We Are Only As Good As That Which We Leave Behind

Last Father’s Day I wrote a blog titled Father’s Day, It’s More Important than You Think that was inspired by a young neighbor of mine (Cameron) who lost his father at age 51 after a long battle with cancer. I was luckier than Cameron, my father lived to be 93 and essentially died of natural causes this past January. I haven’t talked with Cameron since this time last year but I imagine that he is thinking about his father this Father’s Day as I am thinking about mine.

My dad, William Wallace Fenn ll on the front porch of the Cliff House overlooking Canandaigua Lake circa 1942

My dad was born in 1920 in Boston, MA. His father, my grandfather was a professor of physiology at the University of Rochester. When my dad was in high school, his parents bought a summer place on Canandaigua Lake in up-state New York where he learned to sail. Like his father and grandfather, he attended Harvard College where he played lacrosse and eventually became the captain of the team. He graduated with a degree in Biology in 1942 and like all young men of that time went off to fight in World War ll. He joined the Army Air Corps and was sent to the Philippines where he became a radar countermeasures officer. Radar was in its infancy in those days and my dad flew in the nose of a B-29 looking for enemy outposts. It was a dangerous job and at least once they took a bullet or two through the engine of their plane. He told me that they were lucky because the engine kept running and they landed safely. After the war he went back to school at Rensselaer Politechnic Institute and earned a second degree in electrical engineering. He married my mother in 1947 and soon after had two daughters, my sister’s Bonnie and Betsy. I came along in 1959.

My dad and my Aunt Ruth sailing on Canandaigua Lake aboard the Lorna Doone about 1938. Dad loved to sail and always tried to get all that he could out of the boat and the conditions. I love this picture with his leg draped over the side in an effort to keep the boat sailing flat.

Growing up my dad was always there for me. Like all good dads he taught me right from wrong. He taught me how to sail and how to tie a bowline at a young age. He taught me how to handle a jack-knife and how to split and stack wood. He taught me how to change a flat tire, use a power mower and run an outboard engine. Somewhere along the way by way of example, he taught me how to be a good husband and a father to my three children.

Mom, dad and me about 1963 I’m guessing

This is my first Father’s Day without a father to give a gift to or make a phone call to. But thankfully, my memories of my dad are clear and happy ones. More and more I am struck by the idea that we are only as good as that which we leave behind. Not so much by our accomplishments but rather by the examples we set, the lessons we pass on and the tone by which we lead our lives. Perhaps this is why we are here.

Happy Father’s Day!

On we go…

Father’s Day, it’s More Important than You Think

I have to be honest and say that I’ve never put much stock in holiday’s such as Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. I’ve always considered them to be mostly manufactured holidays created by greeting card companies in an effort to sell more cards. I know I’m not alone in this thinking but today, I am seeing things differently.

Yesterday I attended a memorial service for a neighbor of mine who passed away after a long bout with cancer;  he was only 51.  Generally speaking, a memorial service, even under the best of circumstances, is never a very cheerful event but this one had a surprisingly upbeat feel to it which is exactly what I am sure my neighbor Mitch would have wanted.

The eulogy was given by Mitch’s son Cameron. Cameron is just about 19. I had not seen him in a while but the last time I did, which was not that long ago, he was sporting a mop of bleached-out brown hair, blown out jeans and was rolling down the road pushing a long-board. In short, he looked like the typical happy-go-lucky surfer dude in search of the next wave to ride. Yesterday however, the surfer dude was gone and in his place stood a dashing young man, with short hair, wearing a crisp white shirt, charcoal gray suit, and striped tie. Cameron delivered a very personal, very emotionally charged speech that forced all of us in attendance to hold our breath and sit bolt upright with our backs flat against the wooden pew. He spoke about all the great times he and his dad had, had together. How they had learned how to snowboard together despite his father’s reluctance to give up his skis. He spoke about the times they spent on the water wake boarding and how his best memories were the two of them hosing off the boat at the end of the day and putting it to bed. He spoke about what a great provider his father had been, how he had been a great husband and a great father to his older sister too. His words were what every dad hopes their son will say after you’re gone. They were quite simply, perfect.

As I left the church and walked to my car, I was reminded of similar words delivered by my father at my grandfather’s memorial service in 1971, 42 years ago. He too spoke about how close he and his father had been, how my grandfather had loved to play games with his children. He talked about how he had taught my dad to throw an inside curve and an outside curve. How when things got to be too quiet at home he would jump out of his chair and say something like “let’s go cut down a tree, or let’s hike up the gully and pick raspberries, or who’s ready for a dip in the lake?” The more I thought about it, the more I realized that while the two speeches were separated by more than forty years, the spirit of the words were identical.

Sunday is Father’s Day. But this year, thanks to my young friend Cameron, I am seeing it in a whole new light, a better and brighter light. This year I am seeing Father’s Day not as just another commercially created holiday but rather an opportunity for self-reflection and introspection. An opportunity to stand in front of the mirror and ask myself, “am I being the best father that I can be?” I’ll ask this question because I want to know that if I were to leave this earth tomorrow, would my children be willing to stand up for me, stand shoulder to shoulder at the podium and say, “our father was a great dad. He taught us how to throw an inside curve and an outside curve, he taught us to ski and to appreciate the outdoors.  He taught us how to sail and how to button up the boat at the end of the day after a fun day on the water. He was a guy who loved to laugh and go on great adventures. He loved dogs. He was a good provider, a good husband to my mom and we will miss him more than you will ever know.” This, is what I think Father’s Day is really all about, a day of annual self-evaluation of how I am doing as a dad, the most important job I’ll ever have. And if from time to time, the answer to the question is “no, you can do better,” I’ll take the truth to heart, adjust my compass and sail off on a better, more favorable heading. So to all you fathers out there, good luck and happy Father’s Day!

On We Go…