How to explain the desire, the need, to burn a stump on Father's Day?
I guess in part it's genetic, something passed down from farming ancestors, who saw a stump as the enemy, something that could trip the plow and break a straight row.
But mostly stump burning is what our father did on a weekend morning as a break from the world, a retreat from the noise and demands of a large family in a leaky old house and a garden full of weeds.
Dad would draw a small circle in the orchard, around the Saturday morning stump, raking away leaves that might spread the fire. He also drew a circle around his morning that said this time, this place, are mine. Enter, child, at your own risk.
Sometimes we approached the circle to deliver a message from the house. Often the response was a go-away grunt, or worse, a gruff reminder of some chores that needed doing far away from the circle of the stump.
And sometimes you were invited into the circle, to listen quietly to stories of a dad long ago, of a Boy Scout on camping trips, a record-setting high hurdle runner and promising art student, a city champ tennis player, and a skilled graphic artist with his own printing press and shop. Stories of a dad long ago, before he had a leaky roof, five children and a factory job.
And sometimes you stood within the circle of Dad's stump, and just shared the silence and the primitive addiction of a fire, moving wordlessly together to stay out of the smoke that could disrupt dreams.
Dad was John Wayne macho, but wore funny hats made out of anything, including panty hose. He was a stern man, often without words, who could suddenly break into a belly laugh and announce, "I just told myself a joke I never heard before." He would sing "Oh Donny Boy" to me -- it was years before I knew it was really "Oh Danny Boy" -- in a beautiful tenor that brought tears to both our eyes.
But Dad was not a hugger. He did not know how to hug his children. He did not know how to say he loved us or to show he was proud of us. The best he could do was to keep our dinner plates full and the rain off our heads. The most he could offer was to open up the circle around a slow-burning stump and let us share a bit of his world.
And that's why we burn a stump on Father's Day.