A patriarch is defined as the head of a family, or a venerable old man, entitled to respect on account of character, age, or associations.
That pretty well sums up my father, after whom I am named, and who recently died at age eighty-two. He was an over-the-road truck driver for thirty-two years, who, raised in the Depression himself, learned how to raise seven children on meager wages, between regular absences from our daily home life. He had an eighth-grade education, but a graduate degree in understanding both himself and other people.
Long before he drove for a living, Dad served in China during World War II, where he happened to be one of the few Marines who knew how to drive a large vehicle. He was designated as Instructor for those who did not. His leadership skills were evident in an incident in which, after some initial introductory driving instruction, he had several trainees follow in a second truck, instructing them to “just do as I do.” Unfortunately, the truck brakes failed on a slight decline, and Dad’s truck slid into a nearby pond. Dutifully, the young Marine driving the following truck turned into the pond as well!
During my teen years, I regularly managed to find a variety of ways to be a behavioral problem because, as the oldest, I assumed I could get away with more. My misdeeds usually resulted in a promise of discipline when my father returned home from the road. The usual punishment in those days was a few swats with a belt or switch on the fat portion of my buttocks. After a while, I learned to hold back tears and act nonchalant, daring my father to find a more instructional approach. Finally, he proved his wisdom. As I prepared for the usual dose, he handed his belt to me, explaining my misbehaviors as a colossal failure on his part to instill proper values. He demanded that I use the belt on him. Stunned, and sensing the injustice of that, I started bawling and refused. My father hugged me and walked away. I knew right then that I was thereafter responsible to myself alone. I would have to judge my actions against the consequences the actions themselves would impose on me and those I loved.
A patriarch is wise and understanding in how to raise children to be responsible.
Another example,–one of only many–of my father’s approach to values was a story remembered at his memorial service and told by an older cousin. He recalled how Dad loved to bargain for automobiles with both dealers and private sellers. Once, a friend sold my father a car, a Henry J, which “had been a good car” according to the seller, but had started “making a terrible racket” and seemed to be falling apart. Hard negotiations took place and dad walked away with a real bargain. It turned out that only some clutch plate bolts were loose. Once the bolts were tightened, the car was fine again. My father, the storyteller, revealed, went back to the seller and insisted on paying more because the car’s value was underestimated. I saw that same sense of justice and fairness demonstrated repeatedly, in various contexts, as I grew up.
A patriarch has character and grace. Every associate is treated with respect and understanding. A patriarch is a father in the truest, spiritual sense, of “looking after.”
My father also had an innate sense of curiosity and psychological “common sense.” Even after a major stroke, losing the ability to form long sentences, and suffering from a returning stomach cancer, my father watched over all the daily activities in his nursing home with unusual curiosity. He earned the love and attention of nearly every caregiver, and several attended his memorial service. He loved to find the how and why of everything he encountered, and could teach without ever actually giving his own explicit opinion of what you should do. You just talked to him and left knowing you would make the decision that needed to be made.
A patriarch is in touch with the unseen forces of nature and the innate balance of humanity in those with whom he associates. A patriarch becomes part of your life flow.
I guess I must now take on the patriarch role, for my own five remaining younger siblings, my five children, my three grandchildren, a nephew who lost his father early, and two young nephews whose father recently died unexpectedly in surgery. In my family, its going to be a challenging role. I’m not sure I can carry it off as well as my father did, but already I can sense that I am expected to try.
My father, my patriarch, was just an “average Joe,” nobody famous or unusually prominent in community affairs, just an unsung hero with an incredible spirit to stand fast in the face of adversity. A man who drove himself to do what had to be done, when it needed to be done. A man whose spirit refused to die.
He was a real patriarch. I really miss him.