I have not read Harper Lee’s just released Go Set a Watchman, her sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, and I’ve decided not to do so. That’s because I cannot bear to give up Scout’s father Atticus, as portrayed through her young eyes in the earlier book. That novel was miraculously effective, on many levels, but perhaps most deeply in depicting what a father is, and what a young child hungrily absorbs from a good (or even good-enough) father.
I don’t have too many early memories of interactions with my father, since he worked two jobs and, when home, was often doing yard work or home repairs or napping to make up for the sleep debt acquired when he worked nights as a fireman. Mostly I visualize him at the kitchen table for the evening meal (when he was not at the firehouse acquiring the expertise to cook for us, occasionally, as an exotic interruption of our mother’s meals, some firehouse fare, such as an amazing Swiss steak).
That evening meal, when I was small, was always “supper,” though at some point in the succeeding decade or so we shifted, as everyone around us seemed also to do, to calling it “dinner.” The cultural linguistics folks and the sociologists will have to explain what was going on there sociologically and ethnically and geographically and historically. For what it’s worth, we were blue-collar Irish Americans living in Yonkers, New York, a few blocks from the Bronx border, and the time was the late Fifties to early Sixties.
But I do have one early memory of my father that, when I want to summon up the special feeling of being protected by someone strong and benevolent, I call to mind. It takes place at the public pool we occasionally visited in the course of each summer, though my father could rarely make it. I am maybe 4 or 5 years old, and I want to go under “the showers,” in the middle of the enormous pool, that rain down water on anyone passing through. The pool is still too deep for me out there (or rather, I am still too small), and I can’t yet swim, so my father lets me climb onto his shoulders and then begins to carry me, St. Christopher-like, to the showers.
And really, all this introductory part, all this scene setting, is not part of the memory, which consists largely of the feel of being high on his shoulders and the slight rocking motion of his gait as his legs and feet shove aside the water – a sensation something like what I imagine it is to ride an elephant. I feel very high up, which normally frightens me, but in these circumstances merely deliciously combines the opposite sensations of daring and security.
The water rises until it laps my feet and sloshes my knees. The noise of the showers as we approach, with my eyes closing as we enter in, sounds in my memory as loud as Niagara. We emerge on the other side, and again I feel the lumbering elephant-like stride of my father through the water. He is large, strong, safe. He is mighty, mammoth, like a mountain that happens to have taken it into its head to move.
That is the memory, and when I want to grope towards what it means or experience something similar, I often turn to passages in the Psalms. Such passages, which pop up with great frequency, concretely convey the strength, the benevolence, the might and loving-kindness of a Father: “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,/My God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,/My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Ps. 18); “Be a rock of refuge for me,/a mighty stronghold to save me,/for you are my rock, my stronghold./For your name’s sake, lead me and guide me” (Ps. 31); “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I./For you have been a shelter for me, /And a strong tower from the enemy,/I will abide in Your tabernacle forever;/I will trust in the shelter of your wings” (Ps. 61).
For of course, what we yearn for and find imperfectly embodied in our earthly fathers is something that is only perfectly realized in our heavenly one. St. Paul makes this connection explicit in Ephesians: “For this reason I kneel before the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.”
My father was not merely a symbol. He was real: He had a body that will be raised up, an immortal soul saved by Christ. But like all of us, he was “made in the image and likeness of God,” and the roles he played, including that of father, also imaged God.
I don’t really need a book to tell me that my father isn’t and wasn’t God. Beyond a certain age, however, this or that special book, painting, piece of music, or person can movingly remind us that our fathers point the way to God, incarnate aspects of Him. They arouse, partly slake, and then inevitably leave unfulfilled the desire for our heavenly Father that will only fully be satisfied in heaven.