The Light in My Father's Eyes
This is one of my favorite photos of my father. Why? Is it because of the smile on his face? The joy in that smile? That he is clowning with a relative out of the frame? Or because this is a spontaneous moment caught by chance?
It is all of these things. And none of these things. It’s “the light in my father’s eyes.” That vibrant look that conveys inner happiness and the elation of “being alive.”
This photo captures my father the way I want to remember him—content—yet, with a sense of humor. He was, by nature, a strong, stoic man, a member of the World War II “Greatest Generation.” He lived through the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and left home in Missouri at age fifteen or sixteen to work on a turkey farm in Iowa to support himself after his family lost their family farm. After returning from Iwo Jima, and graduating from Northwestern university, he would later raise his six children alone after he lost my mom. He had plenty to be stoic about. So, catching an impulsive moment like this photo stirs something deep inside me.
My father was proud of all his children, but by virtue of his generation, seldom expressed it. Yet, there was one instance in my life when I sensed he was proud of me. Shortly after I changed jobs, I was working as the Senior Marketing Communications Manager at a large local company. He stopped in to visit me with my youngest sister, Joan.
When he stepped into my office, he glanced around the room, looked at my sister, then back at me. He was beaming. I invited them to sit. He asked about my role handling the company’s advertising, public relations, and trade shows. As I explained my role, tears filled his eyes. I shot a glance at Joan. She winked. His expression of pride took us both by surprise.
He was careful to not let a tear escape—and his words froze in his throat. We waited for him to speak; knowing he was about to take us to a sacred place—his heart. “Jim, how did you learn so much about this company so fast?” I downplayed his question, knowing he was trying to say something else; “I’m so proud of you, Jim.”
I have often asked myself, why was he so proud? Why the tears? After all, he was very successful as the cost accounting manager at Chrysler corporation. So why did this resonate with him?
When I reflect on it, I saw “the light in my father’s eyes” that day. Not merely the light of life—but the light in which he saw me. He saw one of his six children arriving at a station in life that made his heart swell. The same boy who fell face first off of his bike and was rushed to the ER for seven stitches in his chin. The same boy who was lost in the crowd at a Fourth of July parade. The same boy who infuriated his grumpy neighbor when he broke a branch off his new sapling by overthrowing a football. The same boy who loved gymnastics, photography, and writing.
In my office that day, I not only saw the light of joy in my father’s eyes—I saw the light in which he saw me.
Today, I understand why it was a big deal to him—because I’m equally proud of my sons, David and Mark. David is a professional writer, and light years ahead of where I was at his age. He writes with an eloquence, perspective and advanced vocabulary that paints a picture for the reader—like an artist paints on canvas. Mark is a marketing professional in the sports apparel industry on the west coast. He has a penchant for spotting trends, creating new products, and driving sales. Most importantly, both make me proud because of their faith in God, their devotion to their wives and families, and their commitment to their craft. I hope they can see the light in my eyes.
Fifteen years ago, my father died of Alzheimer’s disease. A few years before that—when he no longer remembered my siblings and me—the light in his eyes went out.
I suppose this is why I write so much about him and the significance of relationships.
Writing about the people who inspired me summons into memory the essence of that relationship.
And that memory—if only for a moment—turns the light back on.
SPECIAL NOTE: I dedicate this blog post to all of you who have lost your father. May your memory of him today lift your heart and brighten your day.
SOMETHING TO CHEW ON: What is your favorite photograph of a loved one? Why? Dive deep. Go beyond the obvious. If that loved one is still alive, tell them what you love about the photo—and them—before the light goes out.
Photos above: My father, James H. Magruder
My family: (L-R) Mark, Karen, and David Magruder
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