The Right Hand of the Father
I had an uneventful childhood. Added to my mother’s conviction that her children were precious was my father’s terrible wariness. He saw peril in everything, disaster was ever at hand. Some mayhem with our name on it lurked around the edges of our neighbourhood waiting for a lapse of parental oversight to spirit us away. In the most innocent of enterprises, he saw a danger. In every football game he saw the ruptured spleen, the death by drowning in every backyard pool, leukaemia in every bruise, broken necks on trampolines, the deadly pox or fever in every rash or bug bite.
It was, of course, the undertaking.
As a funeral director, he was accustomed to random and unreasonable damage. He had learned to fear.
My mother left big things to God. Of her nine children, she was fond of informing us, she had only ‘planned’ one. The rest of us, though not entirely a surprise – she knew what caused it – were gifts from God to be treated accordingly. Likewise, she figured on God’s protection and, I firmly believe, believed in the assignment of guardian angels whose job it was to keep us all out of harm’s way.
But my father had seen, in the dead bodies of infants and children and young men and women, evidence that God lived by the Laws of Nature, and obeyed its statutes, however brutal. Kids died of gravity and physics and biology and natural selection. Car wrecks and measles and knives stuck in toasters, household poisons, guns left loaded, kidnappers, serial killers, burst appendices, bee stings, hard candy chokings, croups untreated – he’d seen too many instances of God’s unwillingness to overrule the natural order which included, along with hurricanes and meteorites and other Acts of God, the aberrant disasters of childhood.
So whenever I or one of my siblings would ask to go here or there or do this or that, my father’s first response was almost always No! He had just buried someone doing the very same thing.
He had just buried some boy who toyed with matches, or played baseball without a helmet on, or went fishing without a life preserver, or ate the candy that a stranger gave them. And what the boys did that led to their fatalities matured as my brothers and sisters and I matured, the causes of their deaths becoming subtly interpersonal rather than cataclysmic as we aged. The stories of children struck by lightning were replaced by narratives of unrequited love gone suicidal, teenagers killed by speed and drink or overdosed on drugs and hordes of the careless but otherwise blameless dead who’d found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
My mother, who had more faith in the power of prayer and her own careful parenting, would often override his prohibitions. ‘Oh, Ed,’ she would argue over dinner, ‘leave them be! They’ve got to learn some things for themselves.’ Once she told him, ‘don’t be ridiculous, Ed’ when he’d refused me permission to spend the night at a friend’s house across the street. ‘What!’ she scolded him. ‘Did you just bury someone who died of a night spent at Jimmy Shryock’s house?’
He regarded my mother’s interventions not as contrarieties, but as the voice of reason in a world gone mad. It was simply the occasional triumph of her faith over his fear. And when she stepped into the fray with her powerful testimony, he reacted as the drunken man does to the cold water and hot coffee, as if to say: Thanks, I needed that.
But his fear was genuine and not unfounded. Even for suburban children who were loved, wanted, protected, doted over, there were no guarantees. The neighbourhood was infested with rabid dogs, malarial mosquitoes, weirdos disguised as mailmen and teachers. The worst seemed always on the brink of happening as his daily rounds informed him. For my father, even the butterflies were suspect.
So while my mother said her prayers and slept the sound sleep of a child of God, my father was ever wakeful, ever vigilant, ever in earshot of a phone, in case the funeral home should call in the middle of the night, and a radio that monitored police and fire calls. In my childhood I can recall no ordinary day he was not up and waiting for me and my siblings to awaken. Nor can I remember any night I lived at home, until I was 19, when he was not awake and waiting for our arrival home.
Every morning brought fresh news of overnight catastrophes he’d heard on the radio. And every night brought stories of the obsequies, sad and deliberate, which he directed. Our breakfasts and dinners were populated by the widowed and heartsore, the wretched and bereft, among them the parents permanently damaged by the death of a child. My mother would roll her eyes a little bit and dole out liberties against his worry. Eventually we were allowed to play hardball, go camping, fish alone, drive cars, date, ski, open checking accounts and run the other ordinary developmental risks – her faith moving mountains his fear created.
‘Let go,’ she would say. ‘Let God.’
Once she even successfully argued on behalf of my older brother Dan’s BBGun, a weapon which he promptly turned against his younger siblings, outfitting us in helmet and leather jacket and instructing us to run across Eaton Park while he practised his marksmanship. Today he is a colonel in the Army and the rest of us are gun-shy.
Far from indifferent, my mother left the business of Life and Death to God in His heaven. This freed her to tend to the day-to-day concerns of making sure we lived up to our potential. She was concerned with ‘character’, ‘integrity’, ‘our contribution to society’ and ‘the salvation of our souls’. She made no secret of her belief that God would hold her personally accountable for the souls of her children – a radical notion today – so that her heaven depended on our good conduct.
For my father, what we did, who we became, were incidental to the tenuous fact of our being: That We Were seemed sufficient for the poor worried man. The rest, he would say, was gravy.