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When Father’s Day rolls around each year, we think about what to get dad—what gift to offer our father. Advertisements abound for the perfect gift: a cool tie; something related to his favorite hobby; a barbeque so he can grill up burgers and steaks; and many others. Those kinds of gifts are fine. But I want to suggest something different.
For Christmas and his birthdays, my father-in-law, Ed Kimball, asked his children, children-in-law, and grandchildren to write a page of personal history for him in lieu of any material gift. Inspired by his example, I invite you to consider giving your father the gift of your written account of an experience you shared, he lived, or something you really admire or appreciate about him. If you write or otherwise record (e.g., audio or video tape) such an account for your father, that gift will not only be appreciated by your father but also by other family members.
For too many, such a gift for Father’s Day can be complicated by the fact that they have a complicated, if not negative or nonexistent, relationship with their father. Complications can come when a father was not comfortable in getting close with a child or because positive and negative elements mixed together. Some have no real relationship with their father either because they never knew him or because he never took the time to know them. Some were neglected or even abused by their father.
Thus, for too many, their desires to honor their father on Father’s Day can be mixed with a sense of resentment over poor fathering; confusion about the relationship; or grief about a relationship that was never there. Nonetheless, despite a less-than-ideal relationship with one’s father, there is great value in finding ways to honor him and to celebrate your relationship with him to the extent possible.
For this Father’s Day gift, I am not suggesting that you write your father’s entire life story (although that is a great thing to do). Rather, I am inviting you to just record and share one experience you have had with him that is meaningful to you. In this article, by way of possibilities, I will share a few such accounts of experiences about and with my father, along with some ideas on how you might approach creating such an account yourself.
A Bit About Mel Dollahite
My dad, Mel Dollahite, had been born and raised in Oklahoma but his parents moved to Marin County, California, during World War II so his father could work in the shipyards building Liberty Ships for the Navy. His father was killed by a drunk driver when Mel was 14. The local paper ran a story about the death, mentioning that L.C. Dollahite left a wife and five children behind. When he was 20 years old, Mel joined the Navy.
He married my mom in 1958 when she was a struggling single parent because he thought she needed a husband and her daughter needed a father. He adopted my sister and was a wonderful father to her.
He loved being a professional photographer but thought that was not quite enough of a service to society so he became a police officer. He was respected as an officer of the peace, often called on to deal with difficult and sensitive situations including domestic disputes and hostage situations. One time, my dad was assigned to go to help quell the riots at the University of California at Berkeley. Fellow officers nicknamed him, “Mellow Mel.” He served for 17 years, retiring as a sergeant in 1981.
Dad was not a religious person but was involved in the Episcopal church when I was young so that I would have a “moral upbringing” (and because my mom wanted him to be involved). My father was a Lay Reader in Holy Innocent’s Episcopal Church where, at a certain point in the service, he went up to an ornate lectern and read selected passages from a large Bible. I remember that each time he finished reading the few verses that were assigned for that day he said in a formal voice, “This is the word of the Lord.”
Although my father lost his parents when he was fairly young, he never turned to any number of addictions or negative behavior patterns that could easily have been possible. Although their marriage was not perfect, my parents made a great partnership and provided me with a model of stable marriage and working out issues with remaining true to marital vows.
A Few Memories
I am not insightful enough to recognize all the ways that my father influenced me or wise enough to understand the depth and breadth of his place in my heart, mind, and soul. But as a way to honor him, what I write here is an effort to acknowledge his place in my life.
When I played little league baseball, Dad would come to all my games even if he was on duty. He often parked his patrol car on a hill above the field and leaned against the hood of the car, smoking his pipe, watching me play. I remember many times when I was pitching or going to bat and someone called out to me, “Dave, your dad is watching from the hill.” I would look up and see this tall, handsome man dressed in blue standing by the squad car. I always felt safe and proud when that happened.
Dad would sometimes drive me around in the squad car at night as he did his rounds. He would let me point the powerful police spotlight mounted on the car into stores to be sure everything was okay. Mel was a cop in the little hippy town of Fairfax during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. Police officers were disrespected by the hippies who called them “Pigs” and other unpleasant names. Each summer, there was a softball game between the Hippies and the Police. In an effort to build friendly relations with the community, the police officers wore tee-shirts with a pig on it.
One time, when I was about 12 years old, my best friend, Rob Guidi, was at our home eating dinner with us. My dad was off duty. During dinner, we heard a loud noise that we first thought was a car backfiring on the street in front of our house on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. We then heard a man yelling in pain and my dad said it was a gun shot. Rubini’s restaurant was down the street from us and my father figured it was being robbed. He ran and grabbed his gun and dashed out the door.
Rob and I ran to the window to watch my dad go and get the bad guy but my mom screamed at us to get away from the window and quickly locked the front door and herded us into a back bedroom and closed that door and stood there shaking. It was the first time I realized how dangerous my father’s job was and how frightened my mother was every time he went to work. But to me, that experience always reminds me of how brave—even heroic—my father was as he did not hesitate to run toward danger to protect others.
One of my clearest memories of my father is when I was about ten or twelve and my father saved my life. One evening during dinner, I began choking on piece of steak. I tried to tell my parents I was choking but no sound came from my mouth. Finally, my mother saw my face turn red and screamed to my father that I was choking. He began pounding on my back (this was before the Heimlich maneuver was invented). He pounded for a couple minutes but the piece of meat did not become dislodged—in fact it seemed to get more lodged in my throat.
Then something extremely interesting happened. While my father continued to pound on my back and my mother screamed everything became very quiet and every event in my entire short life literally passed before my eyes like a video on high speed “fast forward.” I saw things that I knew I had experienced when I was very young but had forgotten. One event was riding a little red bicycle down the steep road from the Pavilion in Fairfax and having a bad fall where I skinned my knees badly. Finally, the piece of meat flew out of my mouth and I began coughing.
When I had recovered from this I told my parents about seeing my entire life pass before me and I asked if I had ever crashed a little red bike on the Pavilion hill. They said that, yes, when I was only two or three years old I had a red bike with training wheels and had a bad crash on that hill.
My father only hit me one time that I recall. When I said something especially rude to my mother, my father slapped me across the face. Since he never hit me otherwise, this served to impress on me how important it was to him that I respect my mother.
When I was in my late teens, I read the Book of Mormon and converted to the LDS faith. During this time, I had a troubling conversation with my dad. I hoped to persuade him to consider and pray about the divinity of the Book of Mormon. I was sharing with him some biblical passages that foretold of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon (Isaiah 29:9-24; Ezekiel 37:15-22). After listening to my explanation my father said, “But, Dave, you are assuming that I believe the Bible is the word of God.”
I said, “Well, yes. Don’t you?”
He said, “No, I believe it is a collection of myths and inspiring moral stories.”
I said, “But when you were a lay reader in the Episcopal Church you always ended your reading by saying, ‘This is the word of the Lord.’ Didn’t you believe that?”
“No. But that is what you were supposed to say. So, I said it.”
I was stunned to learn that after all these years of assuming my father believed that the Bible was God’s word, he really did not.
All those years when Dad lived with us, he always respected my role as a father and never tried to interfere. In fact, he was willing to support me in all our efforts to live an LDS family-centered life. He went to church with us even though he did not enjoy it. He had family home evening with us each week although the only part he really enjoyed was when the kids performed their talents. He took his turn in reading a verse in the Book of Mormon each evening during our dinner-time scripture study. He even went with me to Priesthood Meeting at General Conference even though he really did not like those meetings. He did enjoy going out to dinner with me and my sons following the meeting and always ordered a “fresh pot of hot coffee” which caused some waiters to wonder since, he too, was wearing a white shirt and tie!
My Father’s Death and His Legacy for Me
My father died on January 13, 2014. I am grateful that I was holding his hand as he passed peacefully from this mortal sphere. One moment he was there and the next he was not. Although his mental and physical faculties gradually diminished in the last years of his life, he remained the kind and thoughtful person I always knew.
Since then, I have thought a lot about him and his life, what I learned from him, and the nature of our relationship as father and son. Although my father and I were very different people, we never had a complicated or conflicted relationship. In other words, our relationship had almost none of the “drama” that afflicts too many father-son relationships. He almost never raised his voice to me or anyone else. I am an outspoken, competitive, and intense person so this lack of relational conflict was almost entirely due to his easy-going, kind, and patient nature.
On the other hand, we did not really enjoy emotional, spiritual, religious, or intellectual intimacy. He was a quiet, reserved person who did not share his inner world with others. He was an atheist and I am a believing Latter-day Saint. He was a practical man, not particularly interested in intellectual discussions and I am a university professor with a strong theoretical bent. I wish my father would have shared more of his inner world with me. I wish I had known more about what he thought, felt, hoped, regretted, and believed.
But we did share what could be called spatial intimacy. I spent most of the first twenty years of my life living in my father’s home; my father spent most all of the last twenty years of his life living in my home. My dad was 79 when he died so he lived under the same roof with me for nearly one half of his life. I was 55 when my father died so the 38 years we lived in the same home accounted for almost 70% of my life to that point. It is fairly unusual in contemporary Western society for a father and son to live in the same home for such a high proportion of the child’s life and parent’s life. I was immensely blessed by such an abundance of close physical contact with this great man. Not that we hugged much. We did not. But I was in the same domestic space as this good man that, by a kind of relational osmosis, he became a part of my soul.
Neither of us charged the other rent. My wife, Mary, and I invited my father to live with us and our four children after my mom died of cancer in 1991. A couple years later, after he was laid off from his job as a security guard in Seattle, he called to ask if our offer was still open. We told him we would be delighted to have him live with us. At the dinner table the first night, he was with us he asked how much rent we wanted him to pay. I said that we didn’t want him to pay any rent. He insisted that he wanted to pay rent. I asked him how long I had lived in his home without paying rent. He said more than 19 years. I said, “Okay, in 19 years we’ll talk about rent.”
We never did have that conversation. In fact, he paid “rent” in so many ways such as buying us new appliances and taking us out to eat. One of my abiding memories of dad is him walking around the house with a small notepad and pencil looking for things he could fix. He put in untold hours helping us with minor renovations to the home and with some major remodeling. My children fondly remember that he bought milk and cookies and ice cream and other treats as much as our fridge would hold. Our children loved having Papa with us for many reasons—not least of which was the Costco sized boxes of Oreos he bought each week!
I awoke in the morning of May 8, 2018, having dreamt the following: I was in a building and decided to go out. When I got to the bottom of the building I realized that I had forgotten my prescription glasses. I ran back up the stairs a few floors and came into a room with a number of people. I saw my father, when he was in the prime of his life, dressed in his police uniform. He smiled at me and I ran into his arms and he embraced me as I wept saying how much I missed him. I awoke, my eyes moist, still feeling the warm and wonderful embrace of my loving father.
I am grateful for this foretaste of my eventual reunion with my father when I too pass from this mortal existence.
Some Thoughts on Sharing Sacred Family or Spiritual Experiences
When people record and share their own sacred family or spiritual experiences it is incumbent on them to attend to certain issues. I have written elsewhere about the importance of recording and sharing family stories. Here, inspired by former LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley’s list of “Bs” given to the youth of the Church, I would suggest that those of us who record and share sacred experiences try to attend to the following:
Be honest. Avoid embellishing the story and just report what actually happened. Also, try to “speak the truth in love” so that you are an authentic but inoffensive witness of the goodness of God.
Be careful. Try to get the facts (names, dates, places) right so that you place your experience in context and make it easier for others to connect with your experience.
Be humble. Remember to give glory to God and to other people who were involved in your sacred experience.
Be faithful. Share your experience in a way that builds faith in the living God and turns the hearts of your readers/listeners to their Heavenly Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Be compassionate. Be aware of the implications of your experience for others who have not yet obtained the blessings you are writing/speaking about and be compassionate toward those who, for whatever reason, might be hurt, offended, or otherwise bothered by your story.
Be generous. Give others who are involved in your experience the benefit of the doubt about their motivations and intentions—especially when the experience was not necessarily a positive one for you.
Be open. Remain willing to revise your account of the experience in order to be more consistent with what you learn from others who might have been part of the experience and have different recollections, feelings, or thoughts than you about what occurred or what it means.
Possibilities to Consider
As you think about what experience you might write about, below are some possibilities for you to consider.
- A wonderful experience you shared (positive, fun, enjoyable, happy)
- A sacred experience you shared (spiritual, meaningful, poignant, uplifting)
- A challenging experience you shared (difficult, hard, dangerous, stressful)
- A time you served others together (church, community, scouts, neighbors)
- A memorable experience you shared (vacation, hike, ride, disaster, embarrassing)
Experiences Your Father Has Told You About:
- An experience from your father’s life that you really enjoy hearing again and again.
- An experience has you father shared that has done the most to inspire you to try to be better.
- An experience your father has told you about that has helped you come to know him as he truly is.
- An experience from his life that makes you proud to be his child.
- What is it you most admire and respect about your father?
- What qualities of your father’s character have mattered most to you?
- What quality of your father do you think is most reflected in your own character?
- What quality of your father do you try most to emulate even though it is a struggle to do so?
When you have written an account of an experience from your father’s life or an account of an experience you have had with your father, you might consider uploading it to the Family Search website using the “Gallery” tool.
May the Lord bless you as you consider what gift you might share with your father. Some will be able to write something and share it for Father’s Day. Others will want or need to take more time and share it in the future. Either way, I invite you to ponder and pray about what experiences or ideas would be most meaningful and important for you to share with your father. In turning your heart to him in this way, you will help turn his heart to you and your children and grandchildren in ways that will be a blessing for all.
*Portions of this article are adapted from my book, God’s Tender Mercies: Sacred Experiences of a Mormon Convert (2018, BCC Press) being published on June 15.
Forthcoming in Meridian Magazine (ldsmag.com) in June, 2018
About the Author:
David C. Dollahite, PhD, is a professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University where he co-directs the American Families of Faith project. Because of his commitments at BYU and because he is not a licensed therapist, he is not able to respond to requests for counseling or firesides.