Good parents are incredible people. And it takes incredible people to be good parents! I say this very aware that not all have had the experience or come under the influence of the parental gifts and skills that my own journey to this juncture in life has been enriched and blessed with. Sadly, tragically and hugely unfairly, despite all of the advancements that are at the disposal of our twenty-first century society, we are all too aware that not all our young people experience or benefit from a positive encounter with parenting.
Acknowledging that levelling reality for some, when it comes to my parents, I have to say that I feel doubly blessed and gifted by the Mother and Dad that the good Lord chose to place me into the safe, crafting, creative and caring hands of. Professionally I hear many stories about the best Mum or Dad in the world, however for Patrick and Dorothy Hird there was no competitive element about their parenting-skills, no race to be won. Parenting for them was not about trophies and medals. Instead I view my Mother and Father as the very finest and best parents that God could provide for me, and throughout their lives I have always been enormously proud of them. As a forebear in faith recounts in sacred scripture: “my father was a wandering Aramean” (Deut. 26:5) so I have always been very proud to say that my father was a weaver! For me, our Trinitarian God’s choice reflects the vantage point of Their being able to see more than we ever can of the larger tapestry of life on which the individual threads that are brought together form only a tiny part of a much bigger and complete pattern. Parenting far from being competitive is much more of an adventure during which God’s choice appreciates what is the best and finest in another and allows the gifts and talents, hidden deep within them to find soil in which they can begin to sprout, grow and mature, their role is also to prune and cut back, allowing stronger and more appropriate development. Often a learning curve, steep at times, just as children are not identical, so parenting doesn’t come with a one-size-fits-all approach. At a time in our history when more emphasis than ever is being placed on the unique individuality of society’s members, there can be no greater need for careful, sensitive, crafting, colouring and shaping by the hands entrusted with the vocational call of parenting.
Last Sunday, Father’s Day, was a day for many of us to remember the special place our Dads have in our lives. As I once read Any man can be a father but it takes someone really special to be a Dad, and for those blessed with such a figure in their lives, those words will carry a tangible truth. For some, Sunday will have meant pausing and reflecting and remembering; perhaps a visit to a cemetery or crematoria; focusing a longer than usual stare at a much cherished photograph. Others may have had the experience of an anticipated visit being replaced by a virtual one through the use of social platforms. Whilst there will have been many, including myself, counting the experience of being able to see our Dads in person, with a sense of additional gratitude and appreciation this year. Personally speaking, Dad and I spent some very enjoyable time together, in the surrounds of the only home that I have ever known enhanced by the garden into which he has ploughed so much of his time and energy in recent weeks. His reward is seeing and enjoying that which he planted grow, and at this juncture in the summer, to have an abundance of colour on display for his own pleasure and for that of those who pass by with increasingly regularity as they embark on their daily exercise, drive out to work, or begin their school day.
A blessing of the last few months has been the opportunity that I’ve had in being able to see Dad each week, spend time with him, chat, laugh and reminisce. My own life of ministry oftentimes does not allow such a luxury, attempting to meet the needs of those I serve, and putting their demands before those of family. This was something I referred to in the homilies delivered at my celebratory silver jubilee Masses when I publicly acknowledged the enormous contribution both my parents have made not just to me as their son, but also for allowing – and never standing in the way of – my discerning the call that Almighty God was making of me. At the time I said: Both [my parents] have been, and my father continues to be, very generous in supporting and encouraging my Priesthood. It is always worth remembering that on traditional family-orientated days, such as Christmas and Easter, parents and family members of priests often get the physical, emotional and spiritual left-overs of bustling and expectant congregations. St. John’s vision of Priestly leadership involving the caring and feeding of lambs and sheep (John 21:15–17) makes demands – and presents invoices – only payable by a shepherd and his parents. To a greater or lesser degree my calling has been that of my parents too. Uncomplaining, with a door ever-open, it is good to be able to thank them for sharing my priesthood over the last quarter of a century, and before that over a decade of preparation in both junior and senior seminary.
