Friday, February 26, 2016

A Father’s Blessing

This is a tribute to my father on his birthday. He would have been 93 today, February 26.

Children grow up seeking the approval of their parents. They learn whatever it takes to please them. I was no different, except that my father was very stingy with his praise. I suppose it had something to do with pride and the Anabaptist concept of “Demut.” I am also sure it had something to do with the way he was brought up.

One thing we had in common: Love for baseball and the Phillies
In addition, my father was an orderly perfectionist and demanded that everything be returned to its proper place. “Who’s been in my toolbox?” I can hear him bellow when I misplaced a borrowed screwdriver by a few inches.

My father was a tradesman and he expected each of his four sons to grow up learning a trade. He valued very much working with one’s hands. He was not only a tradesman, but a craftsman. He took pride in the quality of his work, spending extra time to make sure he got it right—if not perfect. He began with plumbing, then moved to heating and air-conditioning and in the process learned all the trades involved in building.

So after high school, I began working for my uncle in order to learn the carpentry trade. To call the ability that I had with my hands a disaster would have been a compliment. I was assigned all the jobs that required little skill, and my brain couldn’t anticipate the next steps needed in the building process.

My skills were in language, music and writing, none of which were particularly esteemed in my family with the exception of music—if it was four-part acapella hymns. I travelled the world learning several languages and the cultures attached to them. I served nearly three years in Honduras as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War.  I eventually entered the world of academics and became a Spanish teacher.

My father was a Pennsylvanian through and through, and rarely travelled unless it was to visit relatives, especially his children who were scattered across the USA. Even that he did reluctantly, but agreed when my mom insisted. He dragged his feet about attending my wedding in Switzerland, but eventually acquiesced when my siblings paid their airfare and refused to hear any of his excuses. The trip made a profound impact on him, and I’m proud to say that he talked about it for months afterward.

Nevertheless, to say that we existed in separate worlds would be an understatement. I remember when he and my mother came to visit me in Hesston, Kansas. I was teaching Spanish at Hesston College. I wanted to give them a campus tour and I could see his unease at the possibility. My parents were always suspicious of higher education, and often told stories of relatives who went to college and either lost their faith or became so high-minded that they were no earthly good.

To dad’s surprise, a man who worked with him in Civilian Public Service in Grottoes, Virginia, was the president of the college! And the man, Laban Peachey, thanked him profusely for having taken him under his wings and showed him the ropes when he first arrived at the camp. This broke the ice, but we still lived in different worlds.   

Several months before his death, I visited my father in his apartment where he lived independently. It was one room with a kitchen, living room and bedroom all in one area. He slept on his bed and I slept on his recliner. I had just returned from leading a group of 18 students to Guatemala and Mexico for their semester abroad program at Eastern Mennonite University. I was enthusing about the experience and what we had learned together and how much I appreciated my students.

At one point, my father turned to me with a twinkle in his ice-blue eyes: “the experience you had in Honduras really changed your life, didn’t it?” he said. Tears welled up in my eyes as I nodded my head, glowing in his recognition of what had become my life’s calling. But I was not prepared for what he said next. “I really admire you for passing on your passion to your students and to others through your writing. Keep it up.” I was overcome by emotion. Just days shy of my 62nd birthday I received my father’s blessing for my life. It was the last time I saw him alive. But his blessing lives on.