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The Fathers We Find

By Charles P. Ries

A month after the fight with my father over the Viet Nam War, my parents took their yearly summer road trip with Father Weller in his new set of wheels. Despite hating how I dressed, having serious doubts about my lifestyle and politics, my dad still trusted me with his mink and his beloved mink farm. He didn’t care that his son was a hippie; he still thought that I might have the knack and disposition to inherit his empire. I didn’t have the heart to tell him he had staked his hope on the wrong son.

I took their departure as an opportunity to invite friends for a pre-college beer party. My plan was to have a few guys over, get drunk, and be done with it—nice and simple. My associates felt something grander was called for. They argued that I owed it to them for all the parties they’d hosted when their parents had left town. They assured me that everything would be fine and, after five seconds of soul-searching, I agreed.

I got a half-barrel of beer and waited for my ten buddies and a few girlfriends to join me. The first guests arrived at 5:00 p.m. and didn’t stop arriving until well past 8:00 p.m. The word had gotten out. The hole in the party dam had gone from a trickle to a deluge. Ries wasn’t having a party; he was having the party.

It didn’t take long for our long gravel driveway to fill with cars, prompting late arrivals to park alongside the two-lane country trunk road that ran adjacent to our farm. The beer helped cloud my good judgment. Without it I might have thought, this is becoming more than I bargained for. The bedrooms were booked solid. Even my parent’s bedroom was being used, “Guys, this is my parents’ bedroom. Okay? I mean this is my parents’ bedroom,” I explained.

“It’s a bed—a bed’s a bed. What do you think God made beds for? Sleeping?” came the muffled, panting reply from one of the two rolling mounds beneath the sheets.

“There you are,” a stumbling classmate said as he guided me from my parent’s bedroom back to the basement. “What the hell you doing in there? Catching some live entertainment?” The party continued to speed its way rapidly downhill until one of my guests called to me from the kitchen, “Ries, there’s some old fart here. He’s looking for you.”

“What’d you tell him?” I shouted back.

“I told him no Chuck Ries lives here.”

“And then what did he say?”

“He said, he still wanted to see Chuck Ries. I guess the old geezer’s deaf or something.”

“What did he tell you his name was?”

“Ah, I think it was Uncle Pete, or maybe it was Fresh Meat,” he laughed loudly. “At least I think that’s what he said. Ya, that’s what he said. He said, tell Chuck his Uncle Fresh Meat is here and he better get his drunken butt outside on the double,” he rambled on to the raucous laughter of the other drunks who were taking turns with me doing beer shots from the keg and passing joints around the unholy circle.

In my joyful haze, I realized I had not considered the possibility of my Uncle Pete coming out and looking for night crawlers. Night crawlers are the big brothers of earthworms and a favorite fish bait of my uncle. As the name suggests, they came out at night and seemed to flourish under our mink pens. One could walk with a flashlight down the aisles and pluck up enough worms to fill a good-sized coffee can. I ran upstairs to meet the old fart in the kitchen.

“I guess I picked a good night to come looking for crawlers. I ought to get at least a can full,” my uncle Pete said, as if he didn’t notice the cloud of pot smoke, booming music, and the crowd of drunken revelers.

“Yes, well, sure, it does seem like a great night to get worms. Need any help?” I tried.

“Ries, just tell him to get lost and get your ass back down here. It’s your turn,” a voice called from the basement.

“That’s okay,” my uncle replied. “I’m pretty sure I can handle this assignment on my own. Besides your reflexes might be just a bit slow under the circumstances. I’ll make a deal with you. You clear this place out by the time I get my worms and we’ll have a talk. You got that?” he said, and went off into the night in search of worms.

“The party is over! My Uncle Pete’s here,” I shouted, and for good measure yelled, “he’s called the cops.” The word cops was like dropping a can of Raid in a cockroach hotel. The drunken bugs fled into the night and in ten minutes the house was cleared. I stepped outside to the back porch, sat on the steps and waited for the return of my uncle.

Pete emerged out of the evening mists wearing his trademark Kingsbury Beer baseball cap and carrying a coffee can full of crawlers. As he sat down next to me he said, “Hey, Chucky, just look at these, I landed some real beauties. Those perch better watch out,” he said, letting me look into the can as if it were filled with gold coins. “You know what these would cost me at Ed’s Bait Shop? Four bucks. Ries Night Crawlers, the fisherman’s friend. I don’t know what it is about this place, but the ground under those pens is like a fertility clinic for worms. I never saw so many. Hell, I was grabbing four at a time.”

“Those worms didn’t have a chance Pete. I should’ve warned them you were coming, but you didn’t call first,” I mumbled as I prepared for the punishment that was soon to befall me.

“Pretty quiet around here all of sudden,” he said. “How’re you doing? You’re mom tells me you had a little brush up with your dad the other day?”

“Yup.”

“She said she hopes you’re doing okay and keeping out of trouble. She worries about you.”

“I’m fine.”

“I know that. Look, life is a kick in the shorts some days. But all in all it’s pretty good. After what I went through in the War, I wouldn’t want anyone to go fight unless they had to. Unless it was for a good cause. I’m not sure about this one, Chucky. But you’re a good kid. You’ve always been a good kid. Nothing wrong with a little wild time. I had mine and you gotta have yours. But you gotta know your dad doesn’t mean anything when he gets on you. He’s not much fun, that’s for sure, but he’s a good man. He works hard and there’s nothing wrong with that. Hey, some days you teenagers are a real pain in the butt, you know. As for me, I’d rather fish more and work less. But each to their own. Right?”

“I hate him.”

“No, you don’t. Not really. You’re angry with him. But you don’t hate him. Hating people just slows you down. Get angry and get over it. Got any beer left in there? I could sure use a tall one. And while you’re in there, turn off the backyard lights. I want to show you something.”

I brought two beers outside and sat next to him. We drank in silence, and as our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we stared out over a lawn filled with so many fireflies it was as if we were adrift in a sea of stars. I’d thought about what he’d told me as we watched the fireworks twinkling around us. He leaned into my shoulder giving me support and, of course, having his free beer.

“One night in northern France, I was on guard duty with a guy in my platoon. It was a night a lot like this one. Warm, humid, quiet—the fireflies were all over the place. He was a big black guy from Mississippi. Nice guy—I think his name was Dwight Smith. A close friend of Dwight’s was killed a few days earlier. The war was wearing him down. It was wearing us all down.

“ ‘Peter, I think there’s no God. No God would allow any of this to happen,’ Dwight told me. ‘I’m a good Baptist. Pray hard, being as good a man as I know how to be. But this war has taken all the God and goodness out of me,’ and he began to weep and started to pray.

“Now, if you know any good Baptists, you know they can really pray,” my uncle went on. “I tell you, we Catholics could learn a thing or two about praying from the Baptists. Dwight gave it all he had.

“ ‘Just let me know you’re here, Lord. Just show me your love,’ I could hear him whisper.

“I let him be and didn’t make anything of it. Well, after about five minutes if those damn fireflies didn’t start blinking. It was like God had given Dwight a light switch. For as far as we could see, those bugs were blinking on and then off, then on and then off. Dwight got the answer he was looking for.”

“Cool story,” I said.

“True story. You gotta have faith. Faith that God’s right there with you. Putting you right where you need to be. Giving you all you need. Some days are going to be tough, but other days you’re going to see miracles. Signs that God is behind an invisible curtain that’s hanging right here in front of us.”

It had been a quite a night.

“I’ll make you a deal. You never have party like this and I won’t tell your folks what happened tonight.”

“Thanks. It was a dumb idea. It got out of hand. I didn’t think it was going to get so big.”

“Yup, you were pretty dumb today. But you and your dad don’t need another reason to get into each other’s hair. So, no more parties. You got that?” he said.

“Got it.”

“Good. You want to go fishing tomorrow? I’ll come by about four a.m.? Have you back in time to start your chores at seven.”

“You mind if I pass? I got some cleaning up to do.”

“Well, maybe next week,” he said, putting his arm around me. “You’re a hell of kid. You know your mom and I are close as can be. Best friends there ever were. She only has great kids. You know that, don’t you?”

“I suppose. But some days I don’t know shit.”

“Well, that’s not going to change. You just keep doing what you feel is right. And speaking about doing the right thing, how about you getting your uncle a refill and he’ll be on his way home.”

I brought Pete another beer and a bonus bag of pretzels. He got up, walked to his car, and drove off into the night with his can of crawlers and our secrets.

As I entered the third of a four-hour meditation, my legs began to cramp and my back ached. My mind continued to run in circles, but slowly it came to a standstill when, for a long calm clear moment, I saw him. I saw my father sitting next to me. He wasn’t the father I’d known, but a Hindu monk. He was young, with a shaved head, but I distinctly knew it was my father and it dawned on me that prayer and service had not been enough to keep him in heaven. God had played a cruel trick on him when He made him return as a parent. What the monastery couldn’t do, we his seven children, would. We’d grind his ego, temper, and impatience to powder and send him back to God without a blemish. In a flash the vision was gone. I’d seen him. I’d known my father before, as a monk. And when I found him again in this life, he was still a monk. Perhaps parenting, not the priesthood is the path to God, I thought.

