A man of science and engineering, a son of spirituality and art. How Eric Folkerth and his dad thawed relations.
Father’s Day 2015: Our Last Picture.
By ERIC FOLKERTH
My Dad and I are standing thirty yards from each other, perfectly still and quiet, on the side of a hill, in a small grove of trees. We are looking intently at each other. But we are not really looking at each other at all.
It’s a cold winter day in early 1997. Dad and me are standing on the land that, within the year, will encompass our family’s lakehouse in East Texas. But on this day, it’s just grass, leaves and trees, overlooking Callendar Lake. Lakehouse construction wouldn’t begin for a few months. Dennise is pregnant with Maria, somewhere up the hill in a car, and wouldn’t be a judge for another seven years. I’d never yet imagined being at Northaven Church, playing in a band, or having a CD release party. Things that dominate our lives now hadn’t even happened yet. I was a much younger man.
The reason Dad and me are looking intently at each other, but not really looking at each other at all, is that we are using a set of surveyor’s tools. Dad is peering through the transept-level and telescopic lens. I am holding the stick. We would spend that entire Saturday taking measurement after measurement of the land.
Dad would peer through the lens, then stop to scribble on a yellow legal pad with his mechanical pencil. He was intent. He was obsessed. He was in his element ... science, math, geometry, physics ... taking data measurements.
Dad would later take the raw data and, first, create spreadsheets. Then, those spreadsheets would become a topographical map of the hill. His goal, of course, was to create a data-map that would aid in the construction of the lakehouse. To ascertain the most logical placement of the house on the land, situated for optimal efficiency.
Me? I was bored stiff because, as usual, Dad was over-thinking and over-planning everything. My own thought — having given the lot a ten minute took — was that the house should probably be about halfway up the hill. Everybody else in the family pretty much agreed. And, thankfully, it’s what the data eventually showed too. Because if the data disagrees with your heart, you always go with the data. At least, if you’re Dad.
Dad had no experience as a surveyor. These were instruments he’d rented for the day. There are actual professional surveyors available for hire all over East Texas who do solid work for a reasonable fee making topographical maps, in half the time it took us that day.
But, no. Dick Folkerth was going to survey his land. Himself.
In some ways, this story tells you everything you need to know about my Dad, who recently passed away from pulmonary fibrosis. It tells you his greatest strengths and points to his most maddening habits.
Me, Dad, and My Grandfather Frankie.
My Father was a child of World War II and an adult of the Cold War. His earliest memories include air raid drills from the time they lived in Washington, DC. He was in college during the McCarthy hearings, and as a young man he absolutely would have described himself as “anti-communist.” As a young boy, I remember seeing re-covered books on his bookshelf describing the red menace.
I don’t know how much Dad was personally involved in these kinds of things. But as a young man himself, I know he favored politicians like Bruce Alger. I know he was a Goldwater Republican. But, as I said, somewhere along the way, his anti-communist writings and materials vanished from the bookshelves.
Dad’s Dad wanted him to be a lawyer. But Dad couldn’t imagine doing something where you had to argue with people over “facts.” He wanted to be in a career where the “facts” could be revealed more dispassionately. So, he became an aerospace engineer whose adult life and work was formed in the crucible of the Cold War.
Dad was a Cold Warrior. His life’s work was “classified.” Literally. Classified by the Defense Department.
Dad always made it clear that, in his mind, his work was defensive. He was proud of that, and saw what he did as directly connected to the defense of the nation. He worked on the so-called “Star Wars” program, helping create a prototype missile defense technology that, in the long run, was never purchased and developed. Contrary to what I’ve heard publicly, the system did work. But it was incredibly expensive. It would have costs billions to implement.
And right at the time the program was nearing fruition, the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union vanished.
Dad worked for Chance Vought. The company was later bought and sold a half dozen times, as the defense industry consolidated in the late 1980s. But he still drove the same hour-long route to work, to the same office and factory, for 45 years.
In a sense, Dad not only lived the Cold War in work and his politics, but he also lived an emotional Cold War silence in his relationship with me. Like the real Cold War, there was eventually a thaw. But, also like so much in the Cold War, it too was never spoken. Just lived.
