June 19 marked the fifteenth anniversary of my father’s passing. I was amazed that fifteen years had passed since I stood by his bed and watched the last spark of life drain from his ocean blue eyes. And strangely, I missed him more this June than I have in several years.
My dad was a flawed man. He was a late-in-life only child, and never really mastered money management and the responsibilities that came with having a wife and eight children. He had a temper- we kids drew straws to see who would get stuck waking him from a nap- but his outbursts were only verbal, and by the time I was a teen I realized he was pretty much all bark and no bite.
Some men’s sins are hidden from view, but Dad’s hung on his sleeve for all to see, and often my siblings and I lost patience with the man who was supposed to be our role model. But as I age I see more clearly that nobody is all good or all bad, and that instead of fixating on the tragic flaws of our heroes, we do better when we focus on their qualities. Here are a few of the lessons that Dad taught me. I hope you will learn from them too.
1. Listen to the music.
When I was in elementary school, it was not unusual for me to miss the bus. Unhurried, my dad would take the last sip of his coffee, saunter to the car, and drive me to Hillside Elementary. We always listened to the radio on the way, and Dad, a fan of pop music and jazz, would slow to a crawl as we approached the building, so we could listen to the last part of the song.
My teachers, hands on hips at my late arrival, never understood the excuse, “Buddy Rich was playing a drum solo,” or “Bobby Darin was singing “Mack the Knife,” and I finally just quit trying to explain. What they didn’t understand is that music is the soundtrack over which our life is played. Start the morning with a great song, and I guarantee the rest of the day will be a little better. Even now, when there is a song playing on the radio that I particularly like, I find it hard to turn off the ignition before it ends- even if I’m late for work.
2. Talk to your kids as if they are adults.
I’ll never know if it was a conscious decision or because my dad craved company, but he treated his children as if their opinions had value that equaled his. From the time I remembered, he would welcome us at the kitchen table, pour a cup of coffee (half milk for those under seven) and engage in conversation about current events, sports, television or our plans for the future. Conversations were heavily dosed with stories about his youth- some of them factual, and some embellished- but as much as he talked, he also listened. There were no lines drawn by age or maturity. Nobody ever said, “This conversation is for adults only,” and because of this, I grew up believing my ideas had merit, and consequently, I believed I had value.
3. Laugh loudly and heartily.
My father was not a silly man. He did not like slapstick or stupid situation comedies on TV. He rarely told jokes, and he very much disliked humor that was humiliating or embarrassing to anyone. However, whenever something struck his funny bone, he laughed long and hard. He was a huge fan of Johnny Carson and loved Carson’s one-liners and the camera mugs that made his audience explode in peals of belly shaking laughter. One of my favorite childhood memories is when I would lie in bed way after dark, and hear my parents roar with laughter at the late night antics of Johnny and Ed McMahon.
4. Find your voice.
When I was four years old, I began racing quarter midgets. I wasn’t very good, but one night I finished second in a race, earning myself a ribbon. When presentations of trophies were made at the end of the races, my name was not called. Tears streaming down my cheeks, I went to my father, who picked me up in his arms and carried me to the officials’ table. Drying my eyes with his handkerchief, he explained that I had to speak up and collect my winnings. Rather than doing the talking for me, he prompted me to explain to the officials that I had taken second place in my race, and had been missed in the presentations. His presence gave me courage, and a moment later I was running to my older sister to show her my purple ribbon. Although it was a small lesson, I have never forgotten it, for that evening I learned to bravely speak up when I believe myself to be right.
5. Figure it out.
Although I would never call my dad lazy, he was often unmotivated to do chores when his children could do them for him. It was Dad’s expectation that his kids figure out how to take care of him and their younger siblings with little or no instruction. Those who could read could certainly follow directions. He and my mother let us have free reign in the kitchen, the cellar work bench and the back yard. I changed cloth diapers and fed babies before I entered school, and could cook a meal for ten people before I was in sixth grade. I weeded the garden, hung wallpaper and taped sheet rock, and my brothers learned to wire for electricity and rebuild motorcycles- with little guidance and absolutely no hovering. Trial and error may not be the most efficient way to learn, but it leaves lasting impressions. Just ask my brother Scott, who discovered the strength of electricity by inserting a bobby pin into a wall socket.
I’m not sure if Dad knew the value of self-directed learning, but I do know that his children grew up to be independent, motivated adults who take pride in figuring out how to complete a project by themselves.
So today I salute my flawed, imperfect Dad. Every time I ride a wave, or pour a cