Monday, January 14, 2019

The First Aim Of Indian Guides

1. "To be pals forever with my dad."

I was 5 or 6 years old when I built this plywood tool chest in the basement of Little Turtle's (Todd McKinney's) house. It was a project for Indian Guides -- a YMCA pre-Boy Scouts program -- and Big Turtle (Boyd McKinney) had pre-cut all the parts so we could assemble them and get a taste of woodworking.

My dad faithfully took me to Indian Guides and we, along with a dozen or so other men and their sons, sat cross-legged on the floor and with the beat of the tom-tom called the weekly pow-wow to order.

Dar dug this toolbox out of the attic yesterday. I cleaned it up and put some teak oil on it. I'm going to use it to carry my clay tools to the workshops next month. Not because it will function better than plastic. It won't. But just because I want to.

The other morning I awoke with a start to the feel of a man's whiskers on my cheek. What an odd sensation. And what was further odd about it was that it was familiar.
It was Dad.

Oh, I don't mean he was really there. But it was as real as any memory could be of a father’s kiss. Maybe it's just that he'd been on my mind a lot in recent months. Over the past year I've met family I never met before. Conversations have turned to family history. After 50 years absence, Dad has found his way back into my conversations and my consciousness.

We all have to separate wheat from tares in our lives. We all have to make judgments about others for our own self-preservation. Maybe a little grace allows us to judge in the same merciful manner in which we'd allow as how we'd prefer others might judge us.

I think advancing age forces many of us to judge with a bit more of that grace. By now we've walked a few more miles and changed moccasins -- some we chose to wear and others we slipped on supposing they might protect our feet as we stumbled blindly around in the dark.

And by this age we've taken a few turns on the dance floor with hopelessness cutting in for a few numbers. But we’ve been fortunate far, still go home with the hope that brung us to the dance. Despite the rosy dance metaphor, hopelessness is never a kind flirtation. Hopelessness is an unstoppable force. The best that can be prayed for is that it only visits when it's supposed to. At the proper end.

But it doesn't always wait. It apparently didn't wait for Dad. It visited early. 

And it left his family mostly remembering him for his obvious failures. When you choose to leave life early, you don't get to choose who writes your biography.

And the biographies that got written are inconsistent to say the least. Six children who themselves span beyond the length of a common generation are bound to see the man differently. It makes sense. He wasn’t the same man for any of us.

So, some of his children will hold him in high regard. The idea of forgiving him would never occur to them. Forgive him for what?

Others will remember the cruelty of inappropriately high expectations meted out without a matching support of encouragement and instruction. It was all “do” and no “how”. No coming alongside to work with, rather, simply a dictate. No understanding. No motivating beyond “do it”.

A few will remember the cruelty of his constant disappointment at not meeting his standard….though much of the problem lay in not knowing what that mercurial standard actually was. So, we were supposed to get rich by some means that involves work and luck and then what?

A few will remember his cruel derision when he was disappointed.

But in most of those cases, forgiveness comes forth naturally from a fairly standard generational understanding. Fathers aren’t perfect. When the roles change and we are parents, we suddenly understand just how opaque the job of parenting is. We don’t know how to direct children. We are forever discovering that our children’s personalities are so diverse that even if we could figure out a way to successfully direct one of them, the next in line presents a whole different circumstance.

But a few of his children faced or continue to face the need to forgive him for his desertion of us. Toward that forgiving end, it has lately occurred to me more and more often that in the battle, the deserter isn’t the one who dies. To the extent that the end result was his having deserted his family, it should at least be observed with the honest realization that he didn’t desert his family so that he could go off and build himself a better life. He didn’t go looking for hope in some other life with some other family. We weren’t deserted for something he saw as better. He simply gave up. 

It’s a painfully honest admission that that fact is ameliorating at all. It shouldn’t matter. I should be equally capable of forgiving even if his deserting us was for something he saw as better. But it does matter. It does help to understand the circumstance for what it actually was. Again, the result was desertion, but it was not the intent.

And it’s not lost on me. His children did fine without him. Arguably, the one child who had the least of him built the most successful life of us all. That says something.

I didn’t know Dad well. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to understand him. Honestly, I know myself well enough to know that any lack of forgiveness on my part is largely a very unflattering unwillingness to let go of a useful excuse for my own weaknesses and not face my own responsibilities. As long as I can build up this mythical father into something that I can tell myself caused me to be what I am instead of what I should be, it’s going to be really hard to forgive him.

But the whiskers on my cheek felt good. I was instantly happy to feel them. I was instantly happy to feel connected to Dad, if but for a second – and that second perhaps nothing more than a dream state. Maybe I’ll finally get something of a handle on this forgiveness thing.


  1. John,
    Whether intentionally or not, this is a beautiful tribute.
    Many of us, I think, have a jumble of disjointed and abstract perspectives on our family history. You've done a beautiful job here (as usual) of articulating your own clearly painful and complicated path to where you are now. I grew up in a family with 11 siblings,a saint for a mother and a very difficult father. Very little ever met with his enthusiastic approval. Over the years our family has remained very close for the most part and whenever a number of us are gathered I'm always surprised at just how different our memories are of the events that shaped us. You've done a masterful job of illustrating that dynamic.
    I always look forward to your posts and whenever I see a new one I feel as though I've just been given a gift...your writing and expression are that good.
    I wish you the best in that pursuit of balance that we are all striving for. You have a way of describing that struggle that really hits home for me.
    Thanks John.

    1. Some day we're going to have to meet in person. We sure have a lot in common. Thanks for the comments.

  2. masterful John. However intended, I think your words honor your dad. Seems you have longed for him most of your life; now he is coming back to memory (life) for you. bless you.

    1. Thanks, Greg.

      I'll probably have more shop time as spring begins. You'll have to stop by with your fiddle.

  3. Even when you get on well, like I did with my father, there are always the questions you realise with hindsight that should have been asked