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The Father Becomes The Son; Does The Son Become The Father?

By Thomas Rodgers
Sojourners.com Feature

I have often wondered when I think about my relationship with my father whether the philosopher Kierkegaard’s statement: “Life is lived forwards, but understood backwards” was most poignantly about a father and a son.

I am the son of a Blackfoot Native American woman and a once removed Irish immigrant man who together escaped from the extreme poverty of the Blackfoot Indian reservation of north- western Montana to the windswept wheat fields of eastern Montana. This landscape generates an emotional stoicism born of sheer adversity and gives deep meaning to the statement “if you tell me where you are from I can tell you who you are.”

I have spent the better part of my adult life trying to come to grips with my father’s intimate thoughts on life and like the Joseph Conrad character in “Lord Jim” I came to perceive “... how incomprehensible, wavering and misty are the beings that share with us the sight of the stars and the warmth of the sun. It is as if loneliness were a hard and absolute condition of existence.”

My father began to work when he was nine years old and it is this same “gift” that he bestowed on me at age nine, when I went to work in his gas station on Highway 2 in Glasgow, Montana. It is this brutality of honesty that I explore daily. My refuge became books and poetry.

Only one passion mattered in my father’s life and that is work. It is this passion that led my father to be successful at something he might have never intended -- “heartbreaking.”

Heartbreaking is my father’s life and work. The heart of his wife and five children. My father was opaque to himself, to his tremendous need for love and, ultimately, to his inability to give love. Shakespeare described such a man: “They that have the power to hurt and will do none.” The power to hurt were fists, words that could be forgiven but not forgotten and a decade of silence.

What is more heartbreaking is that my father is afraid of heartbreak, another gift bestowed upon his children. Day by day now the layers of physical strength and youth are stripped away from my father and he grows ever more vulnerable as he combs his grey hair. After eight years of not talking to my father, I had a moving conversation with him as he told the story of how in his youth he provided food in the winter to a Blackfoot elder named Green Grass Bull.

I thought as I listened to my father ask me what I liked to do and what type of food I liked to eat whether his acknowledgement of the need for love and introspection will come too late. This sin committed but never expunged and always in open view to his children.

My father brought me into this world of extraordinary beauty and dreadful cruelty and injustice. But the true irony of my life was his unintended gift to me, a more holistic message: to build a life that has integrity and goes beyond the moment, and where one experiences the full range of heartbreak.

People ask me whether my father is a good man or a bad man. All I know is he is my father.

Tom Rodgers is the president of Carlyle Consulting of Alexandria, Virginia. A Blackfoot tribal member, he advocates on behalf of Native American tribal governments and their people.

 

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