by Richard Gwynallen
I have been thinking a lot on my father this Elul. His birthday fell just two weeks before Elul, and working for a synagogue this year my mind was already deep into the High Holidays at his birthday. He would have been 90 years old this summer, which means I have not had his physical presence in my life a very, very long time, my entire adulthood in fact. Yet, he remains a vibrant part of who I am. In fact, I have always credited my father significantly for embedding in me a sense of justness and fairness, of a love for the land and of all forms of life, of the need to look deep into the meaning of a story or piece of history or anything really, a devotion to one’s people and heritage, and valuing a life spent in service. All these are at the root of the political perspectives I hold and the spiritual paths I have walked. My mother also instilled such values in me, and that story and their story together is worthy of a meditation, but, for the moment, I am walking with my father’s ghost hovering near.
The picture below shows him Irish step dancing on the streets of Raleigh about 1954. It’s one of my favorite pictures of him because it always speaks to me of three things I got in part from him – a deep love of the simple act of living, finding joy wherever you are, and living out the heritage passed to you in everyday life, not just as a cloak to don for fun when it suits your purpose.
The next picture below shows the horse that was the focus of so many of my grandmothers’ stories about my father and the horse he cared for on his grandparents’ farm. He never got to teach me to ride. Our living situations didn’t permit it. I learned on my own much later. But that love and respect for animals transferred to me, as did the importance of getting our hands dirty, and working with the land and with animals. Some of that love came out when he would hike and teach us to quietly watch animals, like deer feeding or leaping. When I learned to ride, it became clear to me that you don’t master the horse, you develop a relationship with it. Though the lesson wasn’t directly from him his love and respect for all forms of life set the stage for the lesson.
If you grew up a lawyer’s child perhaps family games included learning to drill down on some case or legal fact. I grew up in a military home with a strong Celtic cultural awareness, so our stories and challenges were about military matters, folktales, or history. Sitting at our evening meal or in the living room we heard story after story recalled, and usually we were being asked why someone did something or why something happened. As I grew older I understood that the point was to think past the story or historical happening. This drive never left me.
I sometimes wonder what he would have thought of today’s world; the young man who grew up in Raleigh of the 1930s and 1940s and became a Kennedy Democrat; this career Army man and competitive marksman who hated hunting and barely ever raised his voice to my brother and me and certainly never his hand, and who embedded my first political lesson in me when he and my mother taught us to never cross a picket line; and the father who told his sons that the most important thing life was to make the world a better place.
The way of the child remains somewhere at the core of our being. That taste of original home is hard to shake. My love of the land, of the outdoors, of wilderness, was greatly inspired by him through hikes; and the importance of a life of service, finding beauty and good wherever you are, making the world a good place for everyone, the importance of hard working people, and being devoted to our heritage all find parts of their roots in his life.
The lessons for good came from my parents. My mistakes are my own. And most of those mistakes came with straying from these ideas.
However, I think he would have been happy that we gave our daughter a rich childhood of life in the outdoors, among animals, and of dance and music and stories. I think he would have been pleased that she found value in that, and regarded her childhood as rich and wanted that for her own daughter. I think he would have looked with pleasure at her wedding at the foot of mountains in the brisk autumn led to her chuppah by bagpipes and harps. He would rest easy seeing that heritage live on to another generation. And I think he would be very approving of seeing that heritage deepen beyond even his generation with the return of Gaelic to the family, perhaps more approving if I also got my Welsh back.
The connection from him to my spiritual life of today may seem vaguer, yet I feel, what I would now call though he would not have, his own torah of the land and history, the obligation to serve, the responsibility of each of us to make the world a better place, and the simple act of loving life and feeling grateful for it, as a taut mooring line to my Jewish spirituality today.
In these streets and fields we write our own story, verses on top of verses already written. In the end, we mostly protect and nurture that which we love. If the land and all creatures are not simply objects of our attention, but things we love and to which we can extend our compassion, we can feel ourselves grateful for those gifts of life. If our heritage is not just something of our ancestors in which we feel just some vague pride, but something we love in the very act of living and breathing then we may feel gratitude more than pride, and we will not dispose of it like an inheritance that is ours to do with as we wish, but pass it on generation after generation. And if service to the land, the people, G-d, and our heritage can lie at the heart of our ambitions, and if creating a better world really is the most important thing in our lives, then perhaps the constantly unrolling scroll of Torah is now for me also an expression of my father’s torah.
Maybe I see the seeds of those ideas in the years I shared with him. And now in Elul I have to examine how well I am turning toward those values, and I am grateful for his part in turning me toward it.