85th Birthday Reflection, September 25, 1997
In his fine book, "Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Television," Neil Postman points out that 19th century debates -- such as the famous debates between Lincoln and Douglas -- lasted seven or eight hours. Participants would, as a matter of course, schedule breaks for lunch or dinner. I encourage you to take a look at Postman's argument concerning the impact of television on public discourse, and its corrosive effect on attention span, civility and rubrics of rationality. But for now I wish to assure you that I will not take seven or eight hours. However, I will occupy a sufficiently sizable chunk of time that some of you may wish to prepare yourselves for a 20 minute talk.
None of us would be here today but for a train wreck outside Peoria, Illinois. It happened the year of the St. Louis World's Fair. Many of you remember "Meet me in St. Louis, Louis", the song which commemorated the event. Here's what happened...
Dad's father, William Arthur Archibald, was an aging bachelor at the time, who, with his brother George, farmed stony acreage in Rush, New York. The year of the Fair, they enjoyed a bumper crop of snap beans. It was also a year in which relatively few farmers planted any beans at all. Anyhow, they decided to spend the profits on a trip to St. Louis. On their way back from the fair, their train was involved in a stunning wreck. In fact, only grampa Archibald and brother George emerged from their Pullman alive. There were so many injured passengers that local residents were enlisted to attempt nursing them back to health. So it was that William Arthur and Mary Agnes Sweeney came to know one another. Accompanied by Mary's older sister, Catherine Sweeney, the newlyweds took up residence on the Archibald farm.
Dad was the first of four kids born to Mary Agnes (Sweeney) and William Arthur Archibald. Dad was followed by Genevieve (called Jerry by her children) and then the twins, Val(erian) and Virginia, who arrived when Mom was in her 40s!
The earliest tale told of Dad's childhood is that he used to bury eggs on the family farm in Rush, New York.
To me, this fusion of two fertile elements is an early indication of Dad's genius, his desire to make things fructify, to have issue, to bear fruit. True, there's little logical sense in burying an egg. In fact, when viewed rationally, such a pastime is ludicrous. Fortunately, logic is a paltry thing in the realm of universal meaning: myth, legend, fairy tale, the embroidered accounts of saints and saviors. Santa Claus.
From the vantage of childhood - that miraculous time when everything is a portal of heaven, when nature is shot through with multiple meanings, any one of which dwarfs mere utility - what could be more fertile than an egg deposited in the bosom of the earth?
It's a wonder more kids don't dedicate themselves to such evidently important pursuits --- burying eggs. Maybe they did in the days before electronic media and our universal abdication to off-the-rack imagery as fit nourishment for developing minds.
Anyhow, you can't keep 'em down on the farm.
And besides, sensitive boy that Dad was, there were those horrible winter drafts that rushed sieve-like through turn-of-the-century farmhouses. All his life, Dad has worn a well-tucked scarf to fend off not only the cold, but the unwanted arousal of frigid childhood memories.
After boyhood relocations in Canandaigua and Industry, the family moved to Rochester. Dad's first real job was at Mohican's market where he served as stock clerk. Before long, a friendly customer helped Dad get a break at Eastman Kodak, where he worked faithfully for 44 years.
Although Dad would have preferred a career as a history professor at a small college, the Depression - and the early demise of his father -dealt another hand.
Still, "it's an ill wind which blows no one good" and as C. S. Lewis says in one of his wonderful children's stories: "We are never told what might have been."
We kids learned from Dad that work was important, but family far more so. Indeed, family was so sacred that Dad made two clear-cut decisions early on: one was to leave his work at work; the other was to decline any job that included time-on-the-road, even if such a job offered more money. Nowadays, our jobs are always with us. Unlike our elders, we have not been vigilant. We have failed to keep "the world" out of our private lives. We have failed to keep life first, and making a living second. Moloch has gotten the upper hand.
Despite the incursions of mammon in our modern world, Dad - and Mom too - had the insight (and perhaps the prophetic foresight) to focus our attention on the critical distinction between "want" and "need".
As children, we were told that if there was anything we needed, it would be supplied. However, we were also told to ponder the difference between need and want before making our requests known.
The world will not long suffer the wantonness that has been normalized in the post-war era. Blessedly, the Archibald kids had parents who gently insisted that we discern carefully between whim and necessity.
True, there is a time for everything, including excess and whimsy. Even now, we celebrate Dad's birthday with a riotous profusion of gifts and delicacies. But we can afford to do this because wise elders formed their young in the light of essential visions. Now we can flirt with excess because we have been inoculated from greed through the joyful austerity of knowing what we need.
This is an opportune moment to note Dad's passionate pursuit of knowledge, and ongoing fascination with the importance of words. "In the beginning was the Word..."
Thirteen years ago, when I toasted my parents' 40th anniversary, I mentioned that their first disposable income as newlyweds was spent on a leather-bound edition of Webster's Unabridged Dictionary. Were it not for Dad's love of words, and his willingness to make the important words flesh, I would never have known that "thrift" is derived from "thrive", and that if one would prosper honestly in this world, he (or she) must be thrifty, using what's needful, being conservative enough to afford liberality, extending an open hand to the poor always and everywhere, and making joyful way for those to come, knowing that this world is not our ultimate home but a place of pilgrimage, an adumbration of glory to come.
I have inherited from my father a sense of pilgrimage, a view of the world predicated on the belief that few things broaden the mind like travel.
When we were kids, weekends were spent at the joyful Berkeley cottage on Honeoye lake. However, in addition to these regular weekend journeys - always stopping to pick up peas fallen from farmers' open trucks - there was one week each summer when Dad set sights farther afield: Lake George, Fort Ticonderoga, Auriesville and Montreal, Midland by the Bay, Washington D.C., the Maine Coast, the Canadian National Exhibition, the House of the Seven Gables.
Here's how it worked: Dad would study a map of our targeted destination. He would then devise a clear plan of the "must-see" sites and would supplement them with a back-up itinerary. Every vacation would begin with a visit to our primary destination. Then, if money held, we would journey on to the byroads and back ways. Like a domestic version of Apollo 13, every mission was consciously focused on the point of no return. The journey home began when there was just enough money left to insure arrival. True, we seldom saw everything, but as the poet said: "A Man's reach should exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for?"
I think Dad has lived his life with a sense that his children would take up where he left off, that each passing generation should build on its predecessor, that these unseen sights were in some way a template by which we kids would one day go forth and seek adventures in places where no ancestor had gone before.
To this day, no one is more eager to share the findings of my journeys than Dad. He doesn't always like what I report, although most often he and I pluck the same strings. Even when we disagrees however, Dad is clearly fascinated to learn what I - as his stand-in probe - have come up with. Dad gives life to Carl Jung's observation that God has constellated particular mysteries for particular families, mysteries whose full realization can only be enacted with the passage of generations.
I have long been intrigued by the thought that all of us have actual ancestors who really lived somewhere in 217 A.D. and 3012 B.C. I am also intrigued that if a series of human lives -- each measuring Dad's current total of 85 years -- was strung end to end, we would only require 23 human beings to take us back to the birth of Christ.
In many ways, Dad has given me a sense of the historical, and through history, a belief that the context of our lives is at least as important as their content. We are not limited to the caprices of the moment, to the consumer impulses that the Machine wishes to instill. It's not just what we do that comprises our lives, but how we submit to the divinely ordained pattern of our lives, how we submit to the pattern-maker, how the tapestry of our individual lives is woven in confirmation of the good and reformation of the bad.
The intriguing record of Dad's life has instilled in me a great fondness for history, both personal and political. A turning point in my love affair with the past came when an errant sailor - Dennis Reid -suddenly appeared on our doorstep. Dennis' research into his own family tree shed great light on the Archibalds and related clans.
We now know that Archibald blood is saturated with the wild tunes of county Clare fiddle players - blended also with the blood of Dutch mercenary soldiers. The family came to American shores by way of Australia and Irish-born Honora Leyden Archibald who sailed massive stretches of several oceans to arrive she knew not where.
There has always been a populist strain in the Archibalds, an unshakable belief that common people rise to great occasions, and that mighty tongues tell mighty lies, and that the salvation of the world - faltering as it is - is repeatedly based on stones rejected by the builders.
