Monday, February 22, 2010
We watched Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Roger Maris, and the rest of that golden team as if they were gods themselves, dusting Fenway's diamond with her own Red Sox.
My father was as pure a man as I've ever known, not a sissy, but a genuine gentleman. I never once heard him curse, yet he seemed comfortable sitting among the rabble in the bleachers at Fenway. As the Narragansett lager collected in stagnant puddles at our feet, we'd shell peanuts and drink Coke.
One Saturday, we drove up to Boston in his turquoise and white '59 Ford station wagon with a few pals. I had on a pair of white "deck pants" which were popular with the sailing crowd in Rhode Island. Once in the park, my friend Wayne and I explored the stadium, visiting the bullpen where Whitey Ford and Elston Howard were warming up, and making other stops along the way.
By the time we got back to Dad and our cheap seats, my pants had collected all manner of filth, and were no longer blindingly white. Dad smiled in surprise and said "Philip, how did you get so dirty?" "Well, Dad", I said innocently, "It's a filthy place". Like many other times, I had unwittingly given my father a sermon illustration.
I've always thought that his simple farm life had given him a will to sink his strong hands into the rich loam of life, never shrinking away from those who didn't share his beliefs. Rather, he enjoyed them and remembered the names of his mechanic, his barber, and anyone who he shook hands with. (How ironic that this man with a memory for faces and names would eventually get Alzheimer's Disease.)
Both of my siblings named their sons David after that great man, and my sister's son inherited Dad's smile, right down to his handsome teeth. Maybe there is a spiritual kind of DNA which will bequeath Dad's character to my nephew along with the heirloom of his beautiful smile. So far, so good.
People who knew Dad often tell me I look just like him, which pleases me. A while back, I noted to my mother that she is the one person who never remarks at the similarities between Dad's appearance and mine. My postulation is that it might be hard for her to reconcile my Dad-like appearance with my un-Dad-like life, tainted by a failed marriage and a life in the marketplace of rock'n'roll, far from the hallowed halls of what she calls "full time Christian service".
Both of Dad's sons have strayed a bit from the cozy living room of Mom's Evangelicalism. I'm told that "Dad would be mighty disappointed" that I don't define myself as "Evangelical", but it was his tolerance for change which most assuredly allowed his sons to feel safe enough to stray. The way things have gone, I'm not sure Dad would be able to define himself with the E word, either, given the company he'd have to keep.
I wasn't as successful as Dad was at living a pure life, but that didn't seem to affect his respect and regard for me. His purity didn't arise from a sense of guilt or fear, but out of a genuine desire to please his god, and to walk humbly before him.
The idea of being compared to Saint Francis would never have occurred to Dad, but indeed, he lived Francis' credo well: Always preach the gospel, and if you must, use words. Like the beloved saint, Dad loved animals and people, he loved working men and women, yet moved with a confident ease among the rich socialites of his town. The reason for his relaxed stride in the halls of the wealthy was simple: he wasn't impressed by status, wealth, or affluence. Neither did he judge those things.
He was his own man, motivated by his conscience and his principles.
Lest my accolades drip with too much perfection, Dad was human enough to be annoyed by the legalists, bigots, pharisees, and malcontents of his flock. He didn't often voice his displeasure, partly because he wasn't particularly vociferous and partly because he wasn't prone to gossip. I know he was happy when the spiritually superior would give up trying to change him, and leave for a loftier, "spirit-filled" church. If he was intolerant of anything, it was pettiness.
Dad's upbringing among the Amish and Mennonite communities of his Pennsylvania home had indelibly marked him as a man of peace. A strong man, I never saw him raise his fist or act in a macho manner. In the heat of the Viet Nam War, Dad preached sermons which questioned the "Love it or leave it" mentality of many Americans. Though his opinions occasionally went against the grain of his congregation, his loving manner was irresistible to most of his flock.
A trait which I wish I could say of other preachers was that he refused to let anyone know who he voted for or what party he was a member of, if any. There were no bumper stickers on his car, which by the way, was usually a non-descript Ford or a Pontiac, never a Lincoln or a Cadillac.
He owned one pair of dress shoes at a time, and when they were too worn to be respectable, he wore them when he painted the house, or mowed the grass.
He never asked for a raise, and he and Mom tried to live frugally enough to give away as much as possible, a character trait which I both admire and mildly resent. Enjoying a modest life, he rarely indulged in luxuries, thus yielding common pleasures that much more enjoyable. He lived a healthy life.
Before he died, Mickey Mantle said "I'm no role model". A self-acknowledged failure as a father and husband, his sports achievements paled as he looked back at years given to excess. "If I knew I was going to live this long, I'd have taken better care of myself."
Long after Mantle's legs had finally given out from under him, after the Bronx Bomber could no longer swat baseballs over the high walls of Fenway Park, Dad remained a hero to my brother and me, consistently batting close to 1000 in the game of life.
Once in a while, a parishioner would tell me that I was going to be a preacher, just like my dad. I knew this was never to be the case, and certainly hoped they were wrong about my vocation, but I knew I was the recipient of a blessing from the many who made this pronouncement to me. In my soul, whatever remains of that boy still wishes, like all boys, that I was like my father.
I chose quite a different path that my father, and never felt worthy of his mantle. I couldn't quite find a balance between vulgarity and grace, confrontation and passivity, and it took the severe mercy of divorce to bend my back far enough to let go of the burdens I had strapped to myself.
As I have aged, my search for a quieter expression of belief reminds me of Dad's quiet trust in the unspoken way of faith. I remember him less for his words, and more for his actions, his humble and friendly demeanor, and his million dollar smile which betrayed the joy in his heart in a way that words could aspire to.
My shoulders may never feel the weight of his mantle, but my soul will forever be lighter because of Dad.