A Tale of Five Kings for Father’s Day

1024px-Gotland-Grotlingbo_Kyrka_Taufstein_04My poor Dad. He made a ton of money his whole life. But he never had any. Instead, he had kids. Lots of them.

Of course, when I was younger I never considered things from the perspective of my parents. The good things they gave us, as far as I could tell, were like the cheese on my Big Mac: it was just there. A little slice of delicious, stacked up with a lot of other good things—two all-beef patties, ketchup, onions, pickles, and of course: secret sauce—all served on sesame seed buns and handed to me. It was just part of the natural order of things. A given feature of the universe.

It never occurred to me that those Big Mac’s didn’t grow on a McDonald’s bush. Somebody had to make them, and somebody had to pay for them, before they were served up to me on a Styrofoam platter (this was in the days before the cardboard box made its Mickey D’s debut).

In fact, while I hate to admit it, I never actually gave much thought to the bills Mom and Dad were paying until just recently, when I took my little brood for a trip to the shoe store. We have three that wear real shoes now. We’ve never bought that many shoes all at one crack, and when I turned over one of the display shoes to look at the price on the bottom, I gulped. I looked over at my kids, lined up on the shoe store bench, and saw all those little feet dangling off the edge—they’re still all too small for their feet to touch the floor. So there they were, six little feet, all swinging back and forth, waiting to be measured and shod.

I turned over the shoe in my hand again. For a moment I wondered: if we got just one shoe for each kid, could I get out of here for half off the sticker price? I mean, they can hop, you know. Really, they’re extremely proficient at bouncing and jumping. Just watch them on our couch sometime.

That’s when I thought of my parents, and remembered when they would take us to the shoe store. We used to line up on a bench just like my kids were doing now. But for my folks there weren’t six little feet dangling over the edge of the shoe store bench. There were sixteen. And all those feet needed new shoes twice a year. Plus boots in the winter.

I shuddered.

If it were left to me, I probably would have just bought four pairs of shoes and had us kids take turns. Mom and Dad didn’t do that, though. They went whole hog: each kid got a pair (a full pair: two shoes each) on every trip to the shoe store.

But then, shoes were probably the least of their worries. What about diapers when we were all babies? At one point, Mom and Dad had three kids aged three and under (then four aged four and under, then five aged five and under. Come to think of it, forget diapers, what about sleep?).

And clothes. At the beginning of each school year we all got new threads as part of our annual “back to school” shopping, which I always loved. But now as a parent, the thought finally struck me, what must it have cost to outfit eight kids in new wardrobes every year? Plus new suits and dresses at Easter? And snowsuits and winter gear in December?

Then there was school itself—we all went to Catholic school.

And food? We all ate—everyday even. Plus, three of my brothers were big, strapping lads who worked construction, and they did more than eat: they suctioned entire refrigerators clean in seconds flat. My Mom used to make whole loaves of bread into sandwiches right when she came home from the grocery store, and put the loaf of sandwiches right back in the bread bag and put the whole loaf of sandwiches in the fridge. From there, they disappeared quickly. I remember one evening my brother John came home late from work. That summer he was working a “gut and rebuild” project, and during the “gut” phase, when they were ripping an old building apart, he’d be so dirty when he came home from work that he had to take his work clothes off in the garage and hose off with our garden hose before he even came into the house for a real shower. Well, one night, after he’d finally been hosed and scrubbed, he walked into the kitchen and took out an entire loaf of sandwiches Mom had just made that day: minced meat with Swiss cheese on pumpernickel bread. He piled the whole loaf of sandwiches onto a plate, making a giant deli-pyramid fit for the Valley of the Sandwich Kings. He brought his plate to the table and sat down.

Michael, another one of my brothers, looked at the mountain of sandwiches and said: “That’s ridiculous. There’s no way you can eat that many sandwiches.”

John didn’t say a word. He just laughed, and started eating. Two bites per sandwich, and in about 10 minutes, they were all gone. A whole loaf of sandwiches. Gone in one sitting. And then he got up to look for chips.

Then there were the presents. I remember one Christmas when I was in about sixth grade, I got a new electric guitar—a nice one. Now, Dad plays guitar. In fact, he’s really good. He’s one of those guys who can listen to any song on the radio and figure it out in about five minutes—background chords, melody, even the zinging lead lines (he can do the same thing on piano, and about any other instrument that finds its way into his hands). Dad used to be in a rock band, and for awhile he also made extra money as part of a folk duo. Anyway, I was about 12 at the time, and I was not good at guitar. I couldn’t even tune one. But I wanted an electric, and Mom and Dad got me one for Christmas. (That’s got to shave a few millennia off purgatory: putting an implement specifically designed to make loud, distorted sounds into the hands of a pre-teen boy unable even to tune the thing.) So there I was, barely able to play, and I had this fancy electric guitar. Meanwhile, Dad (who could actually coax genuinely musical sounds out of “wire and wood” (The Guitarist Tunes Up, by Francis Darwin Cornford)) had only an old, beat-up, hand-me-down guitar. He never bought himself a guitar. But he bought me one.

A family the size that ours was also required a fairly expansive network of shingles overhead to keep the rain off everyone. And when we moved to the “big house,” the roof enclosed a capaciously cavernous space indeed: five bedrooms, a living room, family room, breakfast room, kitchen, dining room, and sun porch—all set on about a half-acre yard, where we played lots of volleyball in the summer, football in the autumn, and we even had a basketball court, which we used all year round—even in winter, playing in stocking caps and double-layers of sweats. But best of all: FOUR bathrooms!

In all the years I lived in those palatial domestic accommodations the question never once entered my head of what it all cost. And not just to buy it in the first place. It had to take some coin just to maintain HVAC, climate controlled bliss—warm in the winter and cold in the summer—for a place like that.

The list is endless. There were the cars. My parents maintained a fleet of them, which I think at one time numbered ten vehicles in an assortment of cars, vans and trucks—not to mention the motorcycles, but that’s an entirely different story. I remember when we were all driving and working our various odd jobs during high school and college how we’d have to perform a little car dance every evening, moving the cars around in the driveway and basketball court according to who had to leave first the next morning. And to clear the basketball court for a game always took about 10 minutes and a bunch of jangling key rings—which we kept on “the board” (a bulletin board in the kitchen which held one set of keys to each vehicle). Our family was a living Rubik’s Cube of a logistics puzzle!

And how about car insurance for eight teenage or early twenties drivers? (I don’t know about my siblings, but I stayed on my parents insurance until after law school, and by then I was about 24 or 25). And health insurance!

But of all the expenses, there is one in particular which, now that I’m a parent, gives me more shivers than any other: college. My parents had at least one kid as an undergraduate in college for 15 years straight—and most of us went to private colleges. And there were four kids in college simultaneously—for eight consecutive years! Then with grad schools, they had a kid in some sort of institution of higher education for something like 22 years.

I remember one time when Mom picked up one of my brothers from high school. By that time there were already three or four other siblings in college. When she pulled up in the high school parking lot, my brother was talking to a girl who was sitting in a new Mustang convertible. The top was down and a door open, the radio was playing and she was showing him all the features of her new car. When he climbed into our van and waved goodbye, he exclaimed enthusiastically: “Look at that Mustang! Sarah’s parents bought it for her!”

Mom chuckled. “Your Dad and I just paid for one of those today, too,” she said.

“Really!” my brother looked at her, shocked.

“Yeah,” Mom answered. “I sent tuition checks today. We buy one of those every semester, only we send the money to colleges instead of Ford.”

So it was for Mom and Dad. Two convertibles a year, every year, for decades.

By the time all that educatin’ was finally over, there was a heap of sheep skins: 8 undergraduate degrees, 4 master’s degrees, an MBA, a JD, and two PhD’s. Now that I’m a parent, just thinking about it is enough to make me question the value of literacy.

My Dad’s life must have felt like one of those old Burger King commercials: “Where’s the beef?” I wouldn’t be surprised to come home one day and see him searching through the couch cushions and muttering to himself, “Where is it? I know I had a big wad of cash in my pocket, and now it’s gone. Where’d it all go?”

But that was the most amazing thing. I break out in a sweat contemplating the expenses he shouldered, but he and Mom never complained about it. Not once. And they never asked us kids to forego a sport or music lesson or activity. Whatever we wanted to do, whatever our interests, they were there to support us: to pay for the cleats or the lessons and to drive us around to do all those things. They never told me, or any of the other kids, that a college or university was off-limits. Instead they encouraged us to think big—and not just about college, but about life. And they never lorded over us the bills they were paying or guilt-tripped us with all the things they were doing for us. The only time I ever heard anything even obliquely mentioned was that one chuckling comment in the high school parking lot picking up my brother.

Another car comment I remember was when I was in high school and helping Dad work in the garage. A fancy sports car drove down the street, and I said to Dad, “Wow! Check out that car!”

Dad looked up at it. “Nice,” he said, but didn’t sound overly impressed. “You know,” he said, “it’s pretty easy to buy a car like that.”

“It is?” I asked, incredulous.

“Yeah,” Dad answered. “Once you graduate and start working it won’t be too hard to get a car like that.”

I think Dad’s own earning history may have slightly skewed his ideas about the relative availability of luxury sports cars, but in a way, he was right. Getting good things for yourself isn’t what’s hard. What’s really hard is foregoing those good things for yourself in favor of putting others first.

That was the thing about Dad. If he was only in it for himself, he could have lived like a king. He made the money. He could have been driving head-turning cars, hopping jets around the world, and kicking up his heals in custom-built homes—one the regular house, the other somewhere on water or in the mountains for those times you just need to get away from it all.

That’s the idea of kingship the world is selling. Me first. I’m gonna git me mine. Might makes right. The meek might inherit the earth, but they have to wait for me to die first. What C. S. Lewis described in The Abolition of Man as the ability to say “‘I want’” and get it.