For all that Dad and me could talk about — space, technology, baseball, photography, cycling, practical living advice — there was so much we never did: relationships, love, music, art, imagination, family stories and history. All these things lived behind an emotional Cold War curtain, as certain as the Iron one.
Dad, a man of science and engineering, fathered a son of spirituality and art. He confounded me. And I confounded him.
There’s a line in the film “Hannah and Her Sisters” delivered by the character of Elliott (Michael Cain) that comes to mind:
“For all my education, accomplishments and so-called wisdom, I can’t fathom my own heart.”
Which is a beautiful line that I can imagine my Dad saying, except that it’s far too self-reflective and intimate for Dad to have ever spoken out loud.
Dad could not discuss art. He hated movies (except for “High Noon”). He liked music. But I doubt, if you pressed him, that he could explain why he liked music.
But if there was a factual problem to be solved, he obsessively worked until he solved it. Dad over-engineered every problem in his life. He was convinced that almost every life problem, even personal and interpersonal ones, could be dealt with through reason.
He made charts and graphs and sheets full of data to analyze everything. He logged the mileage in his car. He created detailed budgets for my freshman year in college ... that we then spent tense and tedious hours pouring over, during Christmas break. He used a Mac at home, but totally refused to use any of the “easy” programs that Macs come with.
iPhoto. The Mail program. Pshaw! Dad created an entirely different hierarchical system for his pictures. It’s complex. It makes not sense to almost anybody else but him. And he would talk to me for hours about how these user-friendly programs really weren’t. Literally ... for hours ... describing why his systems were always better.
Dad’s systems, for everything, were always better.
Working with him in the garage is both a joyous and painful memory. Joyous, because it’s always great to have that kind of father-son time. Painful, because of the engineering that went into every minute decision.
Dad didn’t just “measure twice, cut once.” Dad measured four times.
In fact, it was even worse than this. With Dad, it was more like…
- Put the measurements in an Excel spreadsheet ...
- Measure four times ...
- Cut once ...
- Pause to analyze the data ...
- Regret making that cut the rest of your life ...
- And make copious notes, in case you ever, twenty years from now, have to make the same cut again ...
He made laboriously detailed plans for constructing the simplest of wooden devices. Time and time again, I’d suggest short cuts that he would refuse. Only to see that they definitely would have worked, saved time, and saved us all headaches and extra work.
But Dad had to be convinced by the data, before he could convince his mind or heart of anything. Every so often, he’d allow himself to actually consider my ideas. And now and then we’d try one. Sometimes, it would work. And he would shake his head the rest of the day, puzzling out how he could have missed something so obvious.
As a Father, then, his best quality was his practical advice. Dad’s good nature, logic, skill as a general handy man, and his quiet demeanor, made him legendary among other kids and adults. Some of my cousins envied him and wanted him for their Dad. Time after time — literally more times than I can count — my friends have told me, even as adults: “You have the best Dad.”
And it’s true. I can’t imagine having a better Father. I can’t imagine being better prepared for the practicalities of adult life. He was just hard as hell to live with.
And this gets me back to us, standing in that field, in 1997. I was still young man, and we were still in the midst of our own emotional Cold War. It had thawed some, but not much to that point.
Every so often that day, we’d move the surveyor’s tools to some new spot. And, in my young-man boredom, I had an epiphany ...
It dawned on me the surveying was a metaphor of our entire relationship. Dad could see, analyze, dissect, the most minute data of my life. The details. The facts. But the one thing he could never see well was the whole. The whole me. Who I really was.
I was not alone in this, of course. He did this to everyone, really. And the longer you came to know him, the less you came to take it personally. It was just who he was.
My Father scientifically surveyed, studied, and logically reasoned his way through all of the close, personal relationships of his life. Even his relationship with his only Son.
These were his more endearing and enduring traits. And these were the source of every conflict between the two of us ... and between him and anybody else, for that matter.
For example, Dad loved math. Dad tried, valiantly, to get me to love math too. Every year in grade school, when my new math textbook arrived, he’d eagerly ask to see it on the first day of school. But he was never satisfied with how they taught the subject. And whether I wanted his help or not, he would attempt to show me how to solve math homework.
