My father was a responsible man. He didn’t play much, worked hard, and was bushed at the end of the day. The “St. Paul Pioneer Press” usually ended up laying flat on his chest about eight at night as he dozed off. The grind of pleasing people all day at the bank was wearing.
Moving from Gilman to St. Paul was meant to provide more opportunities for his children than the little farming community could. This came at a cost. Education needed to be paid for. Hard work was the price. Like most parents, he wanted to give his children a better life than he’d had.
Today many kids don’t have the man in the chair dozing off at the end of the day. “Family” in our time is understood in a lot of different ways. Blended, step, single parent, and single sex parents are all considered to be articulations of the family. Tons of books have been written about these new families and how they’ve come to be. What is missing in many of them however, is the father.
There is a line through the generations. This line can be seen at family reunions most easily in the eyes, noses, hairlines, and wrinkles of older aunts and uncles. As people sit around picnic tables recounting stories from the past, the genetic messengers lodged in aging bodies push similarities and common characteristics to the front. We are more like one another than we are different.
Parents give more than their DNA to their kids. Themes played in families are like movements of a symphony. The blend of notes makes sense and gives direction to the piece. There is a beginning, middle and an end. There are two conductors in this symphony however, directing often in harmony, and at times out of tune. Most times it is predictable. Other times discord prevails, outcomes change, but the music is still music.
Learning to be responsible comes from watching. Watching only one of the conductors leaves part of the music unplayed. The song is frequently good, but it is unfinished.
The message sent repeatedly by the banker was strong. It came through to a second grader pushed to the front of a group of boys who had been acting out on the playground. No excuses, “I did it.” It also came through to a 14 year old who took the family car and promptly put it in the ditch on the way to a friend’s house one wintry afternoon. He told the friend’s father, “I did it.”
Many children have no father to learn from. He leaves, was never there, or is present in body only. The preoccupations of career or self-interest whirl him away from active involvement. A message is sent and received very clearly, “You are not important.”
The need to have a direction, to have a sense of one’s self still remains. So the quest continues, often times ending up with peers, who are basically facing the same dilemma. They also have no one to watch. So they watch each other. Unclear limits, no direction, no one to ask, “Who are you?”
Or the media bombards the young man or woman with messages about what they are to be. This shoe, this jacket, this scent, this tight-fitted pair of jeans points the way. Watching here serves the interest of the ad executive’s bottom line, not the underpinnings of an identity.
There is a line, from generation to generation. While new families give direction, an important part of the song is missing when the father is absent. The line is broken, free fall begins. The safety net has a hole. Some children fall through.