So many stories. So many memories.

During the vigil before my father’s burial, I walked up to his open coffin and slipped in an envelope filled with rose petals I’d been given years earlier after completing an advanced yoga training. I had left Catholicism long ago (if anyone ever truly leaves Catholicism) and was determined, through therapy and spirituality, to heal myself. I worked with a Jungian therapist to understand the meaning of my dreams. I studied Buddhism and Hinduism. I even traveled to North Africa to learn the mystical teachings of Islam. I left no rock unturned in my search for happiness. I discovered that when I calmed my mind, my thoughts became less self-critical. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better.

That evening I drove out to where the mink farm had been. The sheds were now gone and the massive yard that housed our ten thousand animals had been replaced with a Super K-mart and a Piggly Wiggly. But the house my father and his brothers built sixty years before was still standing. My cousin Joan, who, after a difficult divorce, needed a place to stay at a good price was now renting it. My parents did what they’d always done and practically gave it to her. She was, after all, family.

As I glided to a stop on the gravel drive leading to my parents’ home and climbed out of my car, my cousin was already waiting for me. “Hey Cuz, mind if I sit back here for awhile and think? I could always see further when I sat back here,” I said as she reached out to give me a knowing embrace.

“Sure thing. You want a beer to keep you company?” she asked. “Hey, your dad was a good man. He just didn’t have much to say. He came from a generation of silent men. Men who didn’t burden others with their feelings. He showed his heart in other ways.”

“Right. I know that.”

Joan looked at me a moment longer and then turned to go inside. When she returned she handed me a bottle of Kingsbury and gave me another long hug as I struggled to fight back a rising wedge of emotion.

My father was a hard guy to figure, and although I’d worked hard to forget him, he remained a primary suspect in the emotional arch of my life. I’d become a sweet, silent middle-aged man—successful, spiritual, and divorced with two teenage daughters. I’d worked hard to know about life, to understand how it worked, and yet I was still subject to sweeping self-doubt and sadness.

As I sat looking east from the back porch, I again tried to remember my life. I heard nothing but the crickets and the occasional car passing by. I thought about my father who’d be buried the next day and I longed for the kind of sustained joy that I’d read about in Buddhism or the here-today zest that I saw in my Uncle Pete and his children. But I realized I was not one who could sustain long, joyous flights. I was a careful, thoughtful plodder, just like my old man. I was a Ries.

And a final memory came to me.

It was the dead of winter. The temperatures were far below zero and a deep blanket of snow covered the ground. I had come home from college to help pelt mink. My dad and I continued to bump heads, but generally we maintained our truce. I was surprised when he invited me to go on a walk with him. It was the height of pelting season, and he wanted to go for a walk—with me—go figure. Maybe the old man’s going to give me some pearls of wisdom, I thought.

It was just before dusk as we drove the pickup a few miles south of Sheboygan and parked it alongside a county trunk road that crossed over the Black River. Wearing thick winter gloves, boots, jackets, and wool hats, we got out and jumped down a slight embankment that led to the snow-covered surface of the river and began to walk side by side. One hour going up the river and then an hour going down the river. The trees groaned as the wind gently moved them, and our boots crunched the fresh dry snow. We walked through rolling hills, silent tree groves, and open fields. Beneath a slate gray sky, we saw no one, not a bird or an animal. We just walked, keeping our thoughts locked inside. When we arrived back at the truck we lifted our silence up into the cab and drove home. There would be no pearls of wisdom today.

“How was your walk?” my mother asked as we entered the back hall, stomping the snow off our boots and removing our coats.

“It was fine. We had a good walk and nice talk, didn’t we Chuck,” my father replied.

“Everything’s cool, Mom. Dad and I did some big-time male bonding,” I told her. She smiled with relief. She was pleased to know her husband had taken time to be with her son.

Our walk was one of his gifts to me. He’d reached deep within himself and told me he loved me. It was a grand gesture from a silent man, and it was good enough. There are the fathers we are given, and the fathers we find. We are shaped by all of them. After years of prayer, God had given me my miracle. A parade of angels disguised in baseball caps and bib overalls had conspired to convince me that I was enough.

There are days I wish I could leave the small boy within me behind. To finally stop feeling the yearning and disquiet he felt. But none of us ever truly outgrow our childhood. We have the option to understand it and embrace it. We can learn to view this life as half-full and say, “God only gives us what we need, so bless what we’ve been given.” But even with years of therapy, hours of meditation, and the love of friends, we are, in the end, all a bit of that child who believed in angels, saw ghosts in the shadows, and worked just as hard as he could to find love.

(C)opyright 2008 Charles P. Ries All Rights Reserved

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