But, not just how to find one right way to get the “right” answer. Dad would attempt to show the logic and beauty of math ... of how you could solve each problem multiple ways.
Since it was clear to me, at an early age, that I was not good at math, all of this simply confused me. I desperately need to find a one way to solve the problem ... to find some road in to math ... just to have some “math-victory” now and then. Short cuts that made sense to me. Like in the garage.
But Dad couldn’t do that. Even when I got a right answer, and considered it a victory, Dad would follow it up by showing me two to three other ways to solve the same problem. To him, math was too beautiful to relegate to the “one way.” To me, it just gave me the message that I was never doing it right or was too slow somehow.
Which meant, of course, that while I “got” his love for math, I never got math itself.
Dad was as sure that I should become a business major in college as he had been sure that he should be an aeronautical engineer. In his era, the 1950s, engineering was the future. The space race was just around the corner ... NASA ... trips the the moon ... Cold War missile technology.
Dad had accurately understood that this was the future in the 1950s. But by the 1980s, he was convinced that business was my future. That’s where the practical, sensible jobs would be. As with everything else in my life, Dad’s view dominated. He was so convinced of its logic that nothing I could say would change his mind.
We argued and yelled about it a lot. I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew intuitively it would not be business. So, to satisfy him, I took Business Calculus at UT. I failed miserably.
It was not until that failure that Dad had the logical proof to convince himself I would not be business major. It had not been enough to hear it from my mouth. He had to see the data.
A few more stories ...
When I was a little boy and I would cry out in the middle of the night, Dad would bring me a glass of water. But he’d also bring a morality tale. Every single time he brought me a glass of water, he’d also retell the classic fable“The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”
I got the message clearly, even as a small boy: Crying out in the middle of the night was illogical. There was no physical danger. There was no immediate threat. It was, therefore, “crying wolf.”
Or, my freshman year in college, I called home, collect, on my Mother’s birthday. And when the operator asked “Will you accept the charges?” my Dad replied, “No.”
I hung up the phone in tears. “What had I done? How had I offended him?”
Hours later my Mother called me back to explain how she’d been out shopping, so Dad, ever frugal, decided to refuse the call since it was clearly for her. It was the logical thing to do. It was most definitely not the relational thing to do.
I tell these stories to give you a sense of what Dad was like when I was a young man. What Dad could never see or understand in those early years, and what it took me years of therapy to name, was that it was never about the glass of water or sensible collect calls.
What I needed so often, what I felt like I rarely got, was him. All of him.
I didn’t need a story with a moral. I just needed for my Dad to come. To be there.
Even so, I grew to understand, and accept, this: Dad just couldn’t be there emotionally. He simply didn’t know how to do it. And that was OK.
We had one terribly awkward talk about sex, when I was well past the age when I’d already discovered it. I played dumb and let him give the talk anyway. My friends and me were already sharing Playboy magazines. So, we knew the mechanics (which was really all Dad could have taught us, I suppose). What we knew nothing of was the mysteries of love ... what it meant to be a man ... what it meant to be a woman ...
Dad sat down with me. He fumbled through some stories of his own high school days ... how he’d been an awkward teenager ... how he’d been the photographer for his high school ... always shooting the photographs ... never in them. (That never changed, btw ... ) He hadn’t dated much, so he told me, so he really didn’t have much advice that he could give about women.
And that was it. That was the extent of our conversations, ever, about love, sex, relationships.
Dealing with negative emotions was nearly impossible for him. For example, when my sisters were small girls, they often played in the backyard with our three first cousins. Five small girls, all screaming and crying in joy, as kids are wont to do.
But Dad, it seems, could not ascertain the difference between kids screaming in joy and kids screaming in terror. He’d rush to the backyard, convinced the scream meant a small child was gushing blood from a major artery. Only to discover they were just playing chase in the yard.
He’d first try logic and reason.
“Now Girls, if you scream out, somebody (read: him) will think you are really hurt and have to come running …”
As if such a logical and adult lecture could ever dissuade a five-year-old from doing it again. He’d glare at me, as if this was all my fault, and tell me to be a better example to them.
