After my father’s memorial service, a cousin whispered to me that he had hoped I might say a word or two. All speakers had been male, a female perspective could possibly have introduced an insightful contrast. My answer at the time was that my feelings were too much in turmoil to be able to say anything coherent about my father. The man was far too complex, my assessment of his legacy to me personally too nuanced and conflicting. Yet, what those male speakers – two of my brothers, a cousin, and a nephew – had said about my father left me bewildered. With every statement they made I thought, that’s not the man I knew.
That was eight months ago. Only now, ten months after my father’s death, do I know what I would like to have said then, and am able to say now. My words are in part dedicated to the memory of my father, but also meant to temper the highly eulogistic tone of the service that did not do my father justice. While it attributed to my father unwavering piety and rock-solid faith, as nice as those attributes must be, what I found remarkable about the man – his prosaic side – was passed over. It was not his church-going fidelity that made him extraordinary in my eyes, but the fact that he tackled the mundane, not Sundays, but every other day, starting very early.
If Presbyterians ever had anything like high church, that is what was had in honor of my father in the large, old sanctuary of Eastminster U.P. church that sunny Saturday afternoon in early October. We sang, we chanted, we prayed, we witnessed. Then we did it all over again. And I think we did it a third time. The service lasted about two hours. It was all focused, of course, on Dad, but seemed to get snagged on the virtuous rocks of faith and heavenly treasure. My father, we were all told, had spurned earthly temptations to focus on laying up treasure in heaven; with his eye on the everlasting life to come, he had invested in things that didn’t rust, tarnish, rot, or get eaten by moths.
But hang on. That wasn’t true. The hardest task my father had was laying up treasure on Earth. He spent his whole adult life laying up treasure on Earth. It might have gotten overlooked because he didn’t lay up that much of it, but that’s what he was doing. God and church certainly had celestial priority, to which my father attended. But he had another, a mundane charge that required his attention on a daily basis.
My father was a family man. He and his wife had four children. In the family structure of their time and place, it was up to Dad to feed, bathe, heat, air condition, educate, drive those children to Sunday school and, later, usher them into the great sanctuary for the adult church service with its intimidating sermons and interminable prayers. It was in attending to this prosaic business that Dad demonstrated the remarkable strength of character the laudations the service showered on him tended to diminish. You see, providing for a family requires treasure on Earth. To lay up even a little of it, you must perform a whole slew of dreary tasks steeped in and shaped, conditioned and driven by the circumstances of a world notorious for paying little heed to the virtues esteemed within church communities.
My father told me something often enough for me to realize it was an important maxim for him: you may not be able to do what you like, but you can learn to like what you do. Now why would he repeat that? It was clear in my mind: Because he had a job that he worked very hard at but didn’t like. Dad had wanted to be a medical doctor, then aeronautical engineer. Both professions fell through, which had more or less to do with the intrusion of World War II, which forced him to accelerate his university education to free him up to serve in the U.S. Army’s Corps of Engineers. Not only did he tolerate these life-changing disruptions – disruptions that did not align with his personal plans – but he participated with full heart, spirit, and mind. As a result, he wound up after the war as an engineer, then manager, for the Bell Telephone Company, not his dream job. He got two weeks’ vacation a year, after many years, a three-week vacation.
For four decades my father worked at a grinding job that just got harder as Ma Bell broke up, strapping my father with the responsibility of managing one, then two, additional offices in Pennsylvania. This required him to rise even earlier, at four Monday mornings to make the first leg across the state to get to the week’s office number one.
During earlier, cozier times, he rose very early all the same, but simply took the train or rode in a carpool to his office in downtown Pittsburgh, where he stayed all day until he reappeared at home again evenings. As a little girl, I tried to imagine what he did in an “office,” not knowing what an office was. But what particularly baffled me was how he could stay there for so long and go back every day. He never talked about it, there was evidently little to be said about it, so the mystery lingered. Nevertheless, I think I must have penetrated to some small degree the tedium he endured in that mysterious office five days a week eight and more hours a day for over forty years. The dreariness and confinement imposed on him must have alerted the sensibilities of my older brother as well, because he told Dad point blank one day that he was never going to get a job like his.
During all those years, I don’t know Dad to have missed a single day of work for any reason. Even that subzero morning when he found our steeply inclined driveway covered in a perfect sheet of ice, almost as if someone had poured water on it the night before – as indeed his eleven-year-old daughter had, believing that in dumping boiling water all over it, she would melt the snow and ice away, making it easy for him to get out the next day. What rocket charges he initiated that dark, freezing morning or how many charges it took to get up that incline are lost to history. But make it he did to creep along snowy streets in the Plymouth to get to work probably on time despite that curious setback of brief but cardiac proportions.
Such was the life, the job, the harness, the yoke that he would tell me you can learn to like. Such were the incessant trials and toils our loyal churchgoer had to endure every day to lay up, not heavenly treasure for the hereafter, not even earthly treasure for himself, oh no, just a little bit of treasure for us, his kids, his family, who kept using it up. For it was for us, his family, that he worked so hard to store up that earthly treasure so easily dismissed. Part of his reward in providing for his family was certainly the anticipation of being able to introduce into the church another generation of faithful.
I wondered if Dad’s efforts at laying up treasure on earth were overlooked because he hadn’t been that good at it. Maybe no one had noticed his modest accumulation. But that simply testified to another of my father’s strengths. In a world of social climbers, Bermuda Spring breaks, and Cadillac neighbors, having “sufficient” worldly goods was all my father was shooting for. When he had enough, and he knew when that was, he stopped. The pursuit of earthly treasures never took hold.
And yet of all the people I know, my father, who had a number of very wealthy friends and acquaintances, never envied anyone. After his death, I received so many heart-felt condolences I was quite overwhelmed. Such an outpouring of generous sentiments buoyed me up at a time when it was sorely needed. But I had something to tell each and every one of them, as sincere as it was comforting. “My father,” I responded, “lived a long life, lived his life as he wanted to live it, and was satisfied with his life.”
Yes, Dad worked hard storing up treasures on Earth, but he remained clear-sighted about what mattered and, yes, faithful his whole life long. He was what you might call one of God’s artisans, those who render unto to Caesar what is Caesar’s in order to render unto God what is God’s.