Manvotional: A Son’s Regret

by Brett & Kate McKay on June 18, 2011 · 15 comments

in A Man's Life, Manvotionals

“Dr. Johnson and His Father”
From 30 More Famous Stories Retold, 1905
By James Baldwin


It is in a little bookshop in the city of Lichfield, England. The floor has just been swept and the shutter taken down from the one small window. The hour is early, and customers have not yet begun to drop in. Out of doors the rain is falling.

At a small table near the door, a feeble, whitehaired old man is making up some packages of books. As he arranges them in a large basket, he stops now and then as though disturbed by pain. He puts his hand to his side; he coughs in a most distressing way; then he sits down and rests himself, leaning his elbows upon the table.

“Samuel!” he calls.

In the farther corner of the room there is a young man busily reading from a large book that is spread open before him. He is a very odd-looking fellow, perhaps eighteen years of age, but you would take him to be older. He is large and awkward, with a great round face, scarred and marked by a strange disease. His eyesight must be poor, for, as he reads, he bends down until his face is quite near the printed page.

“Samuel!” again the old man calls.

But Samuel makes no reply. He is so deeply interested in his book that he does not hear. The old man rests himself a little longer and then finishes tying his packages. He lifts the heavy basket and sets it on the table. The exertion brings on another fit of coughing; and when it is over he calls for the third time, “Samuel!”

“What is it, father?” This time the call is heard.

“You know, Samuel,” he says, “that to-morrow is market day at Uttoxeter, and our stall must be attended to. Some of our friends will be there to look at the new books which they expect me to bring. One of us must go down on the stage this morning and get everything in readiness. But I hardly feel able for the journey. My cough troubles me quite a little, and you see that it is raining very hard.”

“Yes, father; I am sorry,” answers Samuel; and his face is again bent over the book.

“I thought perhaps you would go down to the market, and that I might stay here at the shop,” says his father. But Samuel does not hear. He is deep in the study of some Latin classic.

The old man goes to the door and looks out. The rain is still falling. He shivers, and buttons his coat.

It is a twenty-mile ride to Uttoxeter. In five minutes the stage will pass the door.

“Samuel, will you not go down to the market for me this time?”

The old man is putting on his great coat

He is reaching for his hat.

The basket is on his arm.

He casts a beseeching glance at his son, hoping that he will relent at the last moment.

“Here comes the coach, Samuel;” and the old man is choked by another fit of coughing.

Whether Samuel hears or not, I do not know. He is still reading, and he makes no sign nor motion.

The stage comes rattling down the street.

The old man with his basket of books staggers out of the door. The stage halts for a moment while he climbs inside. Then the driver swings his whip, and all are away.

Samuel, in the shop, still bends over his book.

Out of doors the rain is falling.


Just fifty years have passed, and again it is market day at Uttoxeter.

The rain is falling in the streets. The people who have wares to sell huddle under the eaves and in the stalls and booths that have roofs above them.

A chaise from Lichfield pulls up at the entrance to the market square.

An old man alights. One would guess him to be seventy years of age. He is large and not wellshaped. His face is seamed and scarred, and he makes strange grimaces as he clambers out of the chaise. He wheezes and puffs as though afflicted with asthma. He walks with the aid of a heavy stick.

With slow but ponderous strides he enters the market place and looks around. He seems not to know that the rain is falling.

He looks at the little stalls ranged along the walls of the market place. Some have roofs over them and are the centers of noisy trade. Others have fallen into disuse and are empty.

The stranger halts before one of the latter. “Yes, this is it,” he says. He has a strange habit of talking aloud to himself. “I remember it well. It was here that my father, on certain market days, sold books to the clergy of the county. The good men came from every parish to see his wares and to hear him describe their contents.”

He turns abruptly around. “Yes, this is the place,” he repeats.

He stands quite still and upright, directly in front of the little old stall. He takes off his hat and holds it beneath his arm. His great walking stick has fallen into the gutter. He bows his head and clasps his hands. He does not seem to know that the rain is falling.

The clock in the tower above the market strikes eleven. The passers-by stop and gaze at the stranger. The market people peer at him from their booths and stalls. Some laugh as the rain runs in streams down his scarred old cheeks. Rain is it? Or can it be tears?

Boys hoot at him. Some of the ruder ones even hint at throwing mud; but a sense of shame withholds them from the act.

“He is a poor lunatic. Let him alone,” say the more compassionate.

The rain falls upon his bare head and his broad shoulders. He is drenched and chilled. But he stands motionless and silent, looking neither to the right nor to the left.

“Who is that old fool?” asks a thoughtless young man who chances to be passing.

