Reflections on My Father's Life


As the generations of leaves,
so the generations of men.
Down to earth the wind shoots the leaves,
but forest trees burst forth again
in the hour when spring is born:
so one generation of men
dies off while another grows strong.
The Iliad, VI.146-149

As the generations of leaves,
so the generations of men.
Yet what's the value of one leaf?
Can it be just to grow the stem?
I think not, but I'm not sure why:
for if I say, as I am wont,
that meaning's made whenever I
create some value in the world,
then it would seem the worth of one
is only in its strength to serve,
to build the beam and build the bough
so others yet may bud and grow
and, having built, may fall to earth
when winter of their time has come.
But so to speak ignores the joy
and pride that comes from bringing new
and unique value to the world
or keeping whole what's come before,
for sake of others and oneself;
for there's no conflict here: we each
pursue an interest in the good
through single acts that are yet whole
and so produce without intent
a world that's better for us all.
Thus my father lived: he healed men
who fought in war then fought again
to gain their health; he sought to save
the land he loved and to preserve
a life long lost through buildings that
the farmers made before our time
(he tried to keep their virtues, too:
straight honesty with all he knew);
he kept his wife till death did part
and raised four children, all with love
and joy in that most awesome task.
And all I ask is that he gain
some small amount of honor from
the ones he left behind. A leaf
has fallen from the tree: he lived
with pride, he lived with joy, and we
are better for his having lived.

(Read at the memorial service for my father, Christ Church, Gardiner, Maine, on September 2, 1999.)

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