The essays in Finding Father are both tender and troubled. Some are loving, elegiac tributes to men who nurtured their daughters. Others seem almost confused: “How do I love a man I don’t really know?”
Contributors to the volume range from poets, fiction writers, musicians, artists, scholars and one mayor, which makes for varied essay styles. One essay will be random images and thoughts strung together, while another is an organized account of a father’s influence. Every one is beautifully written.
I’m not sure what to make of the fact that only four of the daughters reveal their father’s name. Is it for anonymity? Or to protect other, still living, family members? These are the daughters’ stories to dictate and control; could it possibly be a way to establish a kind of domination of writer over subject?
I would not call any of the essays humorous or light-hearted. The authors remember some comical stories or character traits, but it doesn’t translate as funny for the reader. These are thoughtful accounts, an earnest reckoning of what it means to be the particular daughter of a particular father.
Gender roles come up in the majority of the chapters. Twelve of the 15 contributors are around retirement age. This means their fathers came of age in the 1930s and ’40s. Their assumptions about gender differ wildly from our current understandings.
When it comes to the practical applications of gender roles — like staying home and taking care of the kids versus going to work — the authors chalk it up to generational differences. One father was “like many men of his time.” Another was “not unaffected by society’s accepted ideas and practices” when he planned family vacations without discussing the plans with his wife. Another father’s views on family and gender roles were “surely shaped by his own family background, his religious and ethnic heritage.”
This ability to view their fathers’ flawed beliefs on gender roles in a charitable light is most likely because of their fathers’ acknowledgment of them as individuals. Yes, their mother was assigned a specific role and function, but this was not the destiny for the daughters.
No matter how conservative religiously or socially their father was, every one of these daughters testifies that her father encouraged and supported her academic pursuits. Fathers prodded their daughters to compete with specific boys in their class. One father announced to his guests that his daughter would be a doctor. Girls did “boys’ work” on the farm. A couple of writers remember their father listening “sensitively” or with “intellectual respect” to feminist or social ideas they encountered in college.
I was impressed with the gentleness of the fathers’ religion. All were regular church attenders, and many were active participants. The writers don’t outline many specific doctrines their fathers adhered to, but it seems clear that most were part of theologically conservative communities. And yet the daughters remember their fathers as open, able to listen to their doubts and questions without judgment.
When Jean Janzen was frightened about going to hell, her father showed her Bible passages that offered assurance of salvation.
Carol Dyck remembers how happy her father was when she “got saved.” Though the experience felt fake and coerced, seeing her father’s joy she thought, “I had better try to make this real in some way.”
Hildi Froese Tiessen’s father modeled Christian devotion “quietly, consistently and without commentary” but would “not impose it on anyone, least of all his children.” When his daughter asked why they weren’t going to attend an evangelical tent meeting, he replied, “Some preachers make it their business to scare people into heaven.”
Multiple daughters claim their fathers witnessed through actions, not sermons. Daughters remember acts of generosity: giving money, time, labor or hospitality: “Dad lived, not spoke, his faith.”
Raylene Hinz Penner’s father was intellectually stimulated by religion. She remembers him discussing the Sunday school lesson and sermon each Sunday with the family on the car ride home: “How do you live this out? What does this mean for communal life?”
The final theme that emerges is the suffering of these fathers. I use the term loosely. Some experienced unfathomable tragedy. Quite a few emigrated to Canada or the United States, fleeing from persecution in Russia. Their land and homes were taken, families were divided, siblings died in the Soviet pogroms.
Others suffered the loss of a way of life when their family left the Amish church when they were children. Or they left farms for urban living. Multiple fathers struggled with depression, particularly later in life.
There was intense poverty and sickness and death. The daughters recognize the strength their fathers showed in order to be fathers at all.
This is the most hopeful part of the book: forgiveness. None of the men in Finding Father was perfect. Some were actually rather lousy at connecting with their daughters. Yet, their daughters write:
— “I discovered . . . something that I had never thought to find: a human being simply trying to be the best husband and father he could be.”
— “He was kind and I loved him, and because of that, I was willing to forgive him.”
— “You can have a father who is remote as long as you never doubt that he loves you.”
— “I am filled with awe at the love he invested in me over the years. . . . I write in gratitude for this gift, his faith in my beginning.”
Sarah Kehrberg lives in Swannanoa, N.C., and attends Asheville Mennonite Church.