Our father was a commercial artist and designer who also worked with home improvement design. He taught art and interior design classes in the Philadelphia School of Art between 1949 and 1953. He painted murals in some of the finest homes, churches, hotels, and restaurants in Philadelphia, along with to the ones at our church. He also painted the background scenes for the animal exhibits at The Philadelphia Academy of Natural Science, and was offered a job painting scenery at Walt Disney Studios. Although he felt greatly honored, he declined the position because it would have taken him away from home for months at a time, and he believed it was more important to stay close to home and help his wife raise their children. He keenly felt his responsibilities as a father with a house full of children, and was not willing to shirk it by being away, working. This showed us, his children, that we were far more important to him than having a prestigious job and earning a larger salary.
Dad was a veteran of World War II, and then was recalled to active duty during the Korean War, during which conflict he was wounded by an exploding land mine. Shrapnel was embedded throughout his entire back, and much of it could not be removed. This experience changed him and became a source of his wisdom.
He often told us his war stories, and although he never voiced it, he was affected more by the grief he felt for his fellow soldiers than by his own injuries. Many of his friends were severely wounded and he saw so many of them die. After his own injury, he spent months in a hospital overseas, along with other soldiers who were wounded in action; many were so young at the time, barely out of high school, and much younger than he was. Dad often used his war stories to teach us about the bigger picture whenever we were unhappy about some insignificant incident in our lives. Doing so helped him give us a better sense of proportion about our own minor problems.
Looking back, it is obvious how deeply affected he was by what had happened to him. And yet, we were ignorant of the immense toll the war took on him. We listened to his stories the way we’d read history books about the war, from a detached perspective, not knowing any better. We couldn't comprehend what he had experienced or what it truly meant to be a wounded veteran, not having walked in his shoes. It wasn’t until we were mature adults that we began to better understand. To us as children, our father’s stories didn't mean what they do now. Our parents’ generation was deeply affected by those wartime experiences, and they made tremendous sacrifices to build a better future for all of us.
In hindsight, I can see that my father was awake in a way that we were not. He was aware of so much that we had not yet learned. But he also had a wonderful sense of humor and made us laugh a lot, and he was quite witty. One of his most significant lessons was not to worry about yesterday or tomorrow, but to live in the present. This was something he’d learned through seeing so much suffering and sorrow in the wars, which taught him to be grateful and to focus on the present.
To help us master this approach, whenever we were having a difficult time dealing with an experience we’d had, he’d tell us to ask ourselves the following: “Where is the past? Do you see it?” Then he’d say, “It’s not here now! Learn from it, and be peaceful and happy for today.” With a house full of children–especially with many of us just a year apart–there was bound to be some kind of confrontation every day. But our father always helped us find better ways to look at things.
One particular incident stands out. I was a young teenager and very upset because I couldn't find my pink sweater, which I wanted to wear to school. I cried as I stomped all over the house trying to find it, upsetting the entire household and disrupting breakfast. In his wisdom, Dad said, “It’s the end of the world! Everything must come to a standstill this very moment! We all have to stop living and do everything we can to find that pink sweater!” And he said this loudly and boldly. Everyone stopped, not help me look, but to absorb the lesson he was teaching us. How ridiculous was my behavior! Imagine, with all that was going on, with each of us getting ready for school, our Mom making oatmeal and getting our lunches together, and the youngest brothers and sisters sitting at the table, some in highchairs, waiting to be fed, and all I could think about was that I couldn't find my sweater! But the blessing was that we all got the message and started laughing. Dad had a gift for getting us to look at and laugh at ourselves.
Whenever one of my brothers had a task that they didn't want to do because it might interfere with their plans, or if their plans had fallen through, they’d upset the entire household because they weren't getting what they wanted. You could just feel the tension in the air, and that’s when Dad would say to Mom in a voice loud enough for all to hear, “I wonder what they’d do if they were fighting in the war and got stuck in a foxhole for a week, without anything to drink or eat for days, and even had to relieve themselves right where they were so the enemy wouldn't capture them.” Mom would be very quiet, recognizing what he was trying to do. And then he’d ask, “When are they going to wake up?”
He saw was us getting upset over meaningless things, and then taught us to question our own thinking and motives. He would encourage us to ask ourselves one of his favorite questions: “What is the purpose of this?” The question led to tremendous insight, and was a simple, intelligent thing to teach us to ask ourselves. It would help us make better choices by focusing on the end result that we truly wanted.
Sometimes the blessed words of wisdom from our parents didn't seem important to us, or else we didn't yet understand the full meaning of the loving guidance they were offering, which was intended to help us live a better, more plentiful life, without having to learn all those lessons the hard way. But it was futile, and despite our parents’ efforts, most of us ended up doing things the hard way, anyway. Now, from the perspective of adulthood‒ having matured and gone through our own personal hardships‒we believe that their guidance must have come from God because it was so sound and true.
Like most people, it is only after we become adults that we recognize how wise our parents were. For example, I now see my father’s strictness as we were growing up as an expression of love and wisdom, and a reflection of his desire to spare us the pain he’d experienced. It is what I would hope to do for my own children, by instructing them in any aspect of sacred wisdom. But our father was so much greater than I realized as a child, something that comes with an adult’s perspective gained through personal suffering and hardship. Dad carried the essence of his experience in a heart that, too, had lived through pain and sorrow.
When he passed away in 1988, Dad was honored in all the Philadelphia newspapers for his contributions to the city, from fathering all of us to serving in World War II and the Korean War, and for his great artistic accomplishments. In this way, the entire city mourned with us.
Imprinted Wisdom ~ Catherine Nagle
Causes Catherine Nagle Supports
Westwind Foster Family Agency, Christian Children's Fund, Compassion International, Make-A-Wish Foundation, Invisible Children, Save the Children