Common Wisdom: The Journey to Fatherhood

Joe Burleigh was my late father-in-law. Pappy Joe we called him. It was a title invented by my husband when, in his late teens, he had overshot Joe by six inches and felt the incongruity of looking down on Joe’s bald head and calling him Daddy.

The name Pappy Joe fit. It was comfortable to use whether one was in the direct line, as a grandson or granddaughter, or whether one was an in-law. It matched Joe’s Irish self, which was uncomfortable with formality. When his broad, smooth face broke into a dimpled smile that flattened his nose and turned his dark brown eyes to twinkling crinkles, when the well-formed hand extended in greeting and the husky voice, made forever gravelly by an old cancer surgery, said, “Hello, Sir, I was with the L & N Railroad for 52 years. How about you?” there was no possibility of considering Joe a stranger. In five more minutes the newcomer would learn—and be glad to learn—that Joe grew up on Virginia Street in Evansville, but his “people were all from Delphi, Indiana, and Camden, Indiana.” Joe did not believe in leaving unspecified the whereabouts of Delphi and Camden. Five minutes beyond that, and the newcomer would know that Joe was a St. Louis Cardinals fan. As a fan who took in his team the same proprietary interest as a family member, he was seldom pleased with the Cards’ record; he kept up a season-long running quarrel with his team. Yet although he watched the Yankees practice in Florida every winter, and he followed the Reds because he had a son in Cincinnati, he still retained his loyalty to the Cardinals.

Loyalty was inherent in Joe. He could no more give up his loyalty to a baseball team to which he as a boy had given his heart than he could relinquish his loyalty to his wife, whom he had met when she was sixteen and he was nineteen, or abandon his loyalty to the jaunty cap that he put on with finality every afternoon, announcing, “I’m going downtown.” Loyalty for Joe was not a philosophical problem. It simply meant hanging on to whatever or whoever was his own.

That loyalty applied not only to his own family but to all who married into the fold. Once I was seen to be the choice of daughter-in-law I was accepted without question, becoming the lifetime recipient of the two results of Joe’s horticulture, his roses and his red raspberries. The raspberries, he said, were so fine because they were “holy”; a sister of Poor Clare had once given him a start from the monastery garden.

One Christmas Eve when we were stretched financially thin on our young married budget, Joe saw nothing for me among the presents but a flour sifter. Not knowing my husband had something saved for Christmas morning, Joe took his son aside, addressed him with the nickname that he alone used, and rasped in a loud, hoarse whisper that I could overhear, “Billy! Is that all she’s going to get?”

I think of Joe particularly in the spring. In March comes not only St. Patrick’s Day but the great Feast of St. Joseph, a feast especially dear to Joe, who liked having the name of his patron saint and who had once signed a childish letter to his mother with the firm, round signature, “Your little Joseph.” April brings baseball’s Opening Day, ushering in what was always the season of Joe’s most expansive good humor. And May is the month of Mary; Joe had a special devotion to the Blessed Mother. Joe died nearly a decade ago. I often think how puzzled and impatient he would have been where he here today to see in what disarray is our social order. He would not have approved. He would have leaned forward in his chair, rested his elbows on his knees, shaken his head and scowled in the irritated expression that was as much part of his Irish nature as his grin. For him the arrangement of the social order was straightforward and plain: black or white, right or wrong. There were no grays to be pretentiously explained. It was all there to be duly noted and obeyed, like paying bills strictly on time or putting money in the weekly collection basket. According to my husband, Joe offered his adolescent son a one-time-only sex talk. The lecture consisted of one sentence, but compressed into that one sentence was all of chastity and prudence.

As Joe’s life, plain, unadorned and dutiful, recedes into the history of our family and thereby is viewed through the perspective of years, I see how appropriately Joe’s patron was St. Joseph, the greatest of human fathers. For as direct and uncomplicated by confusions as Joe’s life was, his highest contribution was in a small way to build up the Kingdom through his work and in a large way to build up the Kingdom through his fatherhood. Joe’s fatherhood, which included his being a husband, was the best thing he had, and he knew it. He knew exactly why he worked; it was plainly and simply to support his family. He, too, was Joseph.

When he was a young fellow, his father, a rail-roader for the L & N, had urged Joe to try medical school. But Joe declined. He, also, wanted a life on the railroad. He served in World War I on the home front. He was a patriot, proud of having served. When the war was over, he married Emma, and a year later my sister-in-law was born. Nearly thirteen years passed, years when it appeared there would be no more babies. Suddenly Joe and Emma, now ages 40 and 37, were having another baby. “Late in life,” they said.

The birth of a son was Joe’s introduction to his full knowledge of what his fatherhood meant. His hours with his cronies at the Smoke Shop dwindled to a trickle. His beer consumption became a model of decorum. Now, like St. Joseph, he had a son. He was to be the model for a son to follow.

Motherhood for a woman is serious from the moment of conception. From the earliest weeks a woman is physically, emotionally, and spiritually attached to her baby. Her attachment is direct and inescapable. There is no separation between the procreative act and her motherhood. Fatherhood, however, is removed from a man. Between the act of procreation and his move into fatherhood there is a wide gulf, a delay in time. A man may procreate and not even know that he has done so. If a woman is a mother from conception, a man advances from procreator to father only after he consciously takes responsibility for his family and lives with them as head of his household. Yet even then his transformation into father comes only after a certain mental and physical effort has rendered him capable of making the leap from the indirect responsibility of procreation to the direct responsibility of fatherhood.

  • Anne Husted Burleigh

    Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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