Earlier this year, my mother’s side of the family gathered in the mountains of Western Virginia to bury my grandmother, who had died at the age of 99. She would be joining her husband, my grandfather, who was buried a decade before in a small cemetery hidden in the woods, owned by a local Church of the Brethren congregation that first came to the Shenandoah Valley in the 1700s. Though my grandparents both were Catholic, my grandfather had wanted to be buried in the remote Virginia mountains he loved.
The funeral and subsequent time with family were, of course, in honor of my deceased grandmother. And well-deserving was she of remembrance. She was a devoted wife and mother to five children; later, she raised two of her grandchildren when one of her daughters died unexpectedly. She was a beloved grandmother and great-grandmother, and she was a devout Catholic who attended daily Mass and faithfully prayed her rosary. Nevertheless, I noticed many of the memories shared by family members that weekend inevitably returned to my grandfather.
In one sense, that seems wrong. My grandmother was patient and quick to forgive; my grandfather was easily provoked and held grudges. My grandmother was eager to make everyone feel welcome; my grandfather was often eager to make sure people didn’t overstay their welcome. My grandmother learned to coexist charitably with people who didn’t share her religious or political opinions; my grandfather’s temper (and voice) rose rapidly when people questioned him. She was a kind woman. He was a hard man.
Why, then, would our families’ reflections so naturally gravitate to him, rather than her? Why would we reflect on his words and his accomplishments? Perhaps because there is something deeply ingrained in the human psyche that yearns for a strong, capable, and loving father figure. There is within the human condition a “desire for dad.”
Plenty of scientific data substantiates this. Among the negative indicators for low father involvement are increased likelihood of incarceration, substance abuse, and depression, according to the Child and Family Research Partnership. “Father involvement using authoritative parenting (loving and with clear boundaries and expectations) leads to better emotional, academic, social, and behavioral outcomes for children,” according to the Children’s Bureau, which serves at-risk kids.
There is a theological connection here as well. Granted, as theologians note, God the Father is not a biological male—He is pure spirit. Yet that He is described in the masculine throughout the Bible—and that the one begotten of Him is “the Son”—suggests that the biblical emphasis on the divine as masculine is not accidental. God is the law-giver, the foremost authority, and the one who protects, blesses, and lavishes gifts on His children.
For most of human history, across a wide diversity of cultures, mens’ fathers performed this role at the natural level (and in many societies and subcultures, still do). It’s telling that one of the best indicators for determining if children will attend church as adults is if their father goes to church. If God has placed within us a natural desire to see our fathers as the most important authority in our family, it’s no surprise that whether or not they go to church has a significant influence on the religiosity of their children.
That certainly was the case for my grandfather’s children. All four of those alive today are practicing Christians and regularly attend Catholic or Protestant church. Though their father grew increasingly frustrated and critical of the Church in his latter years, he kept going.
He was a man of service and ingenuity. Overhearing his parents discussing their perilous financial situation during the Great Depression, he voluntarily dropped out of school to get a job to pay his parents’ expenses. He served admirably in the Coast Guard during World War II. He had natural artistic ability, so much so that after the war he was accepted into a prestigious New York City art school. He declined it because his growing family needed an immediate, steady source of income. He took a tremendous risk in his 40s and started his own business, which was not only successful, but which he sold for enough to retire on. He provided for his family, including two grandchildren whom he parented after his retirement.
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Yet for his many accomplishments, probably the most valuable one was marrying my grandmother. She provided the stability, the love, and the faith that made his life worth memorializing. It was she who fostered the steady, predictable home life for their children that enabled him to pursue professional success. It was she who endured his temper for more than sixty years of marriage. It was she who relentlessly prayed for him.
It’s certainly possible that if my grandfather had chosen a different path, one not primarily of wife and children, but of a career in art, he might have secured more prestige, and perhaps more wealth. But it’s also possible that all that might not have amounted to much of anything. I certainly know a few capable artists who have never been able to make a living off their work. And regardless of the success of that imagined life, without the mediating influence of my grandmother, he might have been far more prickly and cantankerous than the man we knew.
Without my grandmother, my grandfather might have become a lonely, miserable old codger—or, worse, married a narcissistic urbanite akin to the women in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. With my grandmother, he assumed a dignified, almost mythic personality, a source of wisdom and inspiration for his children and grandchildren. Without my grandmother, he might have descended into vainglory, cynicism, and even atheism in the self-worshiping post-war New York art scene. With her, he held his faith, if tenuously, and helped create a safe place for his children and grandchildren to grow up, start their own families, and enjoy a slice of the American dream.
In other words, my grandmother enabled a man with some gifts and grit likely to become far more than he ever would have been on his own. It may not be her wit, eloquence, or deeds her progeny most easily remember, but we remember those of my grandfather because of her. She was the ballast. Men should thus take heed: you are needed by your children, and this world, far more than you realize. But your ability to perform your duties will likely hinge on your wife, who must not only be industrious, patient, and loving, but also push you toward heaven. So choose well.