For a Father’s Day story, we asked readers to share the best advice their fathers ever gave them, a request that yielded lots of meaningful responses. But what looms largest in my memory of my own father, gone these many years, is what he didn’t say — the way he so often spoke with silence, inviting me, through example, to do the same.
He wasn’t a man given to pronouncing proverbial wisdom, and I can recall few times that he ever offered direct rules for a good life. One such instance was his fondness for reminding us, if we slept too long, that we were “burning daylight” — a nod to his childhood on a Depression-era farm. There was no electricity where he grew up, and it was important to work when the sun was out, since that was the only real way to see.
He had long since moved to town when I knew him, but the country still shaped my father, especially in his comfort with quiet. He had come to manhood near fields and woods, places where the landscape tends to mute conversation, to flatten the urge to mark every mood or moment with a word. He could go an hour or two saying nothing at all.
His reticence wasn’t pinched or puritanical, the stony kind of quiet thrown up as a wall to keep us out. My father wore silence with a smile, so that it was an invitation rather than a rebuke. In blithely withholding his voice, he gave us permission to find our own.
My father subscribed to the old-fashioned notion that you shouldn’t speak about a topic you knew nothing about. By the end of his life, he was reading four newspapers a day, but even then, he didn’t consider himself an expert on current affairs.
He died in 1978, just as the world was poised to embark upon the most talkative age of human existence. A couple of years after his passing, a technician arrived in our driveway to install cable television, including a new, 24-hour channel devoted exclusively to news.
We wondered how the network executives would fill the time.
It would be filled, we quickly learned, not so much by news as talk — a torrent of chatter in which knowledge of the subject is welcome, though not required.
Other innovations of verbosity followed — chat rooms, Facebook, Twitter, texting, Instagram, Snapchat, a phone in every hand, a microphone near every mouth.
The sum of these advances is a global culture conditioned to hum, day and night, like a middle school cafeteria — scores of smug and impatient voices rising all at once, each one impressed by its own worth, its own wit, its own power to prevail over all the others.
I’m not quite sure, if my father were still around, that he’d find a home in all the noise.
With each passing year, I miss him all the more.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman