Father Figures

Sometimes he tells me "No."

Sometimes he tells me “No.”

It was Father’s Day. Got the usual cards and stuff, but all I am anymore is a grandfather. Marooned as we are, we celebrated the day mostly by watching movies, two we sat through and one I only saw advertised because I don’t need to see it again.

First up was “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Which, to be honest, I’ve had my problems with over the years. Not because I mind a movie in which nothing whatever happens for the first two or three hours, but because I feel mockingbirds are seriously misrepresented. They’re absolutely not little Billy Budds on the wing. They are highly intelligent, devious, and frequently malicious little bastards who deserve a comeuppance as much as slicksters and conmen of any other species. I remember a mocker who decided on slight evidence that a cat named Tigger had assaulted his nest. (Yeah, he was probably guilty but the case was purely circumstantial…) For two weeks thereafter, Tigger couldn’t take a step outside without being dive-bombed, chased, and driven into the bushes alongside the house.

It reached a climax when I was finally present to witness the extremity of Tigger’s distress. The mocker stationed himself on a telephone wire in front of the house, like a middle linebacker shadowing the quarterback. Whenever, wherever Tigger moved, the attack came like a furious pass rush. One time tough guy Tigger cringed and tried to press his body into the foundation of the house. While the mocker returned to the wire and laughed, yes, laughed at his victim.

I’d had enough. I got the hose, turned the nozzle to the “jet” setting and blasted the little sonofabitch off the wire. Then I did it again. Which is all it took to show the newly moistened maniac that the first time wasn’t an accident. He left Tigger alone after that. But don’t try to sell me on the crapola that mockingbirds are God’s defenseless little sweethearts.

Where were we? Oh, right. The fraudulence of the central metaphor aside, the movie is an excellent representation of a lost ideal of fatherhood. It reminds my wife of her own father, and it reminds me of my paternal grandfather. Yes, there really were such men. Believe it and experience the sorrow of not having such a one in your own life. Men whose natural gravity and goodness sufficed to replace angry words, punishment, and lectures. The very worst thing you could possibly do was disappoint their abiding faith in you, and you’d do anything to prevent that catastrophe.

I almost never watch movies multiple times, and I avoid TKAM because it always makes me miss the key figure of my childhood, but I watched it all the way through again last night. This time, an old man myself, I found myself fixated on the suits Atticus Finch wore in every scene. He wasn’t a dandy. He was just dressed for behaving with politesse and honor, dressed for living up to the demands of life. I miss that more than I can say. There are no role models in track suits.

Next up was Life with Father, which old time Hollywood turned into a fairly broad comedy with father as the reliably stuffy, unobservant Victorian punchline. The movie itself is entertaining, a Technicolor delight starring William Powell, Irene Dunne, and a very young Elizabeth Taylor. But I was reminded of the book it came from, in which Father comes across rather differently, not as a punchline but the rock-ribbed anchor of a household. Neither unkind nor hopelessly rigid, he set an example of duty, firm principle, and magnanimous authority that is also missing in action today.

Finally, the one I didn’t want to, didn’t need to watch again: Searching for Bobby Fischer. Another necessary variety of father, the one who drives his offspring to fulfill the very best they are capable of. In our time, such pressure looks indistinguishable from child abuse. But it isn’t when the men behind it are motivated by love and faith rather than narcissism. We need more fathers who make serious demands on their children, not just in terms of accomplishment but character, morality, and discipline.

I meant this to be a positive post. Why do I feel that Father’s Day has slowly become a kind of Memorial Day, mostly devoted to remembering what is irretrievably lost?

2 thoughts on “Father Figures

  1. I’m apparently about the only person my age who wasn’t required to read TKAM at some point in junior high, high school, or college. I’ve always been a little leery of it because of its very ubiquity. But if you say the movie’s good, I’ll give it a chance.

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