Becoming my father

As I age, I hear my father’s words come out of my mouth with greater frequency.

I see how strongly I have been imprinted by my father. I have his creativity, work ethic, conviction, stubbornness, and tendency toward anger as a way of expressing concern.

I deeply love and respect my father, and as my own set of three boys grow up, I understand and relate to him better with each passing year. He has walked this journey ahead of me and did a good job raising three boys into men of character. I hope to emulate him in that achievement.

Larry Wallace sitting on a green sofa with his two young sons, Lance and Lee, in his lap.
My dad with Lee and me when we were all MUCH younger.

My dad is no longer on a pedestal of perfection. He is accessible and knowable and human. I am innately made up of his best – and worst – qualities. Our weekly phone conversations often provoke tiny revelations about my character and call attention to my own tendencies that are adding up to the inevitable self-discovery and self-assurance that leads to wisdom.

My father’s personality made a strong impact on my brothers and me, and his traits have been both adopted and resisted. Maybe it is the way of fathers and sons, but love and conflict have been part of our relationship since early adulthood.

When I was very small, my earliest memories were of him working night shift for American Airlines and having to be quiet during the day while he slept. I remember him retiring from American to go to Bible college and go on staff of our church as associate pastor. I went from being fairly anonymous in our church to garnering attention wherever we went. From the point he “surrendered” for the ministry, he worked at being a better person to others. He was kind and attentive when approached, and I saw him apply himself academically.

Dad has always been a hard worker. Whether it was long days of sermon preparation and visitation at area hospitals or in people’s homes, he was not afraid of effort. He was the kind of church staff member and senior pastor who was willing to roll up his sleeves, literally, and unclog toilets, set up tables for the senior adult program or mop the fellowship hall.

In his younger days, Dad could be bold and impulsive. He may have been afraid of the life-changing career move when he answered God’s call on his life and left the world of airplane maintenance, which he knew well, but I never saw it. He handled the disappointment of not being called to a church in Orlando where he preached in view of a call. And he humbly went back to work on aircraft at General Dynamics when our church in Texas could not afford to keep him on staff. Those were big risks, and I’m sure stressful and trying times for him, full of doubt and concern for providing for his family. But he never failed us.

I saw my father take on the biggest responsibility of all when he accepted the senior pastor position at another church in Central Florida. When we moved from the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex to Lake Wales, Fla., we all viewed it as an adventure, and no one was more affected by that adventure than Dad. He became consumed by the stresses of the congregation, which also operated a kindergarten through 12th grade Christian school. The finances of both institutions were a wreck, and no one had informed him of those issues before he took the job. But as was his way, Dad internalized those stresses and did his best to shelter us from what kept him up at night.

Dad has always been a man of conviction, willing to act on his beliefs. He does not do lip service. A firm believer in the proverb “If a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing right,” he insisted we help him change the oil, brakes and spark plugs on the car, so we would learn some self-sufficiency. He couldn’t abide the thought of being dependent on anyone, and he didn’t want us to not learn to fend for ourselves.

His commitment to serving the Lord obviously stemmed from conviction. I remember as a small boy looking up at him during the invitation hymn at the end of the service as he prayed and hoped someone would respond to the message and walk the aisle. Even when he worked nights, he was still at church every time the doors were open, and by the time he went on staff, he was already doing everything he could do for our church. He was basically an unpaid staff member.

Dealing with the stress of leadership may not have suited him, but the creativity called for writing and crafting and delivering sermons did. A fiery pulpiteer, he blended well the Scripture with illustrations, and when he had the time, he enjoyed studying and writing sermons. He flashed that same creativity in his storytelling around the table or with company. Whether they were stories of his growing up, his time in the Air Force, working for American Airlines, fishing trips or church life, he had a knack for holding people’s attention and spinning a good tale. He once confided in me about a book series he would like to write about an international spy with a photographic memory. I should steal his idea and write it now as a tribute. I think the idea has enough merit that I haven’t forgotten it.

He loved surprising us. Whether it was secretly packing the car on Thanksgiving Day to take us on a surprise weekend getaway to Galveston or bringing home an above ground swimming pool, Dad loved seeing our curiosity turn to joy.

Lance Wallace sits in a brown chair holding his newborn baby son who wears a knit green cap.
See the resemblance? I guess having three boys does make me and Dad more similar than different.

Like Dad, I, too, have shown a propensity for hard work. It didn’t strike me as unusual to work long into the night at the newspaper, and when I transitioned to public relations, I put in many 60-plus hour weeks writing and disseminating messages for my nonprofit employers. Yard work was my therapy. Mowing, trimming, blowing, raking, weeding – I grew up doing yard work year-round in Florida, and the dirt and sweat was as familiar to me as the computer keyboard and notepad. Like Dad, I am not afraid of working hard.

I also made a big career jump, though not as big as Dad’s, when I left newspaper journalism for public relations. I didn’t have to relocate, at least not immediately, but I embraced the big life change a few years later when we moved from Macon to Lilburn for my job.

Church is important to me, and I have wrestled with a sense of calling all my life. I spent 10 years communicating for a missions-sending organization which gave me close proximity to church leaders and ministers. I traveled and spoke in churches and saw the lives and work of missionaries up close. As much as that experience profoundly influenced me, I did not ultimately believe I was called to serve the local church like Dad or my brothers. I am at church every time the doors are open, teaching Sunday School, leading committees, chaperoning kids to camps, chairing the board of deacons and serving in a variety of capacities as needed. I love the local church and profess that love in a monthly blog called View from the Pew that captures a lay person’s perspective of church life.

Mom is the one who convinced me one day that my inclination toward writing came from Dad. I am compelled to write, recommitting myself to New South Essays during the pandemic. Whether any of my avocational writing amounts to anything, it gives me such mental satisfaction to complete even small writing projects that I have to acknowledge a genetic predisposition to creative expression.

In the days of stress that have accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic, I have also become keenly aware that I share Dad’s habit of showing concern as anger. When I fly off the handle, it is never about the thing I’m raging against. It is the buildup of unvented frustration over circumstances outside of my control. And when I do explode, I feel shame and guilt that I now know Dad felt, too.

I am learning to handle my temper better. I wish I could be infinitely long suffering. I want to express concern as compassion and empathy. To do so, I need to go against my programming and nurture and establish a new model for my boys. Men of previous generations did not have permission to handle their emotions in constructive ways or even acknowledge that they had emotions in most cases. I have learned to recognize Dad’s feelings for what they truly are and not be scared because he seems angry at me.

In these and many more ways, I am like my father. I hope the world is better for it.

Tell us about your father. Leave a comment with what you’ve learned about yourself as it relates to your dad. Reflecting on the commonalities isn’t always easy, but it is meaningful.

A Father’s Wish

Last Saturday I had the opportunity to spend four uninterrupted hours in the car with my oldest son. There were certain topics I had decided ahead of time that I wanted to discuss with him to take advantage of this gift of time alone.

We had no trouble talking about how he spent his week with my parents or the attractions he enjoyed at Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure with my brother and my niece. It was easy to discuss his opportunities to eat out, the menus and the humorous moments with his Paw Paw and Granny. I got a detailed run down on the movies they watched and new television shows he wanted to add to his repertoire.

But when there was a lull in the conversation, before I had a chance to introduce a more serious subject, the iPad would come out, the headphones would go on and Barron would immerse himself in his music.

I get to celebrate Father's Day because of these guys, and, no, it wasn't staged. Carlton really tried to hit his brother in the head with a stick during the shoot.
I get to celebrate Father’s Day because of these guys, and, no, it wasn’t staged. Carlton really tried to hit his brother in the head with a stick during the shoot. Photo by Maureen Atwood Photography.

I don’t believe for a second that he was being defensive. I don’t think he was avoiding anything. He had no idea I had an agenda. He was doing what he always does, what comes naturally.

I’m a talkative guy. I typically don’t have a problem striking up a conversation, meaningful or trivial, with anyone. Over the years, I’ve even grown in my ability to talk about painful subjects with my own father and mother, a feat many adults never achieve.

Somehow, though, on this day, I couldn’t bring myself to do what I always do, what comes naturally for me.

Our conversation for the remaining three hours of the trip was intermittent. When Barron thought of something to tell me, he would pause his Hans Zimmer or Alan Silvestri or John Williams long enough to express it. When the conversation lagged and before I could bring up my list of talking points, he went back under the headphones.

With about 45 minutes left in our trip, I calculated we had enough time to cover at least one or two topics. Discussions with pre-teens don’t typically last as long as you plan.

I became nervous. I consciously tried not to convey anxiety as I casually transitioned the conversation during one of his headphone breaks. The car can be a safe place to have these kinds of talks because you don’t have to make eye contact, but the risk is that your child feels cornered with no escape.

Naturally he reached for the headphones. I told him he didn’t have to go back to his music just yet. So for about 20 minutes we had a good conversation on a meaningful topic before returning to lighter fare.

That’s it. Twenty minutes out of four hours. Somehow, I couldn’t carry on an in-depth conversation with my 12-year-old son for more than 20 minutes.

The trip ended with a mixture of relief and disappointment. Happy at our progress, I had to fight back the feeling that I failed to achieve my objective.

Why couldn’t I talk to my own son?

I suddenly had a small window into the world of my own father. How many times had Dad tried to discuss important subjects with me, only to have me unwittingly or even wittingly undermine it with trivial conversations about sports or entertainment?

This Father’s Day, I may get all manner of practical, thoughtful and lovingly-presented gifts from my wife and three sons, but all I really want is to have meaningful conversations with each of them. It doesn’t have to be on Father’s Day. In fact, it would be nice to spread them throughout the year.

I will continue to look for ways to have these conversations. They are truly gifts that I treasure, and someday my boys will think back on them and realize the truth that I now grasp: being a father means taking risks and sometimes feeling like a failure. But there is no more rewarding way I could spend my life.

So there, Amazon, put that on your “Ideas for Father’s Day Gifts” direct e-mail marketing campaign.

Can you remember having important conversations with your children or your parents? How did it happen? Were they good memories or do they dredge up repressed emotions? What advice would you give on how to have meaningful dialogue with your kids? Take a minute to leave your thoughts in a comment below, and we’ll all benefit from your wisdom.

What I want to tell my dad

Of all the retail-induced holidays, Father’s Day requires the most time at the greeting card shelf.

It takes me forever to find something that captures the essence of the relationship I have with my dad. I don’t know who writes cards these days, but some of us would like something more meaningful than fishing, golf, napping, giving your children money, flatulence and drinking beer.

Dad shares funny videos with Harris and Carlton
Dad, sporting his sabbatical moustache, shares funny YouTube videos with his grandsons Harris and Carlton.

I also don’t feel that the sappy cards say exactly what I feel either, and it’s hard for sons to imagine giving voice to such sentiments. If you buy into the fact that a card can say something that you can’t verbalize, then maybe those cards are appropriate, but I strive for authenticity in my Father’s Day message.

So rather than let a greeting card company speak for me this year, I thought I’d subject you to a list – five things I want to tell Dad this year:

1. As I get older, I don’t need you less; I need you in a different way. I understand if it feels like what you used to do for me isn’t needed or appreciated, but now that I’m a father of three boys, your accumulated wisdom and experience can benefit me. And when we have an open line of communication, I can share my questions and problems in a way that invites your input. Ultimately I may make different choices than you did, but it is helpful to hear what you learned from raising us three.

2. It gives me great joy to see you enjoy your grandchildren. I can buy you gifts. I can finally afford to buy you dinner now and then. I can offer verbal affirmations that may lift your spirits. But I feel like the best I can give you is time with my boys. When I see you laughing and singing those crazy songs with them, it reminds me of those special times I enjoyed with you when I was young. I believe it brings you real joy to have those times, and maybe you are getting to re-live your best moments with your sons. I know it means a lot to my boys because of the way they talk about their Paw Paw.

Dad and Daniel Vestal
Pastor Wallace and Dr. Daniel Vestal, two preachers telling fish stories at my 40th birthday party.

3. Although you have been a pastor for more than 30 years, you were my dad first. While I have seen you in the role of spiritual leader and adviser, I need you primarily to be my dad. Last month as Carla and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary, I watched the video from the rehearsal dinner.  As I listened to a much younger version of me explain why I asked you to be my best man rather than officiate the ceremony, I was struck by how I feel the same today. I have always respected your convictions and your ministry, but your support, correction and guidance have had a greater impact on shaping who I am. You always seemed to know that, and I am grateful.

4. I still want to make you proud. I’m not bringing home report cards or playing high school sports anymore, but I am not so differentiated that your approval doesn’t carry significant weight. The profound impact you have had on my identity comes through with nearly every important decision I make. What you think, whether I want to admit it or not, still enters into the equation as I consider options and angles. You continue to make a difference in my life and worldview.

5. I can’t say this any other way: I love you. I love you on your best day, and I love you on your worst. I love you when you feel like you are being a good dad, and I love you when you feel that you have failed. I love you when you preach your best sermon, and I love you when you deliver a dud. I love you when you give surprising and extravagant gifts, and I love you when all you can offer is an encouraging word. As I grow to understand a father’s love from firsthand experience, I love you more each day. No circumstance I can imagine will change that.

So if there’s a card on the shelf that says all that, I couldn’t find it. I hope you don’t mind that I shared this in a public forum. I have a hunch that there are a lot of sons out there who would say similar things to their dads if they could find the right card.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I look forward to many more years of learning from you, loving you and depending on you.  You’re a great father, and I hope that truth will give you more joy than a gift card.

OK, I’ve had my chance, what would you say to your dad if you could? In what ways has your father made an impact on you? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.

Teach your children well

It’s an understatement to say my dad taught me a lot while I was growing up.

He taught me right from wrong, self-discipline, the value of a dollar, how to maintain cleanliness and order, the importance of doing a job well and how to nurture a strong faith. Dad also taught me a number of practical skills such as hammering a nail, turning a screw, mowing the grass, handling a weed trimmer and shaving.

My dad with Harris, left, and Barron

He taught me how to have fun, tell stories and jokes, play Monopoly and checkers and other essential board games, fish, throw and catch a baseball and how to do a pineapple
dive
(aka banana dive) that splashes everyone standing on the side of a pool.

But what stands out in my mind for some reason is the day he taught me to change the oil and brake shoes in the car. Now I could very well have forgotten exactly how this occurred: he probably taught me to do these two things at different times, but in my memory, they occurred together.

I was about 13 or 14. The car was on the parking pad at our house on Holly Street in Lake
Wales, Fla.
He showed me how to check the dip stick, jack the car, place the drip pan, remove the plug, remove the filter, replace the plug (very important), replace the filter and pour in the new oil with the assistance of a handy funnel. Brake shoes were a little more complicated and involved a clamp, I think.

I have changed my oil a number of times, although not recently. To do this day, I have never changed my own brake shoes. Sorry, Dad.

As Father’s Day approaches, all of this has me wondering what dads teach their sons in the New South?

I’m sure there are plenty of dads still teaching the finer points of team sports and the basics of throwing, catching, shooting a basketball and so on. I believe fathers are still teaching their boys to appreciate the outdoors and how to fish and hunt.

Carlton recoils at the sight of bass in the live well after our spring break fishing trip. Dad was teaching his grandsons that day.

There are plenty of new skills to be handed down in this digital era. In the New South, dads must teach their sons how to program a universal TV remote, master the misdirection play on the Madden football video game, download songs from iTunes, use a GPS, shop on Amazon, read a Kindle, pick movies on Netflix and upload videos to YouTube.

No matter the era and the practical skills required, I hope to pass on to my three sons the timeless essentials every boy of character must know and practice. My dad taught me well.