What is a father?

It’s been nearly 20 years since my dad was “released from this mortal coil” and I still think about him nearly every day.

My dad was huge, not just in physical stature, but as a person. He might not have described himself that way  but nearly everyone who ever knew him would.

Ray Fenner

Ray Fenner

As a UCC minister, he held a position few of my friends’ fathers did. In fact, I have yet to meet many preacher’s kids other than my cousins, whose father went to seminary with mine.

Talking with an old friend yesterday about our dads got me thinking about what makes someone a “father”. I hear people talk all the time about the importance to a child of a mother AND a father and I wonder, what is it that makes a good father when they are all so very different from each other?

Even apart from his vocation, my dad was a good man. The eldest of 6 siblings, he grew up during the depression, worked his way up to Eagle Scout, fought in WWII, provided for 8 children, and lived out his days in relative peace and comfort on a farm that had been his lifelong dream.

But life was not gentle with him. The horrors of war tormented him, and he lost his next younger brother, who was in the prime of life, to a boating accident. A few years later, his wife, my mother, who had fought mental illness throughout their marriage was taken by cancer at age 40, leaving him with five young children to raise. He took a chance marrying a woman he hardly knew who had three daughters of her own and his life took on a new shape. Then, just when the edges seemed to smooth out, he suffered a major heart attack requiring him to leave a thriving church congregation behind to start over again in a new place as an invalid.

Strange, I’ve never written all that down before and I am overwhelmed at the idea of surviving such a litany of catastrophes. What makes someone able to get up in the morning and face each new day after all this?

I would not describe my dad as a religious man; that was not his motivation for being a minister. Rather, he simply cared deeply for people and his own experiences gave him a level of compassion rarely found in someone many would describe as a “strong” man. He was generous beyond his means with others but we always seemed to have all we needed. Like most of us, he had his demons that would show up on his sharp tongue or in the flash of anger in his eyes. He kept his pain to himself most of the time but there were occasions when he couldn’t.

As time went on and he came to truly appreciate the grace of being surrounded by thousands of wonderful people that were the best perk of his profession, he became a peaceful man, though depression over his poor health became more prevalent. His heart, the real one and the figurative one, began to lose strength more rapidly. Finally, one morning he just couldn’t get up to face another day. He died on Earth Day 1992 and my brother, who became the doctor my dad had once thought he would be himself, eulogized him as “Father Earth”, and indeed he was the salt that gave our world more flavor.

I don’t really know what it means to be a good father. I just know that I had one.

  1. Mama Nance
    June 17, 2011 at 5:05 pm

    and that’s your wonderful gift to him this Father’s Day…..appreciation. That’s about as good as it gets.

  2. June 17, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    Thanks, Elbow.

  3. June 17, 2011 at 8:15 pm

    That is just wonderful and soul cleansing for me. thanks! You’ve inspired me to create something similar for my Pop.

  4. June 17, 2011 at 9:45 pm

    I remember reading your story about his experiences during the war, how he shot a man (a boy, really) and then met his father shortly after (hope I have that right). I can’t imagine going through the horrors of war and living to be sane afterwards. How can any individual not be completely altered after the hell of war? Your father promised to be a minister because of that experience, yes? Nobody is perfect as a parent, but glad your childhood/young adulthood years held enough goodness to remember him fondly.

  5. rachel bb
    June 18, 2011 at 12:07 am

    “I would not describe my dad as a religious man; that was not his motivation for being a minister. Rather, he simply cared deeply for people and his own experiences gave him a level of compassion rarely found in someone many would describe as a “strong” man. ” I like this.. speaks volumes about your dad.

  6. June 18, 2011 at 7:07 am

    Thanks, all. As you said, Laurie, no parent is perfect and he certainly wasn’t. But his tenacity about his own life made it possible for him to help others keep on keepin’ on. I remember him saying to me once, “Life is about getting up in the morning, feeding yourself, doing some work, and going to bed again….” I thought at the time that this was pretty dour advice, but as I’ve grown older and done just that, even on my worst days I can at least manage to just survive. And that’s all any of us really has to do…

  7. Anonymous
    June 18, 2011 at 11:47 pm

    Simply beautiful…I see traces of your father in you. You care about the people that are in your life or have touched your life. Even though we were estranged for many years…when we connected again through fb you made me feel like we had never parted. Thank you, Mr Fenner, for blessing us with your kind-hearted daughter and Thank you Ellen for being you. 🙂

  8. June 18, 2011 at 11:51 pm

    That was from me, Ellen. Sorry I hit enter too soon.

  9. Ursula Goss Taylor
    June 19, 2011 at 5:43 pm

    Your father is the template that I continue to search for for guidance in my spiritual journey. Simply… I loved the man.

  10. June 21, 2011 at 3:53 am

    Wonderfully, beautifully, written about a man of great dignity. The world is a better place because of him. As you say, you had a great father. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Anonymous
    June 21, 2011 at 11:54 am

    Our fondest wishes as a father is to have our lives reflected in our children. While I met your father only briefly at Lolly’s graduation, your words and your spirit reflect his. That is as close a man can get to immortality. Thank you for sharing.

  12. July 24, 2011 at 3:16 pm


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