Father’s Day – a link in the chain of life

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

(Editor’s note: this column was originally published in June 1979.)

There it is again, that uncalled-for glimpse of life in perspective. It must be the great plan of things that graduations and Father’s Day come close together, another milestone and that sense of awe in having been much bigger than my own life.

Looking back to try to trace the chain that ties each of us to the very beginning of time, I can see clearly only one link. And turning toward the future there is only the mist we cannot penetrate, and my child stepping confidently into it.

I never knew a grandfather. My own father’s home disintegrated in alcohol, and his stories of life in a Pennsylvania orphanage and foster homes are all I know of his childhood. But I knew my father as a man and in the 23 years since he died have had time to identify the qualities I valued most in him.

My own middle age was upon me before I fully realized that not all men carry pocket knives and can fix things. I was the daughter, sister, and wife of men who could do with their hands. I admit to disdain for men who are manually inept. There must be a place in this world for the dreamers, thinkers, and planners, but my admiration is reserved for those who can rebuild carburetors.

And figures! Mercy, how easily he brought order and logic to the jumble of numbers mixed into my homework assignments. My children have such a father, but the skill may have to skip a generation until we get one with a male in it.

My dad didn’t know a scherzo from a sostenuto, but music was the passion of his life. His single personal contribution to the performance of the art was to clap the cymbals on the cue of his Lodge’s band director, but he saw to it that my piano lessons went on, at great inconvenience to him, even when we moved to the country.

Did he see in me his own contribution to music? Why am I surprised to realize that each generation sees the next as the fruition of its own unfulfilled yearning? From him, through me, to my woman-child, now passing music on to the generation that follows hers.

When I consider with what relative ease we have seen our firstborn through college, I can hardly believe what my dad was ready to do for me. He was a clerk for a small railroad company, and I remember when the work week did not end for him until Saturday afternoon. For 35 years he worked at the same job, and when he died had moved up to two whole weeks of vacation, and had just reached a five-figure salary.

Or I think he did. It wasn’t at all the thing to do to discuss earnings or expenses; such subjects were mentoned in much the same lowered voice as “pregnancy” or “bad women.”

But talk we did, of other things. I shared with him that special bond between fathers and daughters, satisfied that I was his favorite, and my brother was my mother’s. We talked of the stars and the wisdom that created them. He taught me, as well as his generation could, not to think myself better than others, and to be “tolerant” of people unlike ourselves.

He was a gentle man, with no stomach for arguments and dissension. I only ever heard him “curse” once, and it was to say “damn” about something I did. I was so stunned, I’ve forgotten the offense, but I’ve never forgotten my feelings of guilt that I had made my father commit such a transgression. When he bowed to pray as church services were about to begin, I was sure he was still earnestly beseeching God to forgive him for a sin that was really mine.

He taught me how to handle a rifle, and I used to pride myself on the long stride I developed by walking in his footsteps in the snow as we prowled the mountains behind our home. I can’t sort out, today, how a man could teach me never to destroy a spider, and yet gun down a deer.

Most important, I believe, he taught me gratitude and its manifestation, service. Duty was paramount – it was his duty to provide for his family, it was our duty to do our best in school. And it is duty that compels us to take our place as productive members of society.

Daddy’s gone, and my children never knew him. I am their only link to the past. Daddy was born in 1892 (“The last century,” we used to say). Can my daughters possibly feel as far removed from my childhood as I felt from his?

And now, his ideals and dreams come bumbling through me into shining existence in my child. The music he saw in me has at last been born. The gifts he gave have been passed on, and as I strain to see what’s up ahead, I feel the pull from behind, the steadying hand that guided the bike when I learned to ride, and I have to let them go on alone too.

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