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Monday, 12 June 2017


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This coming Sunday, 18 June, is Father's Day. I am not going to dwell too much on my own father's story except to say that when he left our Belfast home in 1960, I was six. So, my personal knowledge of him is slight. In recent research I have found out a lot more about his life after the leaving until his death at 57 in London in 1982. But he still remains a man of mystery to me.

As I was growing up, I was used to having one parent and not having another one around didn't bother me at all. We grow accustomed to our surroundings and circumstances. The only time I thought about my father was when I saw my friends' fathers collecting them from school, playing 'dads and lads' football, helping to build guiders for them or teaching them to ride bikes. Much later in life at a job interview when I was answering a question about my upbringing, the interviewer asked if I ever felt disadvantaged by not having a father present in my formative years. Quick as a flash, I answered no. The quick-as-a-flash response was both instinctive and accurate. My mother stepped up and singlehandedly took care of her kids' welfare and all the other stuff involved in raising a family. If I really thought about it during my development, I might well have asked: "Who needs a father anyway?"

But as I have been researching a personal story, I have tried to understand what a great father should be. I have been trying to assess what I missed, assuming my own father was a good, decent, kindly man - which, to this point in my appraisal of him, he was not. I have trawled through many a website and various books to see if I can find a template for a good father. Here's what I have found out.

But before I continue, just a word in this gender-sensitive age we live in. This is my opinion on a matter from a personal standpoint and I do not choose to venture into a wider debate about marriage, parenthood, partnerships and other arrangements for raising children as they apply today. That is an associated but different discussion for another time.

A good father is a steady provider and works to see that his family has the necessities of life. He does everything in his power to keep the family safe from anything and anyone that would injure or harm his children physically, emotionally or spiritually. He shares his knowledge and principles to help his children grow and develop. He shows kindness, compassion and interest in his children. He is a good example for his children to look up to and he is revered by his children for his moral character and actions. He helps his children learn proper boundaries and consequences.  Of course, he shares all of this with his wife or partner, his partner in love, the person he respects and to whom he is totally faithful.  Therefore, he is protector, teacher, friend, exemplar, patriarch, disciplinarian, spiritual leader and devoted partner, a good man, a good husband and a good father.

In the absence of my father, I gleaned some mature wisdom from 'fantasy' fathers like Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, Ben Cartwright in Bonanza, Big John Cannon in The High Chaparral, Lucas McCain in The Rifleman, Joseph 'Rocky' Rockford in The Rockford Files and even Fred Flintstone. My sister Sheila once described me as ‘odd’. She might be right! Closer to home, I had big brothers, cousins and uncles that I looked up to, as a kid does, and I got through whatever was happening around me. As a youngster, I was oblivious to whatever had gone on between my parents.

But, even in my sixties, I do wonder what would have happened had my father not walked out. Would I be a different man? Would I have had the same interests? Would I have had the same career? Would our home have been a happy one? (It was without him.) Would I have been able to cast a fishing line? Would I have followed my father's example and become a heavy smoker, a heavy drinker, a gambler? All speculation, of course, but once an ingredient is removed or changed in whatever chemistry was going on, it's difficult to know how things would have worked out. And, to be honest, it really doesn't matter.

I have had the great fortune to have two fathers in my life. The one that vanished and my father-in-law Jack. I knew him for thirty-four years. He died in 2011, coincidentally the same year as my mother's passing. Jack was an adventurous and gifted man in many ways. Way back before I knew him, in the days before cheap flights and holiday package deals, he would hitch up a caravan and drive his wife and two young children from Middlesbrough to the Algarve or the south of France and other distant places. He loved his family holidays. He was practical too. He built tables, cabinets and other furniture. He constructed a toy cooker, with amazing detail, for one of my sons. He was very keen on playing music and once took it upon himself to buy a self-assembly organ. It duly arrived and he was a little taken aback because all the instructions were in German. Not fluent by any stretch in that language, he persevered, translated the odd word here and there, followed the diagrams and before long he was belting out show tunes.  He was a low handicap golfer and a decent painter. Some of his work hangs on our walls. A talented man indeed and probably the best father role model I have encountered in my lifetime.

Of course, we can't choose our parents and mums and dads mean different things to different people. I know many people who adore their fathers and a few who have difficulty with their relationships. News stories often feature cruel and despicable fathers and an odd few portray kind and loving fathers. In recently read biographies, I noted that Burt Reynolds's father had difficulty praising his son's success and was reluctant to express his love outright. Former President Bill Clinton's father died before he was born. His mother remarried and Clinton had a very difficult relationship with his stepfather. The artist Francis Bacon thought his father was narrow-minded and unpleasant. An extreme example is actor Woody Harrelson's father, Charles, who was a professional hit man as well as a hopeless husband who abandoned his family. Woody has said that his father was articulate and charming but struggled with professing loyalty and friendship towards him.

On the flip side, there are many examples of fathers who were and are adored. Actor Hugh Jackman described his father Chris as his rock from whom he learned everything about loyalty and dependability. John Wayne talked fondly of his father Clyde, calling him a fine man to whom he owed a great deal and hoping he could live up to his example. Michael Douglas has talked about his father Kirk, describing the great bond they have together.  

Everyone has their own emotions when talking about their fathers. As with just about every Father's Day, sadly, my own father is in my head but not my heart. 

I'll end with a couple of quotations.

William Shakespeare: ‘It is a wise father that knows his own child.’ 

Sigmund Freud: ‘I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father’s protection.’

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