“Do you ask who he is?” answers a gentleman from London. “Why, he is Dr. Samuel Johnson, the most famous man in England. It was he who wrote Rasselas and the Lives of the Poets and Irene and many another work which all men are praising. It was he who made the great English Dictionary, the most wonderful book of our times. In London, the noblest lords and ladies take pleasure in doing him honor. He is the literary lion of England.”

“Then why does he come to Uttoxeter and stand thus in the pouring rain?”

“I cannot tell you; but doubtless he has reasons for doing so;” and the gentleman passes on.

At length there is a lull in the storm. The birds are chirping among the housetops. The people wonder if the rain is over, and venture out into the slippery street.

The clock in the tower above the market strikes twelve. The renowned stranger has stood a whole hour motionless in the market place. And again the rain is falling.

Slowly now he returns his hat to his head. He finds his walking stick where it had fallen. He lifts his eyes reverently for a moment, and then, with a lordly, lumbering motion, walks down the street to meet the chaise which is ready to return to Lichfield.

We follow him through the pattering rain to his native town.

“Why, Dr. Johnson!” exclaims his hostess; “we have missed you all day. And you are so wet and chilled! Where have you been? ”

“Madam,” says the great man, “fifty years ago, this very day, I tacitly refused to oblige or obey my father. The thought of the pain which I must have caused him has haunted me ever since. To do away the sin of that hour, I this morning went in a chaise to Uttoxeter and did do penance publicly before the stall which my father had formerly used.”

The great man bows his head upon his hands and sobs.

Out of doors the rain is falling.


As William Bennett said of this story, “an opportunity for love and duty brushed aside in childhood can live as a deep regret long into adulthood.” Today is Father’s Day in the US. If your father is alive, have you given him a call or written him a letter? Don’t let opportunities pass you by.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jacob Layton June 19, 2011 at 1:31 am

I don’t have many regrets in life. I would like to think that all that I’ve done, I’ve done with the best interests of the people I love and care about and myself in mind. But the one great regret I have was disappointing someone I didn’t known personally. To this day, not making good on a promise is the ONE thing I will never let myself live down.

Great read, and so very very true.

2 Martin Redford June 19, 2011 at 2:55 am

Some of us are lucky enough to have a father we look up to, and some of us aren’t. Still, it is important to realize that one day we will all be in that position and must try to look at things with as much empathy as possible. This is a great way to put things in perspective. Visit my blog!
“The Science Behind a Real Man”

3 Gary V June 19, 2011 at 5:55 am

Not all of us men are going to breed. The idea is appealing but as I get older I doubt I’ll find a willing woman. I don’t downgrade the role of fathers in raising a child. I think our society has. The single mother has become the norm. Men are just temporary sperm donaters that exist for a night of passion, never to bee seen but only to provide cash from afar.

To me, Father’s day isn’t a celebration, its a day of mourning. Society has made it so. Fatherhood has been replaced by the state in the form of government handouts to single mothers. Too many men find it easy to shirk their responsibilities. To many women don’t care about who it is that makes them a mother.

Sorry, I’m just a bit cynical.

4 The Doctor June 19, 2011 at 7:50 am

@ Gary: I’d agree. You are extraordinarily cynical and, IMO, that comment served only to try and knock down the purpose of the article – to remember your father, if you choose, and thank him for what he did. If Father’s Day is a day of mourning, it’s because you allow it to be – not because it is. If society HAS downgraded the importance of the father, it’s because we all allowed it to happen. Giving up is hardly the answer, wouldn’t you think? You’re talking about a narrow band of fathers – the only ones that get in the press. The dads who stay through thick and thin and sweat blood to raise their kids or the fathers who are absent but who faithfully provide for their children don’t get headlines – they don’t need them.

@Brett: Excellent article! I, myself, had an experience like that with my own dad, and your article brought that memory (and my subsequent ‘penance,’ so to speak) back with great clarity and renewed sense of purpose. Thank you for posting an article for Father’s Day that isn’t all Ward Cleaver and sunshine, and yet still reminds us of the importance of our fathers. :)

5 Helen June 19, 2011 at 8:32 am

Great story!

6 Eric R June 19, 2011 at 10:26 am

That was a great and poignant story.
If your father has passed, as has mine, and you have done what you could to obey and honor him, then hold your head high and remember him fondly today.
If your father is still alive and you feel that there are still things that can be done to honor him, then do not teary my fiend.
Time has a way of slipping past us.

7 David June 19, 2011 at 1:13 pm

Father’s Day a day of mourning? How sad and cynical! For me, it is a day of great joy. Not because I am a Father (I am not), but because I have a Father to respect, honor and love. How empty my life and transition to manhood would have been without him. So, if you don’t have this in your life, find it. Find someone to fill this missing part of your life. If not your own biological Father, someone to fill the role of your mentor, your guide, someone you can respect and honor. It will come back to you a thousand times over. That for me is the celebration of Father’s Day.

8 Core June 19, 2011 at 1:33 pm

@Gary V or @#3 post

I don’t know if I would call you cynical so much as “calling it as you see it” kinda deal. I read your comment and understand what you’re saying.

Still a few good men out there.. Still a few good fathers out there.

I’d also like to say as far as this article goes… Its very sad situation. But to achieve greatness in life you have to sacrifice things. That’s the thing the boy chose to sacrifice. You have to be a man about the choices you make in life, even if they are painful.

9 JonathanL June 19, 2011 at 4:20 pm

I think the story’s a bit melodramatic, myself. Father’s day is difficult to pin down for me because I feel like I must honor both my biological father and my step-father. Neither is perfect, but they both try, and that’s worth something. As a father myself, however, I find the event repulsive. The reward I get for being a father is seeing my son grow up healthy and well-behaved, seeing him smile in delight when he is happy but also to see him do what he is told when he would rather not. My child is my reward, and I feel rewarded daily by him. I don’t need a day where someone takes me to an overcrowded restaurant or buys me a card with some sort of outdoors animal on it.

10 LH June 19, 2011 at 5:08 pm

When I was growing up, there were a lot of stories about fatherhood and motherhood. They say you always think about friends, boyfriend, girlfriend, and appreciate them but we rarely ever stop to think and appreciate our parents. Teenagers and some adults spend all day texting every 5 minutes to friends, but when our parents want to talk to us, we act like we don’t have time for them. Just think about it, how much quality time do you spend with your friend? Then think about your parents, I bet you’ve never spend time with your parents as you would with a friend.

Nothing lasts forever, especially good things. That’s why everyone should respect and love mom and dad, because one day you’re going to realize they’re not here anymore, and by then even if you DO want to thank them, it’s too late. They’re gone forever.

11 Sara June 19, 2011 at 11:36 pm

I really liked the story and the message. Though it was about a father and son it could be about any relationship.

12 Jay June 20, 2011 at 1:06 am

That was a sobering story for Father’s Day. I think many men can understand and relate to this tale in some way. Most men I know have somewhat of a strained relationship with their fathers, at least from what I’ve heard. Goodness knows I’m no exception!

My father was 18 when I was born, my mother only 16. After she ran away when I was about six months old, leaving her mother and my dad to take care of me, I’m sure my dad faced a tough decision. He could have bolted. My grandmother gave him the chance, knowing he was young, had no money and would probably take off anyway. He stayed, living with his mother-in-law and attempting to raise his son. My mother’s older sister was sent in from out of state to help take care of me, and eventually, my father married her in an effort to solidify custody going forward (an interesting story on its own but I’ll spare the details). He toughed out that “arranged” marriage the best he could for twelve years.

I mention this because as much as I go out of my way to avoid my father at times, and as often as I think, “I can see I am like him in many ways, and I’m not always happy about it” I have to remind myself of the sacrifice he made. His failure in life was getting a girl pregnant as a teenager. His success in life was taking responsibility for it. Thanks Dad. I don’t have the courage to tell this to your face. Maybe someday I will.

I just celebrated my first Father’s Day as a new dad, as my wife and I have a seven month old son. Since I am well established and in my mid-thirties, I don’t face the same challenges my father did. Even so, I think about the challenges I will face in my relationship with my own son down the road. I hope my boy will someday appreciate my own sacrifices while forgiving my faults. Maybe he will have an easier time expressing his feelings about it to me as well.

13 Jon June 20, 2011 at 8:03 am

I went fishing with my father yesterday. We had a great time, caught a few fish, “shot the breeze” (as my Dad likes to say). The time spent with him was priceless. To top off my day, my wife and duaghters made me a wonderful dinner and dessert and my girls each bought me a tie. They have great taste in ties! I am a very blessed man!

14 Ron June 20, 2011 at 5:47 pm

@Gary V : neither society, nor women, owe it to you to have a family. If you can’t be a decent person some woman wants to make a family with, then perhaps you should consider what your own faults are in this matter.

Seriously, to bellyache about how fathers are cut out of the equation allegedly by the support single women get for raising families is pathetic narcissism. What’s better, that such families go poor and hungry so their forced to stay with abusive, distant, self-centered, or otherwise awful excuses for a father and human being?

I’ve just dutifully attended a Father’s Day gathering at my father-in-law’s house. This man has spent his life starting and falling out of families. He didn’t do so great of a job ‘providing cash from afar’ (as you lament). He didn’t bother for years to meet his daughter’s and my children.

And his complaints about society and fatherhood sound eerily like yours. You’re not a cynic, you’re a narcissist.

15 E. June 24, 2011 at 6:23 am

Great, great post.
Tears well up in my eye, as I almost lost my father a year now.
Glad I could be there for him when I could, though.

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