When you're Irish and have felt the iron boot of Cromwell crushing your neck, or when your starving ancestors watched British ships transport abundant Irish grain to Liverpool and London, you know in your soul that the high and mighty commonly exchange their souls for lucre.
One of Dad's uncles was nicknamed Cocksie in honor of an Irish populist firebrand. Dad's own populist stripe left a lasting impression on me as well. As a boy, I remember overhearing telephone conversations with other Catholic activists, plotting - as it seemed to me - the purchase of homes on behalf of Afro-Americans who - though able to qualify for mortgages independently - had, in one fashion or another, been excluded from many of Rochester's upscale neighborhoods. I recall Dad's quiet satisfaction, when, years later, the first Afro-Americans moved into our own neighborhood.
To this day, Dad remains committed to the good fight, struggling to right the residual wrongs of slavery. For years Dad has fought tremendous odds to save an inner city kid - now an adult felon - from the nasty fate that almost certainly awaits him. Only Dad's persistence qualifies that fate with an "almost."
"It matters not if you win or lose, but how you play the game." By the time I entered kindergarten, Dad's heartfelt repetition of this phrase made it clear that victory - by the world's standards - didn't matter. The liberating quality of this insight took sudden root one day when our pastor made a rare appearance in my elementary classroom. He was emphasizing the importance of victory in the upcoming CYO basketball tournament. I raised my hand and said that my father insisted that victory didn't matter, only the quality of your play.
I thought the good Father was going to come undone as he wrestled with this upstart challenge. For a breathless moment, I was scrutinized in a way that knew no precedent in my young life. At last he entoned: "Your father and I have a difference of opinion, young man."
Since that moment, I have been able to raise my voice whenever mighty tongues go about the business of telling mighty lies. Painful as this gift has been at times, I take this opportunity to give deep thanks to the man who saw fit to imbue me with such rich inheritance.
Dad's contributions on the racial justice front have also carried on in daughter Janet, who, for 30 years, has chosen to stay in Rochester's least-prized inner city public school because she believes her ministrations represent the last time many of her kids will see light at the end of the tunnel. The quality of Dad's teaching has fueled Janet's beacon. Ever since she began her illustrious career, she has shone with such intensity that some of her kids will hold the vision of light for a lifetime.
In a universe that is actually comprised of nothing but Now, how long is a lifetime? Thea Brown, a nun who experienced a long bout with bone cancer prayed - not for long life, or even for a cure - but for the courage and grace to live until she died.
Recently, Denise and I were sharing an excerpt from M. Scott Peck's fine new book, "Denial of the Soul -- Medical and Moral Perspectives on Euthanasia and Mortality". In it, Peck - a man in his early 60s - reflects on the toll life has taken, the cumulative exhaustion that has made him welcome the prospect of kind death his aching body and burdened spirit limn on the not distant horizon. I said to Denise that I too was beginning to sympathize with Peck's outlook. Immediately, Denise caught me short. She asked, "What about your father? I don't think he harbors any thought except eager anticipation of what's next."
What's next? None of us knows for sure, although I'm confident life will radiate more brilliantly after death than it does after birth. However, opinions are endless: indeed, there is one bona fide viewpoint for every human being who has ever graced the planet.
Dad, by his own definition, is "a flaming liberal." Gilbert Keith Chesterton defines liberalism as "the ability to imagine your enemy", to actually picture the other guy on his own terms.
While many espouse liberality, Dad has incarnated it. He has also deftly blended the two ingredients to which the ancient Chinese sage, Lao Tzu, who said "only he who is conservative can afford to be liberal."
Thanks to Dad, we have all been blessed with the ability to see the world from new perspectives.
Not long ago, Dad's sisters Val and Virginia provided insight to this ongoing family tradition of broadmindedness.
The twins informed me that their father, William Arthur (of train wreck fame), used to attend mass on Sunday morning, and then, as soon as he got home, tuned in the crystal set to listen to the preachments of Protestant ministers. In an era when Catholics were denounced as "damned papists" and Protestants were viewed as well on their way to perdition, William Arthur's listening habits raised many eyebrows.
When asked how he could balance these two seemingly antagonistic traditions, he answered: "You can always learn something from everybody."
