My Father’s Compass

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A few priorities: the newspaper, a snack, and a view of the lake.

When my father would visit, he had a knack for hunkering in with the MacNeil News Hour while my kids fussed and cried. I was usually busy burning something on the stove, entertaining telemarketers, arranging carpools, or hunting for very important lost items. I didn’t have a lot of time to chat. After wrestling the girls into bed, I would slump down the stairs, and Dad would glance up from his mountain of New York Times. “Say, have you read this editorial about inner city schools?”

I never had.

How I wish I had been able to stay awake then, to engage in conversation about something other than logistics and rashes. Later, when he couldn’t talk much at all, I felt such a tremendous loss. What I would have given–then, and now–to hear his thoughtful analysis, his historical anecdotes, even a little about the book he was reading. I have so many questions that remain, so many gaps which I long to fill with stories from his rich life.

But one cannot render a portrait of a man or a relationship with a macro lens, focusing on a single moment, of which there were two and a half trillion in his 84 years. Examining just one of these does neither of us justice.

Thankfully, there are other moments to cling to–moments that are easier to carry: the theologian on all fours, mooing, while my small girls shrieked and giggled. The tiny, illegible notes my father squeezed into the margins of mom’s chatty letters–notes full of the gratitude and humility with which he approached life. The time I called him on Fathers’ Day a couple of years ago. After a discussion of his day, the weather, Sunday dinner, he paused and I awaited his goodbye. He said, instead, “I wanted you to know: you are a blessing.”

I have been surprised and relieved to discover that my relationship with my father endures–grows, even–as I hear stories from friends, family, and strangers. They share glimpses I couldn’t see from my age or perspective. I am reminded that though his body has betrayed him, he has not been diminished by mortality. Instead, these stories add flesh to the bones I have known over the years.

Still, I will not pretend that I can see him in full. Who could? Yet here is what I know for sure. My father asked a single question repeatedly during his sojourn on earth: How then shall we live?

This was the question that guided his thoughts, his decisions, his direction. He believed we should take a look at what we believe to be good, right, or best, and use that as we go gently forth into the world. He forged a compass from his heart and faith, and as I try to follow in his footsteps, I find he is walking with me. He is alive in my struggles, my questions, and my actions. He is here, helping me as I choose what I think is best; helping me to set my own compass.

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Published by

Beret Olsen

Writer, photographer, teacher, and part-time insomniac.

9 thoughts on “My Father’s Compass”

  1. What a beautiful tribute to your dad. He sounds like an amazing person. My dad died almost 20 years ago, and my mom is in her early 80’s, so I understand the desire to value the time we have with people we love.

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  2. Beret, As you wrote so well, your dad didn’t just ask the question, he lived it thoughtfully and for the benefit of others. I love reading/hearing your reflections about him and can picture those aspects of him so well. Part of his sojourn seemed to be a quest for seeking more…asking more…absorbing more. I understand how you feel when you write about “the questions that remain…” As time has passed, I’ve found myself wishing I knew more about my mom and her side of the family. If only I had asked or could ask…Stories that others share do help fill those gaps.
    Be blessed. Continue to reflect on the rich treasure trove of memories of your dad.

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  3. Well written and well presented.
    I share your father’s thoughts too. One should go in the world with what one believes in.
    Awesome……Awesome…..
    People don’t take out time to read and practice their thoughts, if they did they would change their lives and touch other peoples lives as well.

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  4. Lovely, Beret. And I remember feeling that I no longer knew which way was north after my mother died; the basic truth underlying everything had vanished along with her. A thoughtful friend gave me a toy compass.

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