On a Father’s Unspoken Love

Georges de La Tour, “Joseph the Carpenter”

Spiritual Sunday – Father’s Day

Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” is one of the great poems about fathers. Told as a memory, it is about a father whose selfless love is only recognized by his son years later.

One can read “Those Winter Sundays” as a religious poem, with the speaker’s Jesus-like parent working selflessly for his child without demanding anything in return. We may be beset by a splintering cold, but when this man brings a reviving warmth into our lives, we don’t properly appreciate it.

Hayden’s “father” was in fact his foster father, his parents having split up before he was born so that the neighbors had to take him in. According to Wikipedia, Hayden’s household was fraught with “chronic angers,” and Hayden, a short-sighted and bookish child, may well have walked carefully for fear of triggering them. After all, he had been abandoned by his parents. His caution, however, blinded him to the genuine affection that his father had for him.

In the poem, the emotionally reticent father does not communicate his love directly, but he reveals it in tiny ways. He is presumably polishing his son’s shoes for church, an act of tenderness that stands in contrast to the manual labor that generally defines him.

What does a child  know of love’s austere and lonely duties? Yet when we think back, our banked fires blaze as we realize what a gift we were given.

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?

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