I first heard the word “elegy” in a high school class called Great Books. Our teacher, Bill Cole, introduced us to Thomas Gray’s beloved poem from 1750: Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. The poet wanders among gravestones, pondering the unsung virtues of people who lived and died in obscurity, summed up in these beautiful verses.
Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
I have a deep affinity with those outside the limelight, people faithful to the values they cherish, fighting their version of the good fight, running their courses with courage and fidelity. During my three decades as a pastor, I gained privileged admittance to their inner circles.
An elegy is too somber on this Father’s Day, 2021. Instead, I offer this tribute to unsung fathers everywhere. Your love and labor may go unnoticed, but your character matters in the lives of your loved ones!
I had a powerful experience this week. I sat and read the entirety of my father’s memoirs, notes begun in 1950. It’s a remarkable odyssey. He grew up on a Wisconsin farm during the Depression with no running water or electricity. Decades later, he would rise to be a key player in America’s Apollo Program, then serve as the CFO of a multinational corporation.
It’s not his stellar career feats that I celebrate this morning. It’s a moment captured in these words from 1957. I was 16 months old.
I’m writing this about 9:30 p.m. after watching a program on our 21-inch TV. Marilyn has gone to a church meeting and Krin is sleeping. I can hear the hum of the refrigerator in the background and smell the blossoms of the orange trees from the grove just in back of our house.
Why did this memory move me so deeply? Because it captures a father at home with his sleeping child—ME! —keeping vigil. In the ensuing years, my Dad would sacrifice family time for work, an issue we resolved long ago in our loving relationship. But this moment in 1957 reminds me of his steadfast presence in my life.
All you fathers know what I mean. Changing diapers, braiding hair, helping with homework, reading books, cooking, paying bills, chauffeuring, listening, doctoring scrapes and bruises—all the small things that sum up faithfulness on a daily basis. You’re the best!
I also give a shout out to my ex father-in law, Don Oseid, who died many years ago. He consistently nurtured my interest in writing, acting as a mentor and second father. I remember one evening when he came to me holding an anthology open to a particular poem. It was Those Winter Sundays, by Robert Hayden, the first black American to serve as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, a title now changed to Poet Laureate.
You can read the entire poem here, a son remembering how his father, after a week’s hard labor, got the fires blazing on Sunday mornings, even polishing his son’s shoes. The final words speak volumes.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
To all you fathers who inhabit these offices, remaining faithful to the daily tasks of loving your children, I say…
Thank you and happy Father’s Day!
Cole taught us everything we didn’t know, elegies and what not. The existential ripples of the splash he made long ago still reverberate upon our cultural ponds.
Such an apt description of his influence…