Issue 34 - 07 Sept

Father’s Day

Last Sunday was Father’s Day in Australia and New Zealand.

Against what is sometimes claimed, Father’s and Mother’s Days were not invented by department stores to increase sales, but to honour parents because we never know when they won’t be here. Grief for lost parents motivated the founders of both days.   

The first Father’s Day took place in 1908 on July 5 in Fairmont, West Virginia. It was organized by Mrs. Grace Golden Clayton. She was inspired to honour the 210 fathers who had died in a mining tragedy at Monongah, West Virginia on December 6, 1907.

Mother’s Day has only been around since Anna Jarvis began to campaign for it after her own mother died in 1905. By 1908 it was a public holiday in her hometown of Grafton, West Virginia. It caught on into other US States, and in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson declared Mother’s Day an official civic holiday and from there it spread around the world.

Interestingly, Father’s Day, while observed for decades, was not formally declared a nationally gazetted event until President Richard Nixon did so in 1972.

My mother doesn’t like Mother’s Day very much. I grew up with, “A sincere thank you most days is infinitely better than a fuss on one day of the year.”

Father’s Day in my childhood home was complex too because my father died at 36 when I was two. 

The problem with the way secular society wants to observe Father’s Day is that while it provides images of great dads and happy families, it doesn’t make much room for dead, absent, abusive, addicted, violent or physically or mentally ill fathers. These commemorative days would be richer if they encompassed how varied parenting and being parented actually is.   

In the Ten Commandments we are told to “Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may belong in the land that the LORD your God is giving you” which seems to me to be a grand way of saying: Respect Age.

The commandment to respect age is not about the calendar but about valuing wisdom and experience. Older people, including our parents, are not automatically wise, because wisdom comes from reflecting on experience, and learning from it. However, contemporary society so over values the youth culture that older people and their true wisdom are often overlooked.  Respecting age is an interplay between memory and gratitude. Memory is an integral part of being human. I have done several funerals of people who have suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. These are rarely very sad occasions because the family invariably says that they “lost” their loved one months or years ago. Why? Because increasingly their loved one couldn’t remember anyone or anything. We hold to caring for the body from the womb to the tomb, because we believe that human dignity must always be respected. I am not arguing that people who have lost their memories are less human because every human being has inalienable rights. Indeed even if on external levels memory seems to have past maybe it is functioning on a deeper, unconscious level. There are now theories about how even the memories of the circumstances of our conception and birth have a bearing on the way we live our lives. It is also apparent that even when people seem to have lost their memory or are unconscious, there is some recognition of some things at a very deep level. Valuing people’s memories is important theologically. When I meet God face to face, I will remember who I am and how I lived, and God will remember me. It’s also a comfort for us to think that we will be reunited with those we have loved who have died before us, because we remember each other.

The second element in respecting age is gratitude. I think please and thank you could be the two fastest disappearing words from the English language. In almost every country in the world the debt we owe to previous generations is vast: hard work, courage and the sacrifices of our older people has paved the way for what we often take for granted. On nearly every world lifestyle indicator, even if we are doing it tough at present, we live in the most privileged of circumstances. As Christians we do not think this is our right, our due or our good fortune. As Christians, we know this is a blessing, won by the hard work of previous generations and we respond to it by just being grateful. I could not imagine showing greater respect for anyone than to value their reflective memory and being grateful.

A final true story a dad, some healing and love.

There was a baby girl who was seriously ill in a Neonatal ICU. The neonatologist said there was very little hope. The baby’s five-year-old brother, Michael, kept begging his parents to let him see his sister. “I want to sing to her”, he kept saying. Children weren’t allowed in the ICU, but Michael’s father eventually insisted that he be able to see his sister.

When he got to the humidicrib he sang: “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are grey.” The nurse reported that as Michael sang, the baby’s pulse rate began to calm down and become steady.

“Keep on singing, Michael”, encouraged his dad with tears in his eyes.

“You never know, dear, how much I love you. Please don’t take my sunshine away.”

The baby recovered and left the hospital five weeks later.

I am not pretending for a moment that Michael’s song healed his sister. The healthcare professionals deserve that credit. But we should never underestimate the power of human support and love. It helps us to be healed.

On the days we stop to formally think about our dads and mums, may we be blest with gifts of a love that also heal if we need it.

Rev Dr Richard Leonard SJ is the author of 12 books. His most recent one is The Law of Love: Modern Words for Ancient Wisdom (Paulist).