Lockdown has provided a tiny of opportunity of payback in the relationship that I have with Dad. At its outset a letter arrived (which he tried his hardest to keep at a safe distance from my eyes!) informing him that he was grounded, and from its beginning I assumed the mantle of a weekly foray to shop for both of us. With a list of required items received on a Friday, sometimes added to on a Saturday, they have been duly delivered each Sunday. On the whole the contents of the shopping bags have met with paternal approval, although I have at times been reminded that he wouldn’t normally buy such a large bag of this or that. His fridge-freezer has never been as full! Being confined by the restrictive guidance of the Government and its relevant agencies has proved a challenge to Dad. Not necessarily how to cope with being grounded but in finding ways of escape that he thought I would be unaware of. Having read some of my earlier reflections you will appreciate he has had moments of Houdini-like absconding.
Last week saw Dad, like so many, beginning to take his first steps into a longed for, but very different and new, normality. He did his first weekly shop, although with a strict request from yours truly, that he only went to one supermarket, and didn’t embark on the usual price comparing, bargain seeking, grand tour around the Chevin towns of Otley, Guiseley and Yeadon. After a period of enforced hibernation, like the disembarking passengers of the biblical Ark, amid a world which appeared similar to the one he has been familiar with for over eight decades, Dad discovered subtle alteration and change.
Before anyone decides to report me for parental neglect, I did indeed arrive home last weekend with a shopping bag containing a small selection of necessities (I still have a use!). There was also the giving of a Father’s Day card and gifts. As a father and son we have been very compliant to the guidance about keeping each other safe and well, and blessed with good weather most of the time that we have shared has been spent outside, sitting at a safe distance from one another. On cooler and wetter days we’ve ventured into the kitchen, sat at a perhaps less than safe-distance away from each other, but without the demolition of a wall, an exact two meters was nigh impossible. Not having seen the living room since March, cards are now displayed in the kitchen, and it was with pride that Dad’s Father’s Day offering was placed within vision of both of us. As well as its own simple and profound wording, I couldn’t help adding some humour in my own handwriting: Congratulations on having me as your son! For those who have met him, you’ll appreciate that he has a good sense of fun. Relaying the best wishes of a local funeral director to him recently, Dad, graciously accepted the concern conveyed in the greeting, and went on to ask that the next time I was speaking to the said inquirer I should mention that he would not be needing their services for quite some time yet!
A personal skill cultivated out of Lockdown necessity has been that of hair management and a growing confidence in the use of electric clippers. Seeking to advance this new-found qualification, I decided that it was time my hair clippers had an airing in Otley. A further Father’s Day gift: a haircut … my father’s cup runneth over on Sunday! Having made the suggestion, Dad greeted the appearance of the clippers with no sign of fear or trepidation, having acknowledged some weeks previously that I hadn’t made a bad job of cutting my own hair. Seated, and with instructions not to talk or move, we were both surprised at just how much hair Dad had amassed over the last three months, whilst somehow also managing to make it look not too unruly. Whilst parents can often read the minds of their children, so on occasion the reverse can be true. Hence, when silent and still, I knew Dad’s thought process would be preparing a nugget of humour for when I said that I’d finished. It came when, picking up some of his fallen white locks from the floor, he began to speculate their worth and value in the hands of a paintbrush manufacturer! Needless to say that neither Dulux nor B & Q will be receiving packages containing an octogenarians hair with DNA that is shared with, or even traceable, to me. Humour and a sense of fun is something that I’ve inherited from Dad, although I clearly missed out on his natural ability to turn his hand to most things practical. Whenever I lament this limitation of my own life he reminds me that, unlike him, I always know a little man who is useful and practical, and who, above all – when I turn on the charm – is able and willing to come to my assistance!
Dad, as a pre-war child, added this ad hoc haircutting experience to a list that he can reel-off, some of which include a basin, others carried out by various, untrained or qualified members of the family standing over him with a comb and scissors. Unabashed he has also been known to give this recently much missed area of expertise in our wider society a try himself. Together with his elder brother (a ‘handful’ for their parents with just fifty-three weeks between them!), Dad was entrusted with looking after their younger brother, just after the ending of the war when the Hird family lived in rural Whitwell-on-the-Hill off the A64. The elder boys, never shy of seeking a new avenue of adventure, managed to find a set of wind-up clippers intended for use on horses. With a compliant head for use on the shoulders of my uncle, Michael, they began to test their skillfulness. With my father turning the energizing handle, my Uncle Peter did the deed with the equine clippers! Thankfully their brother survived the experience with head, ears, nose and every other part of his anatomy miraculously intact. Aged just three or four he was mercifully too young for the incident to cause any lasting or permanent psychological damage! With regard to any form of reprimand for either Uncle Peter or himself from my grandparents, Dad remains firmly tight-lipped.
One of the blessings of Lockdown for many of us has been the opportunity to appreciate and be grateful for so much of normality (whatever that may be for any of us!) that we often take for granted whether that is material, spiritual, experiential, or above all the people who share our life-journey. At the beginning of March Dad and I spent a rare and privileged time of table-fellowship indulgence at an Ilkley hotel, enjoying afternoon tea, as we took advantage of a Christmas gift that I’d received. With hindsight, a special day, yes, but more so an extraordinary moment on the calendar of events marking the passage of 2020 thus far. A random photograph taken on the day, with lamination and a few witty words became a homemade postcard received by Dad in the midst of his experience of being grounded. It was not just a depiction of happy memory, but more so, a sign of hope for better and brighter times, and more significant moments to be shared in the future.
No matter the length of time we are blessed with good parents, it is never enough. Within those of us from whom God has called back a parent lies a desire to hear their familiar voice, experience the scent of security their presence exuded, to be held, share with, or ask a question of; tangible reminders of the call to appreciate those who populate our lives whilst they still do. As a child vividly recalling the 1970’s, I share with many others of a similar age, that the majority of our childhoods were lived under sunshine and blue skies. The sunshine came in the shape of annual events such as birthdays, Christmas, holidays and days-out, the skies of which were coloured blue by the desire, energy and determination of good parents putting their all into giving of the best and finest of themselves that they could muster. The tools they used were all left backstage during those epic productions, but included hard work, self-sacrifice and finding the required patience and energy to walk the extra mile. These ingredients transformed the ordinary into the extraordinary, and brought their own magic to what in the twenty-first century may seem like overly simplistic and dated experiences involving flasks dispensing tea or coffee, Tupperware containers packed with lukewarm, well-travelled sandwiches, and the pick ’n’ mix sweets embellished with the taste of salt liberally dispensed as the wind shook from its invisible wings the sand it had collected as it flew along the beach at speed. Before the likes of Greta Thunberg were even a twinkle we were there saving the planet, because all we had used came home with us to be washed and put away in anticipation of our next outing. The disposable had been consumed and items of litter were a luxury far beyond our parents’ means!
In recent months for many there has been an epiphany of thought in regard to exceptional times into which we throw so much of ourselves. Easter came and went, and so have many other occasions, birthdays, anniversaries, university graduations and, yes, even Father’s Day. Anticipated exceptional times have worn the clothing of mere passing moments, and conversely what we often previously regarded as mere passing moments have become exceptional situations. Ultimately we will all have special times to celebrate, perhaps out of kilter with the calendar and their seasonal context. Deeper questions have also risen to the surface in quiet times and with reflection, such as why do we take the presence of loved ones for granted and visits to them as mere normality? In reality these times are a privilege, and as we cross the threshold of a loved one, we stand on holy ground. With so much of life being turned upside down reassessment of what is important in our lives is far from an indulgence but a real necessity for survival as we begin cautiously and slowly to disembark from the ark of Lockdown. The catch hauled in from our recent still water experience has reminded us of the precious nature of life’s basics, not least the priceless worth of the people closest and dearest to us. It has also given us the opportunity of discarding the worthless, the stuff of clutter, that which so often not only fills our loft-spaces, but also our hearts and fickle natures.
These days will pass, because everything passes but I sincerely hope that the positive transformation which has taken place amidst the profound pain of both loss and deprivation will enable us to culture an enriching future for all, blended and flavoured with a generous sense of appreciation and gratitude for family, friends and loved ones that we have previously taken for granted. This awareness will allow us the opportunity to celebrate worthily future momentous events.
As for Dad, that ever-present, self-effacing, supportive, encouraging source of unconditional love who never seeks much for himself, what a blessing God has given to me in him. For all God’s gifts, delivered to us in the wrapping paper of humanity let us be appreciative and thankful. After all none of us own each other, nor are we bought or purchased, only loaned and borrowed. And one day we will have to hand back, and be returned ourselves.
Be assured of prayerful and affectionate remembrances,