A Guide to Growing Stately Trees

In honor of Father's Day this weekend I'm sharing a gem from my very own dad--who is, himself, a gem. I've always been curious about people--especially the whys and hows of human development and the ways parents and families can support that process. Knowing this, several years ago my dad wrote down for me his own philosophy of parenting, set in the form of a poem and rooted in the imagery of growing trees. 

painting by Grant Wood

painting by Grant Wood

A Guide to Growing Stately Trees Comprised of Two Instructions and an Admonition

Instruction: Bend the Twig
If you want to grow a stately tree
You usually start with a tiny sapling,
Although some people grow their trees from seeds.
This is not an easy thing to do.

They say that as the twig is bent so grows the tree
And I think this is probably true.
So young saplings are snipped and pruned to give them shape and character
And staked out to give them rectitude.

And I think this is good and important to do,
Up to a certain point.
But who hasn’t seen and pitied dwarfed and stunted trees,
Crippled as saplings to please the grower’s sense of beauty, or ambition, or convenience.

Oh, and one more thing:
You can’t make an oak tree out of a willow sapling
No matter how much bending or binding
No matter that you desperately want an oak tree and you’ve been given a willow twig 

Instruction: Hug the Tree
And then of course at a certain point,
Which admittedly varies from species to species,
The twig cannot be bent or staked out further to any good purpose.
It has become a tree.

It has become shade to someone weary from the road,
A refuge to those seeking solace, or a place for visionary youth to pray.
It has found its own reason for its existence
Fulfilling the promise of the seed and the shaping of the sapling.

What then? What more does the tree need from you?
Well, and this is important, trees never lose their need for warmth and belonging.
They need support to brace their sagging branches from the burdens of too much to bear,
And time-tested remedies to fight the infestations and blight that will surely sap their souls.

They need to know that they are part of a forest,
That they belong to a family of trees,
These graceful willows, flamboyant maples and sturdy oaks,
And that this kinship of family extends forward and backward beyond the reckoning of time.   

Admonition: Bend the Knee
Finally, a gentle word of counsel to you who would grow trees.
Give thanks to the Lord of the Forest.
Give thanks for the seeds.
For the soil and moisture that nourish them;
For the seasons that refine them,
And for entrusting us with their care.
For the forest in its majestic splendor,
For the music of the breeze in its leaves,
Its diversity of colors and shapes that give it beauty and purpose;
And for the Sun, its eternal beckoning call to seeds and saplings
To leave the frozen ground and reach for the warmth and light of the heavens above. 

M. T. Bentley (my dad)
February 2008
Logan, Utah

My dad and me, NYC, 1971ish

My dad and me, NYC, 1971ish

A few more father gems:

Happy Father's Day weekend, US folks! Here's to the dads and the father figures who've nurtured our growth and tended to our needs. 

The case of Father's Famous Flapjacks

Once upon a time somewhere in my kids' early childhood, my husband made a long-remembered meal. I say made a meal because, though he's a great cook, at that stage in our lives G was working insane hours at a DC law firm and we rarely saw him, let alone ate any food he prepared. It was a sad couple of years for us all; the dad landscape was pretty desolate and we all missed him. But, as I said, this one time he was home and he made some pancakes for the kids. But wait. Not just pancakes. G made Father's Famous Flapjacks [jazz hands], inspired by those featured in Sendak/Minarik's Little Bear series. He made the most of those pancakes, whipping the kids up into a frenzy of excitement and transforming humble pancakes into sought-after delicacies. In this fun-dad moment, he accidentally marketed the heck out of those Bisquick pancakes.

Man, they had longevity, too. For several years whenever they were asked what their favorite food was, do you know what the kids said?  Father's [freaking] Famous Flapjacks. When we went around the birthday table saying what we loved about G, those flapjacks were consistently mentioned. Let me say this: they were probably delicious but they were just pancakes. The magic was in the enthusiasm, the story, the hoopla. And I'll admit it, I was a little perplexed. I made dinner 364 days a year but that meal G made went down in history. (And, yes, the element of "specialness" certainly didn't hurt.) I admit I wasn't very gracious about it at the time, but I did appreciate and respect that he was turning the time he did have with the kids into highly memorable moments.

Jacques Tati  via 

Jacques Tati via 

This phenomenon was not limited to their younger years, mind you. As they got older G would take the girls on much anticipated Daddy Daughter Dates. He created a signature goodbye gesture when we dropped him off at work or at the airport: he blew a kiss and then kicked it like a soccer ball in our direction. And as recently as last year when I spent a week out of town, I came back to a lot of family chatter about G's newest creation, the Best Chicken Ever.  These are things my kids readily and happily remember about their dad without a moment's pause. And I guess what bothered me is that I wasn't really sure they'd be able to do the same for me (that is, boring old day-in-day-out mom). And then I realized: G is a lot better at branding his particular contributions to parenthood than I am. 

Oh, branding, that ubiquitous term of our era. (Some of you are probably rolling your eyes but stay with me here, okay?)  According to Wikipedia, a brand is the "personality that identifies a product, service or company and how it relates to key constituencies." Successful brands are memorable, identifiable, connect on an emotional level with the audience, and contribute to myth making around the person/service/product. Father's Famous Flapjacks anyone?

We hear a lot about branding in the business & marketing world but I think it probably happens in families, too. Whether or not we're aware of it, our parent "brand" is the personal contribution we bring to the family, the stories we tell, the way we frame our thoughts and ideas and interactions for the rest of the family. Just as a regular old trip to Chik-fil-a can turn into a mini tradition of Chik-fil-A Wednesdays maybe our regular old interactions can be more memorable and meaningful with a little pizzazz: a catchy phrase, a signature gesture, a highlighted personality quirk.  I liked what Annette said at the end of her guest post here, "I occasionally told them back then, and I've told them a few times since they've left home: I have many weaknesses and have made errors, but one thing I know about myself and about them is that I was a really good mother. They seem to believe my press statement." Well, here's to the occasional parenting press statements and to leaving our own individual flourishes in the mundane interactions that ultimately make up a life.

Even if the word "brand" makes you shudder with its corporate undertones, think of it this way: how will you be remembered as a parent? What stories will they tell your grandkids at your 80th birthday party? How do we let our personalities better shine through in our parenting? 

A few good gems: Fathers edition

Greetings and welcome to the weekend! 

Right now I'm on a plane, happily (I hope?) returning from a few days away with Greg. That means it's already been a whole lot of off-time weekending for me and now it's back to pay the piper with laundry and re-entry! Oh, that piper. I'll write more about our trip--and how things went at home in our absence--next week. 

. . . 

Since it's Father's Day on Sunday in the US & UK (it's on September 1st here in Australia), here are a few of my favorite dad-related links for your weekend enjoyment:

Your dad wore thick framed glasses before you did. And raised chickens.

Your dad wore thick framed glasses before you did. And raised chickens.

  • The book My Father's Arms are a Boat is in the box I'm sending to my dad this year. According to Brain Pickings, "this tender and heartening Norwegian gem tells the story of an anxious young boy who climbs into his father's arms seeking comfort on a cold sleepless night." The design and illustrations are exquisite:

. . .

Speaking of fathers, I love this passage about Corrie ten Boom's father, from her memoir The Hiding Place

Seated next to Father in the train compartment, I suddenly asked, "Father, what is sexsin?" 
He turned to look at me, as he always did when answering a question, but to my surprise he said nothing. At last he stood up, lifted his traveling case from the rack over our heads, and set it on the floor.  
"Will you carry it off the train, Corrie?" he said. 
I stood up and tugged at it. It was crammed with the watches and spare parts he had purchased that morning. 
"It's too heavy," I said. 
"Yes," he said. "And it would be a pretty poor father who would ask his little girl to carry such a load. It's the same way, Corrie, with knowledge. Some knowledge is too heavy for children. When you are older and stronger you can bear it. For now you must trust me to carry it for you." 
And I was satisfied. More than satisfied--wonderfully at peace. There were answers to this and all my hard questions--for now I was content to leave them in my father's keeping." (Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place) 

. . . 

And, finally, this gem:

Those Winter Sundays
by Robert Hayden
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him, who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

. . . 

Happy Father's Day, all!