There Before Me

The very first observance of Father’s Day was held on July 5 in 1908, in Fairmont, West Virginia. Grace Golden Clayton was mourning the loss of her father when, in December of 1907, a mining disaster in a nearby town killed 361 men, 250 of which were fathers.

Suddenly, a thousand children became fatherless.

Grace Golden Clayton came to her pastor with an idea: to celebrate fathers, and fathering.

We come to know the true value of that, in the face of loss.

From the very first, Father’s Day was meant to be personal.

Not so with Mother’s Day, its twin in the universe of American holidays. I find this fascinating. The idea for Mother’s Day originated with Julia Ward Howe, and you may know her as the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and some still remember her as the founder of the very first American women minister’s group, and maybe a few of us know that she was a Unitarian. But she was also an international peace activist, and what she wanted to do with Mother’s Day was not put moms on pedestals but draw them out of the house and into the public square, to unite as many women as she could into a common political cause: protecting children from war.

Mother’s Day is political; Father’s Day is personal.

The contrast is fascinating—and perhaps inspiration for a future sermon.

But not today. Today we’re going personal, and I join Don in sharing a personal story.

But which one?

Will it be about the pitch pipe I still have, a round silvery UFO looking object that lies nestled in a small red plastic box with the words “Master Key” emblazoned on the top?

Master key

This was from my barbershop chorus days, which were my high school days. Every week, Dad would take me and my younger brother Chris to go harmonizing with generally middle age and older guys who seemed way too enthusiastic about a night out of the house and with the gang.

I sang lead, Chris was a tenor because he had the piping voice of a seven-year-old, and Dad, with his big belly, sang bass.

Dad was a medical doctor workaholic whose dress always featured a pager clipped to his belt and it was always going off at the most inconvenient times. For example: when we were watching Raiders of the Lost Ark and it was early in the movie when the huge round boulder was rolling fast down upon Indie and he was scrambling to survive—remember that scene? BEEP BEEP BEEP! And dad was up and gone to the lobby, to call in. There was always a hospital emergency he had to fly to.

I remember rolling my eyes so far up into my sockets it hurt.

But now I see how he leveraged what time he had. We sang barbershop together. He did that with us. How smart that was—to find an activity we could all do together.

He’s not sitting on some bench somewhere, watching. He’s with us.

And it wasn’t the first time. Years earlier all his sons took up Ukrainian dancing lessons, and while his kids were triple-stepping and toe-heeling and doing merezhkas, he was trying hard to keep up, red-faced.

But he was right there.  

I never recognized this pattern of finding ways for us to do things together, until now.

And I wonder—and not for the first time—why his absence gives me the space to see him more fully, beyond the developmentally appropriate self-centeredness of my youth, and all the mixed feelings I have always had about him….

But maybe the story I tell here should aim elsewhere. What about the Captain and Tennille eight track tape from the 1970s?


Dad would pop it on, or Abba, or Neil Diamond, as he’d drive me to the ice rink, at 5 o’clock in the morning, and in my memory the Northern Alberta landscape is always white with snow and blueblack cold, and the steam from his coffee almost freezes mid-air. This is how Dad supported my skating. Driving me to the rink at a godawful hour in temperatures that felt like we were on the moon.

He’d drop me off, then get a couple hours in at work. I’d skate a few sessions (one patch, one freestyle), then Dad would come back and take me to school.

It feels like Robert Haydon’s beautiful poem, which features another setting in which the cold is blueblack, but the father breaks it, splinters it, by lighting the house’s stove.

Love’s austere and lonely offices….

And now I know the story I need to tell. Not about the pitch pipe, not about the eight track tape. But about this:


This water stone. Greenish—dark veins running through it. Criss-crosses, whorls, turbulence that looks just like the river he must have originally picked the stone out of, then held the weight of it in his hand, then put it in his pocket.

This would have been years before he had even met my mother. Probably when he was a Boy Scout, on one of his expeditions into the wilds of Alberta.

I’m actually making that up. I have no idea when he found the stone, what the circumstances were. What I do know is that from my earliest memories, the stone was there on his desk, in his clinic office, side by side with an ashtray—usually full of stubbed out cigarettes.

Because back in the day, people thought smoking was good for you.

My elementary school was just a few blocks away and, when school was out, usually I’d head over to see him and do my homework in the doctor’s lounge. I’d fix a cup of coffee that was half-coffee, half-sugar and milk, and boy, did I like the sensation of that vibrating throughout my six-year-old body, as I did my arithmetic and read my stories….

And when I’d wander into his office—which I had to do carefully since it was past the examination rooms and I didn’t want to encounter a patient—fascination engulfed me. My Dad. His things. The smells.

And always, the beautiful, green smooth waterstone, there on his desk.

I couldn’t take it, but I could find my own, and so, when school was out and the weather was nice, I’d take my purple banana bike and ride it into the hills near my house. Prop the bike on some boulder or something—never had to worry about it being stolen because this was Northern Alberta and there actually weren’t very many people there anyhow. I lived in a town of just 5000 folks. I’d leave my bike without a thought and hike into the hills until things leveled out and train tracks filled my sight, extended into the distance.

I’d walk the tracks and every once and while I’d find agates. I loved their creamy colors, the swirl patterns that made me think of the Milky Way.

I’d find an agate, take out of my pocket a tin that had once held Sucrets, drop my new agate in, and it would find a home with a satisfying clack.

Years later, I would find myself in the mountains near Colorado Springs looking, not for agates, but for crystals of Amazonite. I’d find them blossoming out of dull chunks of granite, like turquoise flowers. Lovely.

This was just for one year, 1979-1980, when I trained with all the Olympic skaters. I spent that year going to my 9th grade school half-day, and then, for the rest of the day,  I’d be on the ice.

Fast forward and now it’s 1999 and I’m on the shore of Lake Michigan at a retreat center north of Chicago. The day is gray. The water rushing onto the shore, and then pulling back, sounds strangely like leaves rustling loudly in the wind. I am here because this is the annual retreat for my seminary, Meadville/Lombard Theological School, and for the first time I am meeting professors whose words will bring forth ministry in me and through me, and I am meeting colleagues who I will laugh with and cry with throughout those challenging years, and I still do.

And on that shore, feeling so full of possibility, I am looking at nothing but the ground, scanning it like a prospector for gold, except my goal is to find round and flat stones with quartz veins that bisect them, very neatly. Each stone two-sided. I’m not sure why. What did it mean for me back then? For a stone to symbolize a truth of my life? That there is a part of me that I knew—and then another part that was still mystery?

And now fast forward one more time. It’s the first several months of 2013, and I am living into my sabbatical, and one of the main things I am doing is coping with my divorce and its aftermath. And I find myself a little like Forrest Gump—the part of that amazing movie where Forrest doesn’t know how to process the loss of Jenny and so what he does is just run. He runs all across America. He runs and runs and runs like he’s trying to figure it out with his feet, what to do, what’s next.

As for me—I walk. Miles and miles. Praying with my feet. Praying to be made whole, to be made better. And this is when I discover the walking trails that are abundantly available in Atlanta. One being Island Ford Park, off the Chattahoochee River near Roswell. I’d walk the trail, and there’s a certain stretch where the pathway stones are micaceous. Mica occurs in flat flakes that shine golden in the sun, so the path would wink at me, as I walked.

I couldn’t help picking up a stone or two, from that path. To give me cheer.

And I’m only now realizing—only now, once again—that in all the times of collecting agates, or amazonite crystals, or flat round stones bisected by quartz, or stones shiny with mica flakes, that I have always imagined myself as having invented rock collecting for myself. Like I did it all myself.

Whereas, the truth is, he was there before me. My Dad.

The beautiful, green smooth waterstone, there on his office desk, like a planted seed.

It wasn’t just barbershop chorus singing, or Ukrainian dancing, when he was with us.

He has always been here. He is in me and lives through me, in ways both known, and unknown.

This came to me in yet another way, around the time of my daughter’s wedding this past May. My older brother Rob came to celebrate the beautiful day with me, and it had been a couple of years since I had seen him. So it felt novel to be with him, and I found myself kind of looking at him sideways as he did his Rob things and acted in his Rob ways. He’s an introvert but there was a moment in a line at a Starbucks where he started a conversation with two cute college students and he was charming and chatty. Where did that come from? And, more to the point, it’s a whole lot like something I might do!

I had always seen him as Ernie to my Bert, Felix to my Oscar, but maybe I need to rethink things.

Once, we were headed out of my parking garage and, as usual, the gate that lets you out took forever. In my head a voice said, “It’s almost sullen in its slowness—as if it just doesn’t like you.” And almost at the same time Rob said, out loud, “Don’t think it has a grudge against you—or maybe it does!”

Amazing. We share the same sense of humor.

But how is that so—to be so alike even though we are two separate people, and our lives have gone such different ways?

Again and again, it’s Dad. His energy and enthusiasm. His sense of humor. What Rob and I reflect in and through our own lives.

Maybe that is the part of being a father that is the most lonely and austere: that you are present, but no one sees it.

Well, I see you today Dad. God, you screwed up in so many ways. But I am past being judge and jury of you. Same goes for Mom.

Today, I am just thankful.  

You were there before me, and you are with me now.

Now, with us, here, all our fathers are.


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