My father, Jacob Austin Whipple, in 1943

My father, Jacob Austin Whipple, in 1943

Approaching Father’s Day, I scan the years that I shared with my father, remembering the handkerchiefs, the ties, the cuff links, the homemade cards, the terrible black walnut cake I proudly presented him with when I was ten,  but the same unanswered questions bubble up when I think about my dad. I have no doubt of his goodness, however I still wonder about the inner life of this person I knew for the first thirty-five years of my life. He died young by today’s standards, only sixty-one, as a result of falling from a roof he was shingling. He took risks, one of them being his intolerance for safety harnesses when working on the top of a three-story building. He often commented about the birds he had seen and heard while working high above the ground: sea gulls, mourning doves, mocking birds – even an owl at dusk. Perhaps he began to identify with creatures who could fly and that reduced his need to be safe with a tether. My appreciation for mountain tops may have come from my father’s unabashed fearlessness of high places, but I never went to a mountain with him during his life. I remember only watching him from the ground as he strolled across a building truss, using his arms for balance, looking like a visitor from Ringling Brothers circus rather than the father of four children.

Jess Maghan, in his book Forty Sons and Daughters: Finding Father Within, eloquently expresses through vignettes of forty sons and daughters describing their fathers, the contemplations we can have about our parent. In the preface to the book, he says, “Leaning over the coffin, saying my final good-bye, I reached in and adjusted my father’s necktie, studying his face for one last time. Who was this man that I will never see again and have known my entire life? As we ponder our life and lineage, this question returns many times, whether you hold your father as your anchor and standard-bearer in life, as your coach and friend, or as an enigmatic man who was mostly absent… The grace of time has buffered my days with my father… it is not the answers we seek in life but the questions we ask that are important.”

Thomas Wolfe described the search for a father’s presence in this way in The Story of a Novel in 1936. He said, “…The deepest search in life, …the thing that in one way or another was central to all living was man’s search to find a father, not merely the father of his flesh, not merely the lost father of his youth, but the image of a strength and wisdom external to his need and superior to his hunger, to which the belief and power of his own life could be united.”

Jess Maghan says in the preface to his book that he feels clear that fathers and children remain on separate paths in life, but there is always that lingering question of how fathers continue to be expressed through their children and how we acknowledge that expression.

Today, I think of my dad whenever I see a bird light on the top of a very tall tree, but I don’t yearn to be up there with him. I just wonder where he’s going when he takes flight.

Forty Sons and Daughters: Finding Father Within, is available from Elm Grove Press and at Bank Square Books in Mystic, Connecticut. Morley Safer, CBS News Correspondent and 60 Minutes cast member, described the book as, “A lovely compendium of the man who shaped each of us that may well teach some valuable lessons in life.”