My dad smells of hay and manure, the soil and the outdoors, spiritually speaking. His relationship with God is a sturdy thing, like coveralls that have hung always in the basement between chorings and are caked with dusty silage.
He is a simple man but a smart man. He reads widely and is knowledgeable in a wide variety of subjects, though he never finished high school. He knows how to do things with his hands: He can repair a water pump, build a fence high enough to keep the deer from his apple orchard, use a chainsaw to carve a bear, pull a tiny wooden sliver from a child’s finger.
My dad taught me a lot of what I know about God. Maybe because he is a practical man, the knowledge he passed on to me is practical.
“God is a person,” he told me. “You know, he went fishing with his disciples. He had conversations. They were just regular people. When you think of God, think of him as leidlich, a people-friendly God.”
“One of the things that drives carnality is force,” he said another time. “If you don’t do it, I’m gonna make you do it.” In the church, in the world, if someone acts from a position of force, they act from a carnal motivation.
He also said, “Everybody has their opinions, and people start thinking their opinions are spiritual. We equate our opinions with spirituality.”
So what is spirituality, according to my dad?
“Spirituality is giving yourself to your friend when you know you’re gonna get hurt. Spirituality is mothers taking care of their children. Mostly what spirituality is, is living.”
When I was a teenager, I admired my dad but — maybe because he is a private person not given to displays of affection and emotion — I did not realize the depth of his heart. Instead, I felt he was critical of me and resented it.
When I was a child, I was scared of him.
When he and Mom were taking a nap, and we children were being too noisy, he’d come out of their bedroom, eyebrows beetled, eye caves in his head where his glasses had been. “That’s enough now!”
Just the sound of his steps was enough to make my heart jump. I did not want to feel the smack of his hard hands on my bottom — though it was not so much the pain but the humiliation I feared.
And yet it was my dad who knew how to comfort me when I was crying like no one else could. His voice was calm and friendly at these times, like he was talking to a calf or a dog. He would offer me — to mend my broken heart — a piece of candy, the promise of a story. And though these trifles had nothing whatever to do with the thing that had hurt me, offered in such a way they made me feel inextricably better.
When I first started on this venture of writing, it was my mom, not my dad, who encouraged me. My dad, I felt, thought a practical person should find a real job, not chase a pipe dream. But it was my dad who gave me permission, when I finally wrote my memoir, to explore scenes and memories I know he’d never expected would be revealed. “Write whatever you want,” he said only. “Just get a book published.”
My dad bequeathed me his cautious nature. We are never ones to stand out in a crowd, lead the pack, stir the soup. Outwardly — no matter how far our thoughts might roam — we conform.
But I have realized, since I started writing and speaking, that the one thing in me that negates all of that conformity — this voice that rises up to speak, this thing that embraces honesty and refuses to park under another person’s banner — this also came to me from my dad.
Lucinda J. Miller lives with her dad and the rest of the family in Rusk County, Wis. She is the author of a memoir, Anything But Simple: My Life as a Mennonite, and blogs at lucindajmiller.com.