Holidays like Father's Day invite reminiscence, which leads to reflection.

Holidays like Father's Day invite reminiscence, which leads to reflection. Credit: Getty Images/Tatiana Maksimova

The old round picnic table is in the farthest corner of our property, still functional though it no longer fits well with the rest of the backyard. It sits behind the swing set and slide, nestled under a flowering dogwood, further obscured by a giant fountain of ornamental grass that drapes over the wood cracked and weathered gray with age. It was a housewarming gift more than three decades ago from my parents, who loved a good picnic.

They're both gone now but the many memories of meals eaten and laughs shared around it makes the idea of getting rid of it a heavier lift.

And so it goes, especially during this season when the calendar turns to the days we commemorate our mothers and fathers.

These holidays can be tricky business. That's certainly true for those who have recently — or even not so recently — lost the ones we would honor. It is also true for those who might not have had Hallmark-perfect moms and dads, or who never knew their moms or dads. People and relationships are complicated; so are these days.

They invite reminiscence, which leads to reflection. We come to realize that we learn from what they said, and often from what they didn't say. Their words and actions are a guide, which sometimes means we try to do it just as they did it, and sometimes means we try hard to do it any way but the way they did it.

As the years go, the holidays morph. It is a curious process. On this Father's Day weekend, it occurs to me that I have moved from being a son and grandson to being a father and grandfather. There is no one left in my family who is older than me whom I can honor in person. I've been the oldest male in my family since my father died during the height of the pandemic, not from COVID-19 but during its rampage.

And now I realize that the most fulfilling holidays were the ones when the honor flowed both ways — giving it to the elders, receiving it from those who are younger.

I'm also finding that the spirit of the day is generous. Its net is wide. I suspect that on this weekend many of us also are remembering and celebrating other father figures in our lives. If not, we should. For some, they were substitutes. For others, they were reinforcements. The father-in-law whose common sense always cut through the most difficult problems. The grandfather or uncle who had lived through the Depression and knew how to show you the sunny side of things. The coach or teacher whose words of wisdom traveled well outside the classroom and far from the playing field.

When you listen, you can still hear their voices.

It happens for me when I handle an old tool, passed down and still working fine, and I smile. It happens when I joke with a grandchild and hear the echo of someone joking with me. It happens most profoundly when I spend precious time with children and grandchildren and evoke all those moments when I was the child being lavished with the attention of my parents and grandparents and all those others.

Time levels us all.

So when I go in the backyard and spot the picnic table in the corner, I understand it is much more than the picnic table in the corner. It's also the picnic table on the Cape and the one in the campsite in the White Mountains. It's the one in the pitch-black of Yellowstone National Park after a long day's drive and an 11 p.m. dinner, and the one in a favorite state park that we frequented for a full day of pleasure or just a quick afternoon swim and evening picnic. And it's everybody who sat around that table, all the kids and moms and dads — then, now, and forever.

Columnist Michael Dobie's opinions are his own.

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