I remember when, as a teenager, I visited the library and came home with a passel of books by Jean Paul Sartre. Dad expressed no concern over in my interest in an atheist philosopher, but he did suggest that I not limit my reading to a single author.
Ever since, I've ranged widely over the intellectual map, reading everyone from Che Guevara to Rush Limbaugh. And I'm here to tell you, it's true: "you can always learn something from everybody." Indeed, if you read the first few pages of Job carefully, you'll see that Yahweh and Satan sit down together to hammer out a pact aimed at determining what will be learned if humans are put to the test.
Dad's own intellectual aspirations were thrown a curve-ball when, first, William Arthur succumbed to consumption, and then when he was whipsawed by the Great Depression. What would likely have been a smooth university career leading to a history professorship at a small college, became a dozen years of night school at the University of Rochester. In 1959, we kids attended Dad's U of R graduation ceremony, dimly aware of the great honor conferred upon him by securing the highest grade point average in his class, and the consequent plaudit of "cum summa laude."
Around this same time, Mom and Dad purchased the Encyclopedia Britannica, and to this day, Dad regularly resorts to the appropriate volume when his reading - or the shifting sands of current events - reveal a gap in his voluminous knowledge.
It is perhaps the appropriate moment to address an apparent contradiction in Dad's personality. Although his intellect ranges widely, Dad has always been a fervent devotee of the Democratic Party. While the country and the planet have lurched to the right in recent decades, Dad has held fast to his partisan political vision.
The apparent contradiction between Dad's broadmindedness on the one hand and his zealous partisanship is resolved if we consider the formative influences of the Great Depression and Franklin Delano Roosevelt's courageous willingness "to do something", coupled with his determination to persuade the nation that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
The historical record of the period is clear. Republican leaders - convinced that unimpeded capitalism was the only way to manage an economy - were suddenly sunk in desperation when the horrific results of unimpeded capitalism plunged the planet into unrelenting economic darkness. Republican presidential contenders of the era spoke openly of their belief that markets would not recover vitality for several hundred years.
Enter Roosevelt, and his unprecedented belief that large concentrations of unrestrained capital were, by definition, unhealthy, and actually required that leaders foster the common good through conscious control rather than abdicating to the invisible hand of the unconscious marketplace which ultimately concentrates resource in the hands of relatively few magnates.
If the current constitution of the Democratic Party were less "pal-sy" with the fat cats and more determined to point out that Ted Turner and Bill Gates and Larry Ellison are ideologically hell-bent
on driving an ever deeper wedge between the rich and the poor, I would be more ready to share Dad's political enthusiasm. Then again, Dad was blessed with the formative vision of FDR, a leader whose passionate commitment to The Common Good is in dire need of resurrection.
Through it all, Dad has been a remarkably provident person: in fact his personal providence reveals his godliness.
Dad belongs to a generation of "givers" who, uncowed by the economic ruthlessness of The New World Order, consciously extends largesse on every level: within the family, within the Church, within the community, within the political structures he deems worthy of support.
As but one small example of his generosity, I would point to his lifelong support of Maryknoll Missionaries. Having grown up with Maryknoll magazine as a household fixture, I glimpsed not only the developmental work of the Catholic Church, but also a dignified vision of diverse cultures spanning the globe.
Three years ago, when my friend Josie McNeil was hungry for a mid-life change, I gave her a copy of Maryknoll magazine. She is now a lay missioner, working in Barquisimeto, Venezuela, with a community of people who scavenge the city dump for a living. I suspect I myself will soon join the Maryknolls. Yet, imagine! These anecdotes represent just one seed sown by Dad's providential work.
I'm almost done. But first I would draw your attention to a remarkable observation by French philosopher, Albert Camus. Camus said that "people are as you see them on the streets; the other thing is a lie."
In an age of mounting road rage, and generalized highway lunacy/carnage, Dad is an exemplar of how people can live their lives with such integrity that they remain the same people whether on the streets or in their backyard. It does not matter where you find Dad -- whether behind the wheel of his car or picking raspberries in his well-tended garden. Wherever you find him, he is the same gentleman.
In highway situations that would drive most of us to vituperative rage, Dad continues to astonish me by behaving as if the idiots who travel the nation's highways were, perhaps, excusable. In Dad's liberal view, it may be that the importunate drivers who press his bumper are volunteer fireman or concerned spouses en route to a hospital where a child has just been admitted directly from school.
Dad is cut from whole cloth. He is as you see him on the streets.
Denise and I have been listening to a Canadian musician/singer named Bruce Cockburn. One of his verses goes like this:
"Little round planet in a big universe
sometimes it looks blessed
sometimes it looks cursed.
Depends on what you look at,
but even more it depends on
the way that you see."
In the end, we all look at the same things. However, their beauty, goodness and boundless potential have been transfigured by the many ways that Bill Archibald -- the man I'm endlessly proud to call my father -- has taught us to see.
Born Rochester, New York, March 6, 1919
Child of Daisy (Green) and Julius Noll
I've been thinking of the wonderful gifts you've given me, starting with life itself.
It's a lot of work raising kids and many of us "youngsters" have become Scrooges who compulsively gauge our investments to see if we're getting "our money's worth."
Kids are expensive. Better not have more than two!
In this bean-counting culture, jammed with utilitarians, pragmatists, clever marketeers looking to "make a killing," and people who'd be terrified if they glimpsed the interwoven joy and sorrow of real experience, it's easy to see kids as a "losing proposition."
You had five children and loved us all -- constantly and well.
Do you remember a couple years ago when Denise asked what it was like having five kids? She was sure it had been a crushing load. You surprised her by saying, "Well, I don't remember that it was a lot of work."
When the desire to serve fuses with the joy of surrender, it's easy to overlook "the work." It may even be true to say that "the work" overlooks itself, that, miraculously, "water becomes wine."
Most of the real miracles are domestic and occur in the heart of the Holy Family. As families fall apart, we see less appreciation of "daily miracles" and consequent diminishment of faith.
I never sensed the slightest score-keeping that Dad wasn't pulling his weight, or that we kids -- ever remiss in our chores -- were to be scowled upon or made to feel guilty.
We were kids, and your home-making enabled us to be kids as long as we wanted. Some of us reveled in the great goodness of remaining kids into our fourth decade. Now, as Janet begins her retirement, she does so with the joyful anticipation of discovering Santa's stocking on Christmas morning. You made these lives possible. And you did it by insuring that home was always home --- doors open, kisses waiting, a cozy bed made.
Throughout your life -- from sodality and card club onward -- you have been eager to make people feel at home, to welcome, to feed, to comfort, to cheer.
If "the twins" can be believed, your mother-in-law was a difficult person. Yet, you took her in, set aside a private room, prepared her meals, did her wash, shared your husband, and learned to accommodate her quirks.
All the years I lived at home, you always brought the generations together, showing us how God's banquet is celebrated on earth. Two nights a week we gathered around the dinner table with Mum and Gramp. These were precious times.
Because Dad was so sensitive to heat, summer dinners were often held on the breezeway. During one torrid spell, we picnicked evening-after-evening at Lake Ontario beach. Delicious food, delectable water. Refreshment overflowed my body and filled my soul. Those festive expeditions from the mid-fifties live in me today, reminding me that the routines of life can be made special, that heaven can settle on earth. "Thy kingdom come." God! It was wonderful!
Then there were the other special days, the birth days, the holidays and the Holy Days. You kept them holy indeed.
Joy to the World!
God rest ye merry gentlemen!
Santa on our very roof!
You created such special magic around the stable and the table that all your children remember you as the greatest Christmas gift of all, a gift that began at home, and now can scarce be contained by the whole world. (I even imitate your thrifty custom of watching to see which toys the kids ignore on Christmas morning. Unlike you, I have not recycled these same toys the following Christmas, but I have seen fit to take them back to make sure resource is well spent and not spent for compulsion's sake alone. Like a grand master, you imparted the essential lesson of distinguishing "need" from "want," of teaching us that "thrift" derives from "thrive" - lessons lost on today's "consumer units.")
I don't know how you celebrated Christmas with Mum and Gramp, but I do know you disliked the custom of calling this feast "Xmas" and that you were active at Nazareth "putting Christ back in Christmas."
