Archive of Letters to My Friends:

My father's boats


My father's boats

July - August 2002

By the Rev. Jon Rieley-Goddard

Click on lower photo is see a larger version.


Dear friends,

      My father could make a boat dance.
     My father could make a boat dance and sing.
     My father could make a boat.
     My father.
     My father was shorter than your father, and stronger, especially in his legs.
     My father was more silent than your father, and more kind and gentle.
     My father had less schooling than your father, and was more wise.
     My father was selfless and humble, and he taught me competitiveness.
     My father drove noisy trucks and hated them as much as he loved them.

     My father died, and something in me was born, kicking and screaming,crying and longing, hurting and very much alive. Like my father. Very much alive. In me. Enduring and more lovely with each passing year.

     Less in focus and sharper in the mind.


     Iíve been meaning to write about my father, but I was putting it off, and putting it off, afraid that if I began, that I would end up writing a book. That is an odd fear for one who loves to write and to tell stories. So maybe there are other reasons for my delays, other becauses, other yes, buts. Who really wants to see and swim in the well of my tears, I would ask myself. It is dark and dangerous down there. Who would be so interested in such emotion in another?

     I find myself  fascinating, and my life amazes me, but how far does this transfer? The writerís art can make art of oneís reality, I know, but how far can I fling these images of mine, and who would want to catch them?

     And so I write, sometimes cowering behind the pulpit of my narrative, sometimes standing tall and proud, praise ringing in my ears.


     I have pictures of my father and his boats. Four pictures that I placed in a photo album show his abilities as a dancing master. My father, 15 horses of horsepower, and a pile of sticks in the water -- dancing (and singing to the tune of those 15 throaty horses).

     When I fish out the photo album and look at the four photos, I am first struck by the presence of my mother, the one who couldnít swim, the one who always said, Be careful. Riding like the wind in my fatherís boat.

     The fourth photo is the astounding one. The wake of the boat has drawn a comma in the water, and there at the tail of that comma is my fatherís boat, my father, and my mother, reaching for the sky. The nose of the boat is 10 feet in the air and the rump of the boat is digging a hole to drown in. Be careful?


     Now I build boats, with great care and love. My latest is a tubby jonboat with an odd little cabin that seems perferct for the Erie Canal. My wife has suggested that we call the boat Flipper, because she helped with the flipping of this boat after the hull was finished and painted. I kinda, sorta, wanna to call the boat Wallbanger in honor of my father, but Wallbanger will be the next boatís name. This one is called Flipper.

     Dad was a trucker, which meant that he was a CBíer, too, because the advent of the Citizen Band radio made truck driving safer, more effective, and a lot like a party. If I had ever owned a CB radio, my handle would have been Mr. Ed, because for a long time I was a copy editor. My fatherís handle was Wallbanger because his name was Harvey, and because of a sweetish alcoholic drink known as the Harvey Wallbanger.

    Nicknames are best when there is a current of cleaverness borne on an undercurrent of malice, and Wallbanger has those two currents in balance. To call my mild and gentle father Wallbanger requires a dash of malice.

    Sometimes I call him Harvey Rabbit, in my mind, because he was so cute and at the same time so strong and silent as to be almost invisible. A dash of malice, and a jigger of love and affection.


     We were having breakfast in a nondescript diner, my father and I, talking about nothing and everything, in the way of fathers and sons. Somewhere in the flow of this, my father tells me that sometimes, when he is working alone in his workshop, he feels the presence of my Aunt Martha, dead these many years. I forget what I said in reply, but I fancy that I will always remember this day when my father taught me how to talk with the dead.

     He taught me how to pull a bent nail by placing a scrap of wood under the head of the hammer, and when I pull a bent nail, I say, Thanks, Dad.

     He taught me how to tap a nail on its nose before driving that nail into a board so that the nail wonít split the board, and when I tap a nail on its nose and drive it into a board, I say, Thanks, Dad.

     He taught me how to kerf a board carefully with the saw before cutting with great vigor, because one careful cut will guide the saw accurately the rest of the way, and when I kerf a board, I say, Thanks, Dad.


     Because I live, Jesus tells us, you will live. It sounds so puffed up and pretensious, taken out of context and stripped of its divinity. In that naked condition, the phrase stands for my enduring and continuing connection with my father: Because I live, he lives, and because he lived, I live.

     Sometimes when I talk now with my father, I realize how close the talking comes to prayer, and how I want to separate this communication with my father from my communication with THE Father. I donít pray to my dad; I simply talk to him, and I donít ask him for things Ė I thank him for his love and wisdom. When I pray, I usually canít get much beyond loving God, loving God, loving God. Help me. Help me. Help me, except on Sundays when I can lose and find myself in the Prayers of the People.

     If you had known my father, you would know me, Jesus tells us. Thatís true for the rest of us, too, I believe. One piano-playing blues performer says it this way, about her mentor:

Sheís in my right hand, sheís in my left hand ... .

     My father taught me how to build boats, and he taught me how to heal with a touch and a gentle word. He was extraordinary, and I miss him like fire.


     The other day, in the runup to Fatherís Day, there was a segment on National Public Radio about the different way in which men grieve. The idea was that women grieve in company, by crying and feeling, and that men grieve alone, by thinking and doing. The point was made that grieving styles are personal, that grieving styles are unique mixtures with parts of the masculine and parts of the feminine styles shaken together.

     I grieve by crying. And doing. And thinking. And feeling. I canít remember my father ever crying in my presence beyond a quickly strangled tear or two, but he certainly has taught me how to cry. This radio program also examined how a close relationship with oneís father will be sharply grieved and then integrated, and how a more distant relationship with oneís father will be grieved over a much longer time.

     Guilty, guilty, guilty.

     I regret that I waited so long to write these things, but I am grateful that my love and my memories do not fade but grow stronger. It is because I have been loved by such persons as my father that I know God and God's love.

     Some things light a fire that never dies, but warms and burns.

     Blessings and Peace,

     Pastor Jon


    Note: A version of this piece ran in the March 2004 issue of Duckworks Magazine online.

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