Frankincense and tobacco – a sweet scent and a bitter fume – the mingled offerings of earthen gods. Baal. Dagon. Isis. Athena. They all had their images, idols to remind us mere mortals of their presence. But the Living God, we are told, made living images - male and female - as vessels of the breath of heaven on Earth. It is part of human nature, part of the mud we’re made of, to honor and love the living images, reflections of Deity. I was born to worship my archetypal idols of Mother and Father, and from infancy I revered them, too innocent to know my error.
Mother was a true saint - patient, kind, full of love unfeigned - and an excellent cook, to boot. Father was strong in all the best ways, true to his wife and family and faith. His hands were calloused by everything from repairing the family’s van to remodeling our living room.
Those hands were placed on my head many times to give me a Father’s blessing. The last time was in 1995 in preparation for me to fly the nest to a university half a thousand miles away.
A dozen years and another half-thousand miles have taught me the bitter truth that time is the great iconoclast.
My father’s hands that had served our family, those strong hands, now hold a smoldering cigarette as we stand in front of a local bar and grill. It’s the summer of 2006, and we go outside for him to smoke because even bars have standards these days. We’re on a “daddy-daughter date” and he’s trying to put into words why he broke my mother’s heart, why he left her, left his faith, left his children, left the home he himself had built with those calloused hands.
I already know the when and how – I was there. As young parents, my husband and I lived in my own parents’ basement and watched in numb amazement as the images cracked. I was there when the idol shattered, but fate and a new job took us away while he was still putting the pieces back together. And now, a year and a half later, Father and I are standing here trying to make things right between us.
“I can’t explain it,” he says, exhaling smoke again from his foul and befouled mouth. “Looking back...it doesn’t make sense even to me. I was crazy, and I’ll never stop regretting it.”
I understand, though, better than he thinks. Call it a midlife crisis or a major depressive episode or whatever, but I’ve sparred with that demon already. It is a consuming emptiness, and a fear of that gnawing nothingness, and a rage against the fear. It is fight-or-flight against my own harrowed soul. I understand, and it terrifies me that I do.
My father’s father left his wife, left his faith, left his teenage children. My father stands here trying to repair the same rent in his life. But all I feel when I see him take another drag on that cigarette is a biological clock of a different sort steadily ticking away.
How long do my children have before time shatters me, too? How long before I break my husband’s heart? I may be a mother, but this demon doesn’t discriminate. Will I give my children another fifteen years like my father did? Or maybe just another ten like my grandfather?
“I’m sorry,” he says - awkwardly, like an idol apologizing to a devotee for being made of mere clay.
But I am an idol now, too, worshiped by my daughter with the brilliant half-moon eyes and by my autistic son for whom I translate a world he doesn’t understand. I have my own realm and responsibilities, my own image to uphold, and he expects me to bow down before his empty apology.
“I forgive you,” I dutifully say, stiff as stone, tacking on, “I love you.”
He nods, but I don’t think he understands. His father never apologized.
He snuffs the cigarette, and we go back inside, trying to make small talk like the strangers we are.
Five years and another half-thousand miles will teach me the sweet truth that time is the great healer.
I don’t believe it possible now, but I’m just an idol, not a prophet, and my vision is obscured by the second-hand smoke. But the Living God knows the destinies of His living images.
One autumn day in 2011, I will stand in my kitchen and plot on the phone with my father – true again to his wife and his family and faith. Father and I will conspire, trying to convince Mother to bring them both to my house for the holidays. We’ll laugh and share stories about my realm and his. It won’t be anything dramatic, no striking of stone, no rushing of water in the desert, no fire on the mountain. The miracle will happen, though, as surely as I live. The broken clay of my heart will soften to mud, moldable again in the Creator’s hand. On that distant random Friday evening, I’ll hang up the phone and pause and taste the breath of heaven in the air.
Hillary Stirling is a full-time wife and mother, part-time paralegal, and wee-hours writer in a variety of genres. She has a BA in English from Brigham Young University and an AA in Paralegal Studies from Utah Valley University, where she was the valedictorian for her associates program. (Yes, those degrees were earned in that order; she tends to be a bit unconventional.) Born and raised LDS, she's trying to recreate Eden in her back yard with mixed success, though her children tend to be better behaved than Cain and Abel.
Join us for a discussion of "Dumb Idols" here.