Being an example to others, especially became one of the values my Dad put on to me from a very young age. I was not to screw around, because I had younger sisters, and they would learn from watching me. It’s all true, of course. It’s a terrible burden to place on a ten-year-old.
Those girls would be screaming ten minutes later, and he’d be back in the yard again, trying again to convince them how kids shouldn’t scream. It was like trying to convince the wind not to blow. Except that you could measure and predict the flow of the wind. You couldn’t measure or predict the screams of a child ... although that never stopped my Dad from trying.
The laws of love, matters of the heart, poetry, art, theology, spirituality? These things totally and completely confounded my Dad.
As a young man, Dad never talked about his past with me. It was as if, like his job, family history was “classified” too. We knew my Mom’s family, front and back. We knew cousins, down to three generations. We knew family history and legends.
But Dad had struck out for Texas, from Ohio as a young man, and never really looked back. We visited his childhood home and my grandparents there many times. I have fond memories. But beyond the two of them and their house, and beyond my Aunt and her family, the rest of Dad’s family and history was a great gaping mystery for much of my life.
I’d learn later that his father had pretty much done the same thing ... struck off from his family of origin, and never looked back ...
Me and Dad, at a YMCA Guides Campout.
Even as I read back through this, I know how harsh some of this may sound to anyone who knows my Dad. The truth is Dad WAS present for me. Time and time again, he was there for me. He coached basketball and t-ball. We did YMCA Guides. We would take a change of clothes with us to church and head out to Texas Rangers baseball games on Sunday afternoons. We’d go to Reds games when we visited Cincinnati. There are so many, thousands of beautiful memories I have of spending time with my Dad.
So, he WAS there, all the time. Those memories form a solid and firm foundation in my life. I’m so grateful. And over the years, I’ve come to know and understand that this is how he showed the love that he could not name in words.
But he was often so emotionally clueless during so much of that time that there were many maddening moments that have taken years to sort through; to learn to not take personally.
Time, therapy, and recognizing my part in our father-son dance have helped me see that we were simply two different people. Two sides of that emotional Cold War ...
He was logic and science.
I was music and emotions.
He was rationality and 1950s modernity.
I was spirituality and ancient and modern mystical practice.
He was a Goldwater Republican.
I voted for Reagan, twice. Then I went to the seminary. And the next time I voted at the presidential level, it was for Jesse Jackson.
He was data-driven.
I was intuition-led.
This last point was a constant source of friction between us. I could intuit the answers to the same things he was spending hours over-engineering. So, I often had to wait hours and hours for him to “catch up” with his slow-moving data collection.
I tried my best to become him ... to take in that logical, dispassionate way of analyzing one’s life and choices. But it never worked. And when I tried, it often ended in disastrous results that simply meant I denied my own heart in the service of logic and reason.
For example, when I was a very young teenager, I wanted a stereo like my friend John Ramey had. He has a cool component system with separate turntable, cassette player, receiver. Ginormous speakers.
“WHY did I want a stereo?” Dad asked.
Because, to Dad, you could never want what you wanted in life ... you had to be able to express WHY you wanted it.
Hell, why does any thirteen-year-old want a stereo in 1975? I couldn’t explain such a choice in any way that would make sense to him. So, I went through a logical progression in my mind, trying to imagine what HE would think of my possible answers ... what, in his mind, would justify wanting a stereo ...
If I say “I want a radio,” he’ll say, “You already have an AM transistor.”
If I say “I want a tape player,” he’ll say “You already have a portable one.”
So told my Dad, “I want a stereo to be able to play records.”
It wasn’t the whole truth, but it was the only thing I could think of that I knew he wouldn’t be able to logically argue away.
And so, that’s exactly what he got me. A stand-alone turntable with two small speakers. Technically and precisely what I’d asked for. Not at all what I wanted.
The point of this story is to illustrate the underside of our father-son relationship. Time and time again Dad taught me to second-guess my own intuition and heart in the service of logic and reason. I wish I could say this more kindly and lovingly. But it’s the absolute truth, and it’s taken me years to acknowledge it, and even longer to come to terms with it.
Dad taught me that it wasn’t OK to listen to that intuition and inner voice, but that I had to have a “reason” for everything I did.
To this day, I have that voice inside my head ... a voice that frets, worries, and second-guesses every decision. The logical ones. The emotional ones. Decisions at church. Decisions at home.
“Measure FOUR times ... Cut once ... Second guess forever ... ”
This is the voice of my father in my head. And it is exhausting.
And the last half of my life has been spent trying to get that voice out of my head, and listen to the voice that God gave me. To trust it more. And I do, now. But it’s a daily walk that I try to walk every day.
That’s my side of the emotional Cold War thaw ... to be more of myself and to accept him as he was.
Dad thawed too. Again, like the real Cold War, we never talked about it. But Dad changed. He grew.
My own theory is that his family grew around him, and he made the great leap of faith to allow that to happen ... to stop analyzing every detail of their lives and simply enjoy them.
Mom went back to work as a paralegal. We all grew up, started families, and became quite independent. And as we grew around him, Dad softened, so it seems to me. Or maybe I softened. Or probably both. Again, it was never spoken.
Cold War, you know.
I became a Minister. It was then, and is now, very clear to me that this was a true and right calling; it was also a repudiation of the kinds of things my Dad valued. My adult world would become about relationships, psychology, spirituality, music, life and death, God. All the things Dad could never talk about.
I needed them, and I found them in ministry and the Church. I also found them in music. And I knew, quite consciously, that Dad would never again be able to give me any advice about these matters.
And that has turned out to be true. Except for sending me little snippets from “Toastmasters” (ministers are public speakers, you know), Dad has not given me much advice on anything for about twenty years.
Except for one, painful time, that never did heal, but changed everything ...
Soon after my CD release party, a great night at Poor David’s Pub, Dad asked to go to have coffee with me. He had been there that night. He had taken great pictures, as always. Dad worked the check-out table for CD sales with my Mom. So he was supportive.
He took me to coffee to say that, in his opinion, playing in bars like that was undignified for somebody who was about to be a senior pastor (as I was about to be). He told me I need to really think about that, and that maybe it was time to put music away. He told me I needed to be more conscious of how I was perceived ... the role model I was about to be for people.
And suddenly, I was ten-years-old in the backyard again. As with my sisters’ screaming, Dad was playing the “role model” card again.
Only now, I was an adult, and I pushed back.
Through tears and much anger, I told him how he’d never understood my choices. He’d never understood ministry. He’d never understood music. He’d never understood much of what made me ... me.
“Why can’t you just be supportive? Why does everything have to be a lecture?” I asked.
He told me, “You know, your Mother said I shouldn’t do this ... ”
I told him she was right. He told me he was proud of me as a father and son. But it felt like those words only came because of my tears.
It was such an awkward conversation. And perhaps the only time in the last twenty-five-years that the emotional Cold War silence of my youth welled back to the surface. Perhaps it reminded us both how painful that was. Maybe it just reminded us both that it was best to still not talk about these things?
Dad was Dad. I was me. We were who we were.
In recent years, he loved coming to our Connections Band shows. He’d bring friends. He took great pictures of the band. (He always takes great pictures. Always takes them. Never in them ... ) We never talked about music again and how important it is to me. But he always showed up.
Thaw ... softening ... unspoken, but real.
There’s an old bit of wisdom that I used as a guide with my Dad over this second half of my life, and it’s been immensely helpful:
“You can be right. Or you can be in relationship.”
With Dad, I chose to be in relationship. Thanks be to God, he chose it too.
The unconscious move toward ministry and music, the part that I must own, was this: I had finally found a thing that Dad couldn’t give me advice about ... a thing I was good at ... a thing that was my calling. And if he was going to be “in relationship with me,” it was going to be without the advice-giving crutch he so often leaned on.
Dad softened and changed in so many more ways too.
For example, he first tolerated, and then was fascinated by, my trips to Russia.
“You know, we did win the Cold War,” he would say.
It was important for Dad to believe that, because it was the heart of his life’s work.
Had we ever actually spoken of it, I would have reminded him how we “won” by running up that national debt everybody is so worried about now. We didn’t so much beat the Soviet Union as we bankrupted them. But, again, we never spoke of this.
“Yes. We won the Cold War, Dad ... ”
And in the decade after that win, I would make nine mission trips to the former Soviet Union. Again, part of this was my making sense of my own history. The Cold War had been so much a part of my life growing up, I had to be a part of the “thaw” in some way.
I was making friends with our former enemies. We were starting a faith community in Saratov, Russia. The Cold Warrior’s Son would spend four straight July Fourths in a hotel room, just off Red Square.
Like so much in my life, I was never sure exactly what Dad thought about all this. What did he make of my stories of crumbled and obsolete the Russian infrastructure? How did he feel when I told him every Russian car looked like it was from the 1950s? Or how even the best hotels looked like something out of 1972?
“How did we ever think they could beat us?” I would muse to him.
He never answered the question. I never pushed.
Relationship ... not right ...
And, eventually he and Mom hosted a Russian family that was a part of a larger delegation — the old Cold Warrior hosting a young husband and wife from his old enemy. Ten years before, he would have lost his job, and it would have violated every fiber of his moral compass. But they smiled, laughed, and stayed in touch for years afterwards.
Thaw ... softening ... unspoken, but real.
And, to his everlasting credit, he and Mom joined Northaven on a Sunday soon after I was appointed there ... one of the most liberal/progressive churches in the nation ... a place where I am never the most liberal person in the room.
Countless times, he found himself listening to sermons on justice and peace that he could not have possibly agreed with. Countless times, he endured members coming up to him afterwards telling him, “You must be very proud of Eric.”
And he was. What they couldn’t have known is what a change and softening it was for him to be there, for him to hold his tongue in those moments too. You see, gradually over time, Dick Folkerth, the one who always had to be “right” as a young man, the one whom you could never win an argument with ... chose “relationship” instead. That was his change.
Thaw ... softening ... unspoken, but real.
Over the past 25 years, as his children grew into adulthood, as Mom went back to work as a paralegal, in a sense we all “grew around him.”
That could have been a moment when he freaked. When he again asserted control; when he doubled down on the advice-giving. But through his own wisdom (and through what were, no doubt, many conversations with my Mother), Dad softened.
He wrote something interesting about this, which I found on his computer just this week, but which he never shared with anyone else. (Another thing not talked about ... )
Dad, the photographer, noted this about photography and family:
“The process of developing a print in a darkroom is almost magical as you watch the image slowly appear after the exposed paper is placed in the developer tray. Little by little the picture is revealed. I never fail to be astonished when watching an image appear, gradually maturing.
Something similar happens while watching your family develop. First just an outline with the details filling in a bit at a time.
There is a difference, however. A photograph finally reaches the fully developed state and should be placed briefly in the stop bath and then in the fixer where the image is set. Families, on the other hand, continue to develop with the picture filling in with more and more details as time goes by ... generation by generation. That is the REAL magic!”
Yes it is. And it’s wonderful to read these words from him that show just how much he understood that. Kids. Grandkids that he adored. Stepping back to just watch it all, and soak it in ...
Thaw ... softening ... unspoken, but real.
Finally, there was genealogy. My own story to tell about this starts with the time Dad finally told me about his high school friend. I was well into my twenties when he told me this story.
Dad had a good high school friend who had committed suicide. The boy shot himself with a shotgun in his family’s garage. To Dad and the friends they ran with, this seemed out of the blue. There was a suicide note no one else ever saw. It was the early 1950s, and nobody talked about these things.
So, his friend’s loss became a huge, gaping emotional hole. It was never resolved. He never understood what happened to his friend, nor did any of their extended circle.
And this horror made Dad vow the following: He would watch his own children like a hawk. He would make sure to instill them with rationality and logic. He would freak when they cried, even in joy; be unable to process their emotions anymore than he could understand why his friend had died. But everything in his being would be geared toward keeping his children SAFE.
Once Dad told me that story, on that day of surprising self-revelation in my twenties, it was like a key clicked open a mysterious, locked vault.
“Holy shit,” I thought to myself, “it all makes sense now.” Dad’s fear of emotionality. Dad’s inability to access it. Dad’s obsession over our safety and security. Dad’s preference for things logical, rather than things emotional.
I think I even told him how this story helped me greatly to understand him.
Again ... thaw ... softening ... unspoken, but real.
Dad eventually opened so much that he wrote an autobiography, which contains even more clues about his life and his history; finally revealing on paper, many of the stories he’d never told us about his past. He still couldn’t tell them in person. But I took it, and drank it in.
And he got obsessed with genealogy. So much so, that Mom called herself a “genealogy widow” in recent years. He used that engineer’s logic and skill to trace our Folkerth family history back into Europe in the early 1700s.
With the help of others, they’ve pretty much determined that everybody with our Anglicized name “Folkerth” is descended from a guy named “Cristoffel Volkhardt” who came to America, via a boat from Rotterdam, in 1754. Mom and Dad made countless genealogical trips to Ohio, Maryland, and even Germany, to hunt for the clues of the family. (Learn about all of this at Dad’s genealogy blog, here.)
And Dad now has amazingly complex genealogical family trees, dating back to that time, and spreading out to several different lineages.
All this is fascinating to me. The Father who never told me a thing about his own family (beyond his sister and parents) suddenly took a passionate interested in his family’s facts ... all the way back for centuries.
Thaw ... softening ... unspoken, but real.
But the biggest thaw — perhaps the night our own Berlin Wall crumbled — happened way back on the night of my ordination. It was well after dark, after the worship service and reception. We stood in the driveway of his house, alone.
He told me that he was very proud of me, and very proud of me being in ministry. Until that moment, I had not been sure, because as I’ve been saying throughout, we never spoke of these things.
So, we hugged, and I said in his ear, “I love you.”
And his whole body thawed, softened ... unspoken but real ... into my arms, and he laughed a laugh of softness that I never heard from him before or since.
He said, “Right ... ”
And that was it. That was as much as he could say. And lest you miss what I’m telling you here ... it was beautiful ... and it was loving ... it was all he could do. And I was so grateful.
It was the biggest thaw we ever had. It was just a brief moment. I will carry and cherish it for the rest of my life.
In middle-age myself now, I’ve grown to appreciate what Dad gave me. Dad showed up. He was present. He knew, logically, that presence was important. He had no clue what to say when he was present with someone. But he showed up.
Just the other day, a church friend was bringing our family food, and on the way out she told me, “Eric, you always do the hard things well.”
I think what she meant is: I know how to walk through the hard emotional moments of somebody’s life. I can stand beside the bed of someone who is dying, comfort their families. This is never without stress, but it’s not “hard” for me.
I learned that from Mom. For all of Dad’s annoying emotional-cluelessness, Mom is warm and kind and compassionate. She’s emotionally present, and not afraid of the tough emotional things. But it was Dad who taught me that showing up was important.
Pushing through the hard things is important, because life will bring you hard things. I got the “showing up” from him. I got the being emotionally present from Mom. They were then, in a sense, the perfect whole together.
And I am grateful for every single gift — the ones I use, and the ones I’ve needed to slowly give away — that my Father gave me.
One final story of thaw and softening from the Old Cold Warrior, and we didn’t learn of this one until this earlier this week.
As in all things, Dad left very specific instructions as to what should happen after his death. He left long lists of financial details. He left instructions on the service. And he had one requested song for his Memorial Service.
When I saw it, I almost fell out of my chair ...
Dad asked us to sing the old folk hymn “Down By the Riverside.”
That’s right, the old, anti-communist Cold Warrior has asked us to sing a song most associated with the blacklisted Pete Seeger. The man who saw his life’s work as connected to the reality of warfare and defense wants us to sing a song that imagines an end to all war, at a time of God’s choosing ...
“Gonna lay down my sword and shield,
Down by the riverside ... down by the riverside ... down by the riverside ...
Gonna lay down my sword and shield,
Down by the riverside ...
And study war no more ... .”
“Ain’t gonna study war no more ... ”
I read this last request, on his computer, in the file folder “After I’m Gone.”
And I wept.
Thaw ... softening ... unspoken, but real.
Goodbye, Old Cold Warrior. Literally and spiritually, now and forever, you don’t have to study war no more, Dad. You’ve laid down the burden of logic and rationality that were the best and worst of who you were.
I love you with all my heart.