Of Fathers and Sons


Sunday was Father's Day, thanks to a woman called Sonora Dodd. She lived in Washington and was in church one day in 1909 listening to a sermon praising mothers (Mother's Day was just beginning to gather widespread attention in the USA) when she had the idea to petition for a day to honour fathers. Her own father, William Smart, had raised her and her five brothers and sisters after her mother died in childbirth. Her efforts paid off and a presidential proclamation declared the third Sunday in June as Father's Day.

All very Christian and genteel - but a good idea that travelled. I still call my father, Daddy, and used to feel a bit of a softie as a kid when mates used terms like, 'my Da' or 'the oul lad', particularly when they spoke bitterly out of the side of their mouths and hit a mongrel between the eyes with a spit at eight feet. I was terrified when a six-year-old midget threatened, "My Da'll knock you Da's plumbs in!" It was easier handing over the thrupenny bit (not Daddy, that I didn't think you were Henry Cooper).

Leaving aside Freud's Oedipus Complex which describes a son's alleged subconscious feeling of love towards his mother, and jealousy and hate towards his father, father/son relationships are often fraught. As a child you attribute to your father heroic qualities until he becomes an old fart and won't give you a drink of Guinness (even though your nappy's on), or you find out that he doesn't know the theorem of Pythagoras ("Go ask your Mammy") and can't make a guider, won't do goalie when your team's a midget down, and says he can't afford to buy you winkle pickers ("When I was your age… to school barefoot… six feet of snow… minus thirty degrees…").

Of course, while many men are not fathers, all men have been fathered, though not all men necessarily know their fathers. A whole literature has arisen around this relationship - not all of it gracious writing. However, there is a very moving account in Albert Camus' autobiographical novel, 'The First Man', when Jacques (Camus) returns to Algeria and visits the grave of his father who died when he was just one years of age. His father was killed in the 1914 war when he was 29-years-old. Jacques is overcome with emotion when he realises that he is eleven years older than his father: "Something here was not in the natural order and, in truth, there was no order but only madness and chaos when the son was older than the father."

Not for the first time does Jacques experience a great emptiness of what might have been: "he had to bring himself up, without a father, having never known those moments when a father would call his son, after waiting for him to reach the age of listening, to tell him the family's secret, or a sorrow of long ago, or the experience of his life…"

Not just literature, but music has also dealt with this relationship, although two of my favourite 'pop' (hiya, Dad!) songs on the subject have been murdered in recent years by Boyzone (and the instant coffee voice of Ronan Keating) and some other nerdy band. Boyzone deliberately ruined the Cat Stevens' work-of-art ballad, 'Father And Son'. (I mean to say, would we want to see a Lenny McGlinchey repaint The Mona Lisa with a stud in her nose?)

In this song, a father and son are talking to each other but aren't really communicating. The father tells his restless son that he is still very young and inexperienced and shouldn't leave home, and the son is thinking: "from the moment I could talk I was ordered to listen… All the times that I cried, keeping all the things I knew inside, it's hard but it's harder to ignore it."

The other song is by the late Harry Chapin, 'The Cat's In The Cradle', which some jerk in the NIO abused in a TV commercial condemning violence. The song tells a rueful, cautionary story from the father's point-of-view and it is so true-to-life.

My child arrived just the other day,
He came into the world in the usual way.
But there were planes to catch and bills to pay,
He learned to walk while I was away.
And he was talking 'fore I knew it,
And as he grew up he'd say,
"I'm gonna be like you,Dad.
You know I'm gonna be like you."

My son turned ten just the other day,
He said, "Thanks for the ball, Dad.
Come on, let's play. Can you teach me to throw?"
I said, "Not today. I got a lot to do."
He said, "That's okay."

Then his son goes to college and starts drifting away and time passes in a flash.

I've long since retired, my son's moved away.
I called him up just the other day.
I said, "I'd like to see you if you don't mind.
He said, "I'd love to, Dad, if I could find the time.
You see, my new job's a hassle and the kids have the flu,
But it's been sure nice talkin' to you, Dad.
It's been sure nice talkin' to you."
And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me,
He'd grown up just like me.
My boy was just like me.

A few minutes ago, I was on the phone with a friend and explaining to her what I was writing this week. She said that it occurred to her that ex-prisoners make good fathers and good cooks, they're more domesticated, it's as if they realise they have to make up for lost time. Then she added, Well, at least, they do when they first get out.

Human nature. Human nature. Remember the words of the Bridie Gallagher song? "You'll never miss your mother's love, till she's buried beneath the clay."

Neglect is the one sin we are all guilty of.

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison