Friday Jan. 15, 2016

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Disappearing Fathers

Sometime after I turned forty the fathers from my childhood
began disappearing; they had heart attacks
during business dinners or while digging their shovels
into a late April snow. Some fathers began forgetting things:
their phone numbers, which neighborhoods belonged
to them, which houses. They had a shortness of breath,
the world’s air suddenly too thin, as if it came
from some other altitude. They were gone:
the fathers I had seen dissecting cars
in garages, the fathers with suits
and briefcases, the fathers who slipped down
rivers on fishing boats and the ones
who drank television and beer. Most of my friends
still had mothers but the fathers
were endangered, then extinct.
I was surprised, though I had always known
the ladies lasted longer; the fathers fooled me
with their toughness; I had been duped
by their jogging and heavy lifting, misled
by their strength when they slapped
me on the back or shook my hand. I kept imagining
I would see them again: out walking their dogs
on the roads near my childhood house,
lighting cigars on their porches, waving to me
from their canoes while I waited on shore.

“Disappearing Fathers” by Faith Shearin from Telling the Bees. © Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of minister and activist Martin Luther King Jr. (books by this author), born in Atlanta, Georgia (1929). In 1948, he was ordained as a fourth-generation Baptist preacher, and he was appointed assistant pastor at his father’s church in Atlanta. In 1951, King received his Bachelor of Divinity degree and enrolled at Boston University to earn his Ph.D. in systematic theology. He liked to drive around in his new green Chevy, a gift from his father for his graduation from seminary. He was a good student, and a charismatic guy who made friends easily and charmed women.

Then a friend introduced King to Coretta Scott, a voice student at the New England Conservatory of Music. She was talented and smart, but when she heard that King was a minister, she wasn’t interested. Finally he convinced her to give him a try. On his first date, he told her: “The four things that I look for in a wife are character, personality, intelligence, and beauty. And you have them all.” They were married in 1953 in her parents’ yard. King’s father, Martin Luther King Sr., presided over the wedding as the minister, and Coretta insisted that he remove the part of the wedding ceremony where a woman vows to obey her husband. A year later, King applied for and was offered a job as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. The church was well respected, and he saw it as a chance to make a name for himself away from his father’s influence in Atlanta. By 1955, one year into his job, King was settling in to his ministerial duties, and had earned a reputation as a skilled orator. He had finished his doctorate, and in November, the couple’s first child was born: a daughter named Yolanda. King was 25 years old.

In December, a local woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. Although Parks was later portrayed as an old woman tired after a long day of labor as a seamstress, she was in fact a 42-year-old NAACP leader with a history of activism. That summer, she had attended a training in Tennessee called “Racial Desegregation: Implementing the Supreme Court Decision.” Her decision was deliberate, and although she wasn’t the first black person who had refused to give up a seat, she was so respected that the African-American community in Montgomery rallied behind her and organized a bus boycott. At the forefront was the Women’s Political Counsel (WPC), led by Jo Ann Robinson. The WPC and other civil rights leaders had been considering a bus boycott for years, and they decided this was a good time. They printed more than 50,000 leaflets calling for the boycott. Four days after Parks’ arrest, the WPC and others formed an organization called the Montgomery Improvement Association specifically to oversee the boycott. Robinson suggested that her church’s young preacher, Martin Luther King Jr., might be a good leader.

Under King’s leadership, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was initially envisioned as a one-day event, ended up lasting more than 380 days. Boycott participants were harassed and intimidated. At one point, the city arrested 89 of the boycott’s leaders, including King, and several of their homes and churches were bombed, including King’s parsonage. In November of 1956, the Supreme Court ruled that segregated busing was unconstitutional. During the course of the boycott, King had transformed from a little-known Montgomery preacher to a national leader in the struggle for civil rights.

The French playwright and actor-manager Molière (books by this author) was baptized in Paris on this date in 1622. He was born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, to a wealthy family; his father was upholsterer to the king. His father wanted him to become a lawyer, but instead Poquelin took up with a theatrical family, the Béjarts, when he was 21. They formed a troupe and put on comedies, and he adopted the stage name Molière. The theatrical life wasn’t as lucrative as a law career, though. After serving time in debtors’ prison, Molière and his company left Paris to tour the provinces for 13 years. They returned to Paris, triumphant, in 1658, after impressing the king’s brother with their performance of The Amorous Doctor. Although he poked fun at the peasant and bourgeois classes, he was careful to leave the church and the monarchy alone; as a result, he never ran into trouble, enjoyed the patronage of Louis XIV — who was the godfather of Molière’s first son — and always had work.

Known as the father of French comedic theater, Molière wrote The School for Wives (1662), Tartuffe (1664), and The Misanthrope (1666). He collapsed onstage during a performance of his Le Malade Imaginaire (The Hypochondriac) in 1673; he finished the performance, but died of pulmonary tuberculosis later that night, and because there was no priest around to administer the Last Rites, he was denied a sanctified burial. After his widow appealed to the king, Molière was buried in the section of the cemetery reserved for unbaptized babies.

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