The Gift of Father-Love
Marisa Guerin PhD – April 14, 2021
My father, Joseph Robert Guerin, passed away on this date, twelve years ago. The years have softened the edges of my grieving, and they leave me with the awareness of loving him, remembering him, missing him, and being grateful for him. One of my brothers reminded me this morning that, shortly before my father died, he told us, “I’ve had a happy life.”
For my father, this happy life started in a large and loving family. He was the youngest of three siblings and he also had six older half-siblings, since his father had married my grandmother after the death of his first wife. By the time my Dad was born, he was already an uncle. Hence, in the family, his nickname was “Unc” – which must have been a quirky identity when he was just a little boy. It fit him well as an adult, though, this old-soul who was the youngest of his tribe and yet everyone’s uncle.
His happy life meant that he was afforded a secure home and an education, learned to love music, went off to war and returned, and then shocked his whole family by being so unconventional as to marry a Spanish girl three years after he met her on a pilgrimage in Spain. During those three years, my parents had corresponded, in Spanish. Through letters, they got to know each others’ hearts. He wrote to propose marriage, and she accepted -- although not until after her proper Spanish-Filipina mother had written to the Guerin family parish priest in Philadelphia to ask about Dad’s moral character! He passed the test. To me, my parents' life together was a model of what it means to say that marriage is a vocation, a calling, a union of souls as much as bodies. When my mother died two years before my father did, he said of her, “She was the source of my joy.”
Joseph and Conchita had eight children, including my little sister Margaret Mary, who fell sick and died at 3 months of age. This was a trauma for my eight-year-old self, and presumably for the whole family, most especially for my parents. They must have felt, as any parent might, that they failed in their intention to protect her and give her a full life. They may have felt angry at God, or fearful for their other children. Although my mother later shared with me some of her own feelings about this experience, I don’t know how my father processed this devastating loss. He was a reserved man but had a very tender heart. I can only guess at the ways that such suffering tempers and matures the soul.
In the small world of my childhood and neighborhood, my father was like any other regular dad -- except for, maybe, that he wasn’t much into sports. He loved travel and nature and music and family gatherings. He would describe himself as "a teacher", which is what was most important to him about his role as an economics professor at the university. Both my parents were devout, progressive Catholics – they were as likely to spent Saturday at a peace march or cooking a meal for the homeless as they were to attend morning Mass.
Dad wasn’t one to speak much; as kids, we would giggle at the dinner table when my mother pantomimed pulling a rope out of him to get him to tell us about his day. He could go for hours at a family party without saying much more than, “May I refill your glass?” with one of his famous whiskey sours. But when he spoke, we listened. He was the wisest person I knew.
What my siblings and I learned as we mourned the losses of each of our parents is that while we shared our parents, we also had our own unique relationships with each of them. So, while Dad was our father, in a personal and particular way he was my father.
I was the oldest of his children, the one most quickly turned into a parent-helper as my younger brothers and sisters arrived, and arrived, and arrived. I was serious and bookish, and I liked to read about the world and science and religion and nature. When I wondered about something or other, my father always took my questions seriously and we would have extended conversations about what was on my mind. My favorite time for such deep discussions was in the car, on the way to or from Saturday morning piano lessons. Between the two of us, we figured out many theological questions (If there is a hell, is anybody actually there?) and debated societal ones (Vietnam...Civil Rights...Women's Rights...Vatican II) -- I grew up, after all, in the turbulent 1960's and '70's.
Over the years, my father was my guide to making decisions about high school, university, and eventually, jobs. I trusted his counsel and he trusted my own ability to think and to have input into the deliberations that mattered in my life. Like each of his children, and up until the last days of his long life, I came to depend on his willingness to listen to me whenever I needed his ear. He would respond thoughtfully and honestly, occasionally ambushing the unsuspecting listener with his dry sense of humor.
I recognize that a precious gift, among many that I received from my father, was the down-deep validation he gave me. In the affirming eyes of a father, sons and daughters alike see their worth reflected. Perhaps our bedrock need is for “mother-love,” the love that is there for us just for having been born – unmerited, unconditional. But what we call “father-love” includes the added validation that confirms that we are good, that we matter and that we are to be taken seriously. Especially for a daughter, the father stands in for the world at large, nurturing the kind of self-confidence that women need in order to survive and succeed in the demanding work environments of business, politics, and society.
I know that not every boy or girl grows up with a father and a mother. In some families, the affirming father-love comes to children from their mothers, and from uncles and big brothers, or from neighbors and coaches and teachers. Likewise, there are children whose unconditional mother-love comes to them from their dads, or their grandparents, sisters, teachers and others who cherish them. Ultimately, I believe we are mothered and fathered through the love we are blessed to receive from those who care for us.
I was gifted with parents who were good and kind, loving and generous people. They were much more than that, but at the end of the day, I think these are the ingredients of a happy life.
Thank you, Joseph Guerin, for your father-love.