Sunday Pages: "Those Winter Sundays"
A poem by Robert Hayden
Back in 2011, when a trustwashed iteration of Donald John Trump was still firing D-list celebrities on a contrived reality show, I published a novel about a day in the life of a stay-at-home dad.
At the time, my kids were six and four, a year older than their respective characters in the book. The period that begins with a child being conveyed from hospital to home snug in the car-seat and ends with the same child being conveyed from home to kindergarten on a school bus is, to the parent, unlike any other phase in life—and I wanted to make sure I remembered it all, good, bad, and ugly. Fathermucker is mostly a vehicle for my observations and jokes about presiding over two small and fussy humans. It begins like this:
Fatherhood is fear. Fatherhood is disappointment. Fatherhood is anger and envy and lust. And the surest guarantee of fatherly success is a Spock-like mastery of those base emotions. Mister Spock, not Doctor.
Good fathers conquer fear. They become One with their phobias. Like the Buddha. Or Patrick Swayze in Point Break.
Good fathers manage their expectations. They do not expend perspiration on small stuff, and they recognize, like the Zen masters that they are, that all stuff is small. That nothing is worth sweating over. Not even punishments cruel and unusual, tortures that violate the Geneva Conventions: sleep deprivation, emotional blackmail, Go, Diego, Go!.
Good fathers temper their anger. They don’t snap, they don’t yell, they don’t call the douchebag in the BMW who just cut them off a fucking asshole when children are in earshot, they don’t smack, and they sure as hell don’t spank. Love is their sole instrument of discipline.
Good fathers combat the Seven Deadly Sins with the Seven Cardinal Virtues: humility, charity, kindness, patience, temperance, prudence, and, oh yes, chastity. Good fathers emulate good fathers of another kind, priestly, offering blessing and balm, sacrificing their own desires for the salvation of others.
That’s what good fathers do.
I strive to be a good father, but when your three-year-old won’t stop kicking you, and your five-year-old swats at you with his fork when you try to take away his Lego catalog, and the two of them come to blows over matters of great import, such as who gets to play with the US Weekly magazine insert they found on the mildewy floor near the toilet, this can be a challenging—nay, an impossible—duty to uphold.
Which calls to mind another axiom of my austere and lonely office:
Fatherhood is failure.
I think what I meant by that last line is that parents are held to impossible standards—that we all make mistakes, sometimes big ones, and we have to accept that a certain amount of failure is the natural order of things.
Eleven years later, with my kids now seventeen and fifteen, I have come to understand and accept that they are their own unique human beings, completely independent of me and my wife, each with their own distinct personalities that were fully evident from the day they were born: the oldest, a full two weeks late, wanting to maximize the time inside the coziness of the womb; the youngest, a full month early, stubbornly insisting to be released into the world RIGHT NOW, READY OR NOT. They are who they are. We can nurture our children, support them, encourage them, nudge them in certain directions, give them the tools they need to succeed, and love them to pieces, but what they make of themselves is largely beyond our control. Nothing hurts worse than when our kids suffer, and nothing feels better than parental pride.
The best words in that little snippet from my book are ones I didn’t write. “My austere and lonely office” is an allusion to “Those Winter Sundays,” a poem by Robert Hayden, the first Black Poet Laureate of the United States—which feels especially appropriate to share on Juneteenth, if not two days before the beginning of summer.
The poem is based on memories from his own childhood in Michigan. In the first stanza, Hayden recalls how “[o]n Sundays too my father got up early,” in the freezing cold, and would get a fire going, so everyone in the family would be warm when dressing for church. “No one ever thanked him.”
The poem continues:
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
And that is another fact of fatherhood, which Hayden articulates so beautifully in those last two lines: So much of what our parents do for us is unknowable. What could we know? Either we were too young to remember, or we were never aware of it in the first place. That’s the mystifying nature of the parent-child dynamic.
Sometimes it takes us being mothers and fathers ourselves to alter our perceptions of our own parents. Hayden was born in 1913. “Those Winter Sundays” was written in 1966. When he was a kid, he surely recognized his father’s “chronic angers,” but the expressions of love? That took him a lot longer to understand. “No one ever thanked him” is both a statement of fact, and an expression of regret.
And so to all the fathers out there, including mine and yours, I say: thank you.
On Friday’s The Five 8, LB and I talked about the hearings, Ginni Thomas, the captured Supreme Court, and the January 6 coup attempt.