It’s the Herod model of kingship. You see it on full display in the Epiphany story. Herod used his kingship to live high and satisfy his own desires, “motivated simply by [his] own pleasure” depending on how “the emotional strength of . . . impulse” struck him at the time (The Abolition of Man)—whether that meant big parties with dancing girls or marrying his brother’s wife or serving John the Baptists head on a silver platter. You know: the good life.

Herod’s kingship was first and foremost—and exclusively—about Herod. And when Herod heard rumors about some Messiah that might threaten his kingship, he was willing to do about anything to maintain what he had: lie (to the three kings from the East who came looking for the Messiah), even kill (even innocent children).

That might be many things, but it isn’t kingship. In A Horse and His Boy, one of the Narnia books, C. S. Lewis wrote that a true king uses his kingship for others, not himself:   “For this is what it means to be a king: to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land.”

In the Book of Revelation there are 24 elders who sit on thrones wearing gold crowns, and they “throw down their crowns before” God and worship Him. Rv 4, 10.

That’s the model of kingship adopted by the other kings in the Epiphany story. The three kings who came seeking Jesus from the East put their kingships at the service of Christ, using their kingships to seek Christ, to come to Christ, and to serve Christ.

That’s the example of kingship shown by the king in the Epiphany story. For the Epiphany is a story of five kings. There is Herod, the three kings from the East, and then there is the Epiphany king, The King of Kings: Jesus Christ.

The Catechism tells us:

The Word became flesh to be our model of holiness: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” On the mountain of the Transfiguration, the Father commands: “Listen to him!” Jesus is the model for the Beatitudes and the norm of the new law: “Love one another as I have loved you.” This love implies an effective offering of oneself, after his example. CCC 459 (emphasis in original, footnotes omitted).

And the model of kingship that Jesus shows is a total gift of self. Jesus didn’t reserve all the best for himself—He didn’t reserve anything for Himself. Even foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but Jesus didn’t have so much as a place to lay his head. Mt 8, 20. “[T]hough He was in the form of God, [He] did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped”. Phil 2, 6. Instead, the One Who made everything, to Whom everything belonged, emptied Himself completely, and “humbled Himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross”. Phil 2, 8.

That was the example of kingship the Three Kings from the East followed in their Epiphany quest, bringing the gifts of their kingship to the foot of the manger. And my Dad laid the gifts of his kingship at the foot of cribs—many of them, which he even had to assemble himself first.   And while the gifts themselves still stand out, and are still with me (in the form of degrees and memories, and even guitars: I still have that electric guitar they gave me 30 years ago), the example of sacrifice stands out even more.

But, there’s something deeper still.

I once heard a quote attributed to Scott Hahn that went something like this: “You can let your kids break your stuff now, or you can put your stuff away and let your grandkids break it later, or you can go out in your driveway and break it yourself.” For my Mom and Dad, the sacrifice never seems to end. They are instrumental still in helping their kids, and now their grandkids: money to help traverse rough patches, a few hundred here, a couple of thou there. It’s not unusual to get a box of clothes in the mail when the new school year is approaching, or an envelope of money when it’s time to buy new shoes. (So Mom and Dad still shod little feet dangling off a shoe store bench, only now it’s more like 60 little feet! Like the loaves and fishes, it’s the multiplying effect of love.)

Then something happened in Mom and Dad’s town a few years back. A young mother and father died tragically in a car accident, leaving behind five small children. It didn’t seem likely that any family would be prepared to adopt or foster five young children all at once, so the kids were going to be separated. Mom and Dad thought splitting up the kids would be a second tragedy, and they decided that they could do something about it. They could adopt the kids, so that the siblings could all stay together.

I was surprised. Mom and Dad had already raised their kids. They were done. They were free. And now, to go right back to the beginning again? With someone else’s kids? When they didn’t have to? And Mom and Dad weren’t spring chickens anymore.

But before Mom and Dad could move on their resolve, another (and considerably younger) family came forward and adopted all five kids, so the siblings stayed together.

When the shock of what Mom and Dad had been prepared to do wore off, what I finally realized was that all those things Mom and Dad did for us kids for all those years, all the sacrifices—of money, time, vacations, sleep, energy, attention, caring—were never because they “had to.”

Actually, they didn’t.

But for them it was never about what they “had to” do, it was always about love.

Which is what stands out more and more as the years go on. It’s the ultimate example of The Epiphany King. Jesus didn’t have to come to us in the manger in Bethlehem. Jesus chose to—from love. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” Jn 3, 16. That’s the kind of love we honor and remind ourselves of on Father’s Day, a love that can help us fix our sights anew on The King we want to follow.

Jake Frost is the author of Catholic Dad, (Mostly) Funny Stories of Faith, Family and Fatherhood to Encourage and Inspire , also available as a $0.99 e-book on Amazon.  He is a lawyer in hiatus, having temporarily traded depositions for diapers and court rooms for kitchens to care for his pre-school aged children.  He comes from a large family in a small town of the Midwest, and lives near the Mississippi River with his wife and kids.