Fathers are so necessary as examples and guides for our children in wisdom and virtue. Without father figures, young people often feel orphaned, left adrift at a critical moment in their growth and development. – Pope Francis
My father, Harold “Pat” Beckwith, died a year ago today at the age of 84. Since that morning of Ash Wednesday 2015 not a day goes by when I do not think of him. Married to my mother for over 55 years, he was both a remarkable man and a remarkable father.
His family moved from Connecticut to the neighborhood of Astoria in Queens, New York soon after the birth of his youngest brother, Ron, in 1931. This was in the middle of the Great Depression. When I was a kid and would ask my Dad about this era, he would always come back to one stark image: an empty refrigerator. This is why, if you were ever at my parents’ home whenever meals were prepared or served – which was pretty much all the time – you would soon notice a nearly overflowing refrigerator. And yet, like Harry Houdini, my Dad would always manage to find some room for an additional item.
His habit of “finding room” was not exclusive to kitchen appliances. It was a virtue that was integral to his character. He would always find room for others, and he never seemed to be put out about it. In the 1970s, during a difficult time for his sister and her children, my father (along with my mother), offered our home to them as a safe haven.
My father had an uncommon wisdom that emerged in a variety of different ways. When I was about eight- or nine-years-old, in the height of the Cold War, I asked my Dad about the Soviet Union. After giving me an account of its history as well as the role that it played in the Second World War, he said that it was a Communist country. I replied, “What is Communism?” He answered, “Well, son, in a capitalist country, some people own Cadillacs and some people don’t. But in a Communist country, everyone is treated equally, no one owns a Cadillac.”
During recess while I was in 6th grade at St. Viator Elementary School, I noticed that my brother, Jim, a 4th grader, was absorbing the punches of a playground bully. So I ran across the pavement, tackled the bully, and began, as they say, laying hands on him. Two of the teachers pulled us apart. I was immediately escorted to the office of the principal, Sister Joyce. She phoned my parents. When they arrived Sister Joyce explained to them what had happened, and that there was no excuse for such violence, even if it was for the purpose of protecting my own brother.
My father thanked Sister Joyce for bringing the incident to their attention, and he assured her that paternal discipline would be administered at home. As soon as we left the building and were in the parking lot heading toward the car, however, my Dad leaned over to me and said, “I am proud that you defended your brother.” The lesson was clear: filial love and fraternal loyalty are habits that, if not nurtured, will dissipate from neglect.
I cannot recall ever having a conflict with my father. That’s not to say he didn’t correct any of his children. But he did so in his own distinctive way. One night after I attended a friend’s bachelor party in 1982, he discovered me early in the morning on the front lawn of our home. Apparently, I had had one martini too many the night before and had been “dropped off” by my companions only a few hours earlier.
Instead of scolding me for my childish imprudence, he helped me up off the grass, escorted me into the house, and made the both of us breakfast. He didn’t say one word about the unconscious 21-year-old he discovered on his lawn. As he handed me a plate of French Toast and placed it under my nose, I nearly threw up from the scent. He then looked at me, with that mischievous smile, and said, “I hope you learned your lesson.” No actual reprimand or scolding was necessary. The sheer embarrassment of it all was quite enough.
During the last decade of his life my father was given to writing poems for a variety of events, but most especially for birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. This is why all four of his adult children, my mother, and his eleven grandchildren could look forward each year on their birthdays to receiving from my father his latest literary expression of his love for them.
My wife and I were living in Rome on February 12 when we received word from my brother Jim of the doctor’s dire prognosis. Between that day and our return to the United States on February 16, I felt completely helpless. It was evident in our FaceTime visits with my parents that my father’s health, as well as his awareness of his surroundings, was declining at a rapid pace. So, on Valentine’s Day I composed a poem for him, a recitation of which I video-recorded and posted online so that he could hear it from me before we had arrived:
You remain a towering figure
A man with a life rich and deep
Nothing can sap you of that glory
Your story is ours, intertwined, complete
Your legacy is etched forever
In wife, in children, generations two
Born of bonds that cannot be severed
By times or places none can construe
Love, the virtue, that bears all things
Has from you touched a multitude
You’ve taken, with grace, the arrows and slings
In the midst of every vicissitude
Your humor, your wit, your kindness
Your devotion to our Mother, your wife
The common touch of your guidance
Fixed in each warmed by your life
Requiescat in pace.