Literate Madmen

My experience of paternal parents growing up never led me to think Father’s Day was a holiday particularly worth celebrating. (Don’t panic—today’s not Father’s Day!) I do have an ironical sense of humor about the commemoration, though. So the other day when I clicked through one of Amazon’s many daily ads to my email account, I noticed it was for Father’s Day gifts. The first item listed was Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Probably based on my browsing history, I thought. But no, I’ve been looking at non-fiction lately and I bought my well-worn copy of Dostoyevsky before Amazon was a gigabyte in Jeff Bezos’ eye, back when I was in seminary. Then it dawned on me: this is perhaps the most famous patricide novel ever written. Had the Amazon advertisers really thought about what they were recommending? “Here, Dad. It’s a book about sons killing their father.” If marketing is driving America, it may be time to pull over at a rest stop for a coffee break. Or at least read the book first.


I don’t pay attention to when Father’s Day is. It comes somewhere in that complex of spring holidays that include Passover, Easter, Mother’s Day, and Memorial Day. When my father was alive I sent him a card. It was a card to a stranger, but as Episcopalians know, it’s the done thing. I loved him, but I didn’t know him. Not that I’ve been a parent that deserves a holiday dedicated to my skill either. I confess my fair share of parental failures. They play and replay in my head, in the way the Protestant brain can never quite clear itself of guilt. We, as people, I believe, generally try our best to be good parents. It can be difficult, though. Nothing really prepares you for it.

One of my brothers once told me that, after having a girlfriend with kids from a previous marriage, he better understood how our stepfather viewed us as inherited children. Although I always want to claim the victim role in that scenario (I was only ten, what could I do?, etc.) his insight has stayed with me. It can’t be easy to inherit someone else’s progeny. It’s tricky raising your own child—that new person you want never to experience your own disappointments in life. Even cynics can be sentimental. But then again, I’ve been plowing through The Brothers Karamazov again since January, frequently laying it aside for weeks at a time. It’s not the kind of book I’d give a father on the edge. It’s okay, I think I’m good to drive again. I just won’t pay any attention to the ads I see beside the road.

Father’s Day

DadI’m not completely stupid.  I know that the Father’s Day ads with which I’ve been peppered all month are nothing personal.  They’re intended to tug at the sentimental heartstrings and get me to spend some money on dear old Dad.  As one of the generation for whom computers were a new household commodity well after college was over, I know that I’m part of a fairly large demographic of middle-age users.  I do wonder, when I see these ads, how many other readers ponder the fact that their fathers have died and that Father’s Day is an occasion as much of mourning as it is of celebrating.  While I know, dear reader, that you’re not my therapist, my father died many years ago after a lifetime of separation from my brothers and me.  I can’t claim to have known him, except in unguarded moments looking into the mirror at the blue eyes he contributed to my genetic code, along with other aspects I can only imagine.
Father’s Day can, of course, be a day to honor the memory of, as well as buy things for, dad.  Holidays, however, aren’t really holidays without the changing of hands of lucre.  Although I never tried to think much about it, I never spent a Father’s Day with my father.  I know I’m not alone in this, but many are the days when I believe I would have benefited from a bit more instruction than I received on that front.  “Majoring in religion is not the best career choice,” might have been one of those nuggets I could’ve done with hearing.  The women in my family seemed  to think it was okay.  Even one of my dad’s ancestors was a clergyman.  I like to think that fathers might be able, in some cases, to see farther than their sons.  Call it male bonding.  Call it being a man in a post-patriarchal world.  Call it confusion.
I’m all for honoring parents.  I also tend to think people are basically good and that by far the majority of people try to do what they think is right.  They may not have much with which to work, but they try.  I can also think of better ways of honoring them than spending money.  Maybe we could try restructuring society so that those who start out with little might have resources available to move ahead.  If some father’s child has obvious gifts, might we not offer a way for that child to use them and thrive?  As a father myself, I can think of nothing that would make me happier than to see my child have better prospects than I’ve had.  Instead I see a society of one-percenters encouraging us to spend a bit more since, after all, fathers measure their worth in stuff.  The stuff that really matters, at least for this father, include those no longer here as well as those who are yet to inherit.

Patriarchalism or Party?

Father’s Day is a “holiday” I treat with great ambivalence. Having barely known my own father, I applaud those dads who devote enough time and energy to their kids to earn a day of recognition. On the other hand, in a society that continues to foster privileges for men in the market and labor worlds, I wonder if men need their own holiday. I suppose one must separate “father” from “men,” since the day is the celebration of an ideal rather than a gender.

“A good man is hard to find,” so the old saying goes. Maybe that’s why there was never a father’s day in the ancient world. Anyone reading the ancient myths, the way that many fathers behaved, well, it’s no wonder they weren’t celebrated! Cronos, in some traditions Cybele’s husband, actually ate his own children. Not much of a motivation for celebration there. Were the gods made in the image of the metaphorical fathers?

In the United States the first Father’s Day was observed in Fairmont, West Virginia in July 1908. It has been suggested that a mine disaster that had killed over 350 men nearby was the inspiration for the day. About two years later in Creston, Washington, Sonora Smatt Dodd celebrated her father who’d raised six kids mostly by himself. President Woodrow Wilson was famously celebrated by his own family, and President Calvin Coolidge proposed the holiday in 1924. An early supporter of Father’s Day was the politician William Jennings Bryan, famous for his stand on what he understood as family values. President Lyndon Johnson set the day as the third Sunday in June. Father’s Day only became official in 1972, under President Richard Nixon. Still, it seems to be a day established by men for men, smacking a little too much of the self-congratulatory.

Back before cell phones were invented, Father’s Day was the biggest day of the year for collect phone calls. Perhaps that phenomenon is the essence of the holiday. From those to whom more is given, more should be expected.