An ode to fathers


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Category: Relationships Date: 07 Aug 97

“I would like you to be a defiant little point of light at the end of a diamond, and if you have fools to be with, to make them a setting.”

F Scott Fitzgerald to his daughter Francis. August 8, 1933


In the movies he once gave birth to a child. He lights up entire rooms when he enters them. Toddlers cling like limpets, boys show-off with wild antics, one eye peeled for his reaction; girls demand attention, approval and presents. There is always the refrain: “What have you brought me?” And he has always brought something.


He could also be a tyrant or an alcoholic, unknown to you, long dead or uncaring but he still leaves a gaping hole in your life. You may hate him or love him but you are never indifferent. The fathers in Love Anyhow - Famous Fathers Write To Their Children are writers, philosophers, poets and playwrights (Tolstoy, Kipling, Goethe, Marx, Ruskin, Scott Fitzgerald), an American President (Harry Truman), news anchor (Bob Teague), psychoanalyst (Freud). But in these letters they are simply Dad, Pops, the Old Man who worries about his children, dispenses advice, cash and admonishment in equal measure. Fathers, like any other, who anxiously pass on belief systems, all the time being aware that they risk having their missives disregarded as lectures, but are unable to help themselves, so compulsive is this need to protect their children.


On television he fries and burns eggs for his small son in the morning, in the afternoon he fights for custody. In real life he drips salty tears into his champagne glass while toasting his newly married daughter, remembering her toddler days, trying for her sake to be generous about giving her away to his son-in-law who smirks through his speech.


Yasnaya Polyana, October 1887. Leo Tolstoy on marriage to his sons Lev and Lyova:


“To put marriage - union with the person you love - as your main aim, replacing everything else, is a big mistake. Well, you get married, and then what? If you have no other aim in life before marriage, then later on it will be terribly difficult, almost impossible for the two of you, to find one. I say all this because the idea many people have that life is a vale of tears is just as false as the idea which the great majority have, and to which youth, health, and wealth incline you, that life is a place of entertainment.

“Life is a place of service, where one sometimes has occasion to put up with a lot that is hard, but more often to experience a great many joys. Only, there can only be real joys when people themselves understand their life as service: have a definite aim in life outside themselves and their own personal happiness.

“Marriage and the birth of children offer so many joyful things to look forward to that it seems that these things actually constitute life itself, but this is a dangerous delusion. If parents live and produce children without having any aim in life, they only put off the question of the aim of life but they can’t avoid it, because they will have to bring up and guide children, and there will be nothing to guide them by. And then parents lose their human qualities and the happiness linked with them and become pedigree cattle. Les extremes se touchent.

“The most egotistical and nasty life is the life of two people united in order to enjoy life, and the highest vocation is that of people who live in order to bring good into the world. Don’t be confused - one is right and the other is wrong.”


He teaches you, even (if you are female) to stand up like a man. Sussex, June 16, 1909. Rudyard Kipling to his son John (six weeks before he was killed in the battle of Loos) on sportsmanship:


“Oh my Son, do all that you can to win, honestly and fairly, the events for which you have entered. If you win, shut your head. Exalt not yourself nor your legs nor your wind nor anything else that is yours.

“To boast is the mark of the savage and the pig. If you lose remember that you have lost. It doesn’t matter one little bit but it matters a great deal if you go about jawing about your handicap being too heavy or your having had a bad start or your being tripped or put off.”


He is unimpressed by and dismissive of your flashiest friends. Sometimes he even shouts them out of the house.


New York, 1989. Bob Teague (the first African/American newsman hired by the NBC television network) to his only child Adam on education:


“Dear Wounded Survivor from a Broken Home: When you were younger I focused too narrowly on the link between education and employment and the need to accumulate money as a shield against the worst improprieties of racism. I should have been selling the poetry, beauty and magic that education brings to one’s life and the way it stirs the soul. I am talking about the kind of magic that would lift disadvantaged children well beyond their current popular desire to become rich and famous as members of yet another jiving bastard-rhyming rap group. Somehow, I must sell the excitement of learning”


He gives you a start in life and a philosophy to help live it by.


Paris, November 1750. Lord Chesterfield to his son Phillip on cleanliness and grooming:


“Upon no account whatever you put your fingers, as too many people are apt to do, in your nose or ears. It is the most shocking, nasty, vulgar rudeness that can be offered to company, it disgusts one, it turns one stomach. Wash your ears well every morning, and blow your nose in your handkerchief whenever you have occasion, but, by the way, without looking at it afterwards.”


He’d mortgage his house to send you to university and then becomes desperate when you enjoy yourself instead. So he lectures from home.


London, 11 ‘Jany’ 1822. Coleridge to his son Derwent on neglecting his studies at Cambridge:


“Can you not control your love of appearance and showing off for two or three years? In my first term and from October till March, I read hard and systematically.

“Six nights out of seven as soon as chapel was over I went to Pembroke, to Middleton’s Rooms - went on with my Aeschylus or Thucydides, as he with his mathematics, in silence till half past nine. With what delight did I not resume my reading in my own rooms at Jesus College each following morning.

“Think you a ball or a concert or a lady party, or a literary club would have left me in the same state? I am not angry, Derwent, but it is calamitous that you do not know how anxiously and affectionately I am your Father.”


He says: “Take off that thing and wear something decent” to daughters, enforces curfews, pushes them to achieve as he would his sons, indulges them shamelessly, and even if over 40, bails them out of bad marriages.


Ashville, NC Nov 1936. F Scott Fitzgerald to his daughter Francis on education:


“There is no question of your dropping mathematics and taking the easiest way to go into Vassar and being one of the girls fitted for nothing except to reflect other people without having any particular character of your own. I want you to take physics and I want you to take chemistry. I don’t care a damn about your English courses or your French courses. If you don’t know two languages and the ways that great men chose to express their thoughts in those languages by this time, then you are not my daughter.”


With a sigh of amused resignation he gives yet another “loan” knowing fully that it will never be returned, and yes, he will take the collect call.


Troutdale, Virginia, April 1927. Sherwood Anderson on career to his son John (a painter):


“Try to remain humble. Smartness kills everything. The object of art is not to make saleable pictures. It is to save yourself. Any cleanness I have in my own life is due to my feeling for words. The fools who write articles about me think that one morning I suddenly decided to write and began to produce masterpieces. There is no special trick about writing or painting either.

“I wrote constantly for 15 years before I produced anything with any solidity to it. For days, weeks and months now I can’t do it. You saw me in Paris this winter. I was in a dead, blank time. Most people remain all of their lives in a stupor. The point of being an artist is that you may live. You have to live through such times all your life. It isn’t your success I want. There is a possibility of your having a decent attitude toward people and work. That alone may make a man of you. The thing, of course, is to make yourself alive. You won’t arrive. Its an endless search.”


He always has at least three rules - even on love.


Moscow, April 5, 1896. Tolstoy to his son Lyova:


“The first, in order to be able to love people and be loved by them it is necessary to train oneself to require as little as possible from them because if I require a lot and am deprived of many things, I’m inclined not to love but to reproach - this involves a lot of work.

“The second - in order to love people not by word but by deed, it is necessary to teach oneself to do something useful for them.

“The third - in order to love people and be loved by them it is necessary to learn gentleness, humility and the art of enduring unpleasant people and unpleasant things and if its impossible not to offend somebody to be able to choose the least offense.”


Letters end but advice - never. Leo Tolstoy to his sons:


“Well, I’m tired of writing, though there’s more I wanted to say. I kiss you.” LT.


These letters said more about these fathers than they said about their children. Unwittingly they wrote collectively, an ode in praise of themselves. That’s the kind of thing they do.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur