correct measure of support for our children who will respond in kind.
Best wishes to the entire Archmere community over this well-deserved summer break. I look forward to hearing about the countless summer adventures when we return to campus in the fall!