My father always smelled good. Rules of personal hygiene were the third tablet of his Commandments. Towel off methodically before exiting the shower. Brush until foam forms on your lips. Shave downward, re-lather, then repeat with upward strokes. And always rinse the sink, cupping and tossing the water with knobby hands, then brushing the last flecks of beard and suds toward the drain with the hairy backs of your fingers. Dad’s hands were the knobby, hairy ones. Mine are girlish by comparison.
My earliest memories of Dad include sitting on the toilet seat beside the sink and watching him perform his morning ablutions. In most of my memories today, in fact, I am watching him exhibit his power and grace.
This is a bit surprising, because when I was younger, especially near the end of adolescence, when I faithfully rebelled against all he stood for, I remembered what a strict father he had been. It is as though I have lived under both Old and New Covenants, propitiating a vengeful God, then praising a forgiving one. When I was a boy, Dad played Yahweh, frowning on our misdemeanors, usually quick to punish them. Nowadays, it seems that all I can remember is the gentleness of his old age, his forbearance with his six children and many noisy grandchildren, his tender love for our mother.
We learn about love by our Father’s love for us, and so we learn to spread it around. If I have been any kind of father at all to my daughters (I never taught them to shave, for one thing), it is thanks to my own dear Dad. That’s about the best I can make of the mystery of the Trinity today, when Father’s Day and Trinity Sunday coincide.
I am quite sure that I was the last person to shave my father. A few days before his death, he looked up from the hospice bed and said he felt grubby. Would I shave him? By then, I had learned to shave myself—and towel off and rinse the sink—and I could give him back his early love. He submitted quietly to my ministrations, then smiled with satisfaction.