Your enduring friendships with Nazareth classmates and Hawkeye colleagues (the Doells, the Cornelias, the Hildebrands, the Bonas, the Attinasis, the Stiras, the Pugsleys) bear eloquent testimony to extraordinary faithfulness -- all the more striking in this brave, new "pay-as-you-go" world where - increasingly - it's "everyone for himself."
My earliest memory of you goes back to Arbutus Street. One day, the kid who lived in the house behind us threw something over the fence, hitting me on the head. I was distraught and ran to the kitchen, tears gushing. You immediately saw that no real damage had been done, but set about the task of calming my fright. You asked what I'd like to eat, assuring me you'd prepare whatever I wanted. At once, my attention was re-directed by your kind offer and I started to explain how I wanted toast with "that stuff on it." I was stymied by my inability to name this particular "stuff." It was something that "wasn't really there" even though it tasted luscious. I soon forgot my hurt in determination to express my desire. I don't remember my words, but they must have been something like. "It's inside the bread, not on it. You can't see it but it's there." And then your beautiful smile spread across your face and you said, "Well of course. You want butter on toast!" And the delight of that shared moment will go with me to the beyond.
I'm sure it was white bread --- the very best "platform" for toast and all the delectable things to slather thereupon. I remember your thrift, taking us to "the seedy side of town" to buy discount bread at Bond's Bakery, the first and only outlet store.
Thirty loaves at a time.
I remember your magic: wherever you were - in the back bedroom or in the attic. As soon as we kids opened the refrigerator door, your clairvoyant song rang forth: "Eat some bread with that!" And so, having filled us with bread rather than luncheon meats, there was enough money to send all five to college.
Sunday evenings driving home from Honeoye, I recall Dad pulling the car to the side of the road to pick up laden pea plants fallen from farmers' trucks as they trundled to the nearest packing plant.
I remember family vacations; how you'd pack sandwiches to avoid the cost of roadside eateries. I didn't like this frugality at the time - just as I didn't like the unfashionable corduroys you always deemed the best "back-to-school bargain."
Why couldn't I dress in fashionable clothes like other kids?
Why couldn't we eat at hamburger joints?
With age, I've come to realize the importance of these homely customs. They focused us on "the necessary" and taught us to restrain our "wants." They taught us to embed life's tasks within the bosom of family rather than relegating them to "some guy" with a UPC code tatooed on his smily face. Today, I am extremely proud of these lessons you taught me. I can count on my fingers and toes the number of times I've been in fast food joints. Yes, fast food is convenient. But it has been the death of home-cooking, the detonating device that's exploded the modern family. You actually lived the life recommended by Chinese sage, Lao Tzu, who said: "Only those who are conservative can afford to be liberal."
At our Glenmont home, I remember Uncle Eddie Meath in the morning, and Janet's hair being braided while we all sat 'round the table. I remember walking home from St. Thomas Apostle for lunch, and again at day's end. What a treat to see you morning, noon and night!
I remember your love of nature and recall your flower beds out back. Tulips, daffodils and lily-of-the-valley.
I recall your quiet excitement when robins nested in the blaze rose on the front porch and how eagerly you shared that blessing with us.
I remember the amazing, unbelievably huge butterfly you brought home from a Red Wings game knowing I was crazy about the monarchs that thronged our buddleias.
I remember the Bleeding Heart at Honeoye and how you tossed the dishwater on it after every meal. Like the Crown of Thorns at the top of the stairs, I could never walk past these flowers without thinking of Jesus. Such beautiful ways to express The Sorrowful Mysteries.
As you grew older and - sorrowfully - friends began passing to the other shore, I remember as clearly as yesterday when you brought home a dress, and, while modeling it, asked, "Does it look like I'm trying to be younger than I am? I don't want to be that way."
But the dress I remember best was your green swim suit. You have loved water throughout your life and I have inherited my delight in water directly from you. When I play in ocean surf, I feel -- despite all "good reasons" to the contrary -- that it is in those blessed moments that I most directly live out God's will throwing myself into His mystery.
When I lay this body down, I hope to greet the incoming tide of God's love with similar delight. It would be just like you to greet me in the surf.
You have been indispensable in helping to open me to the rich storehouse of God's blessings but especially to His imponderable ocean of love.
If I have one regret, it's that I ruined your bowling.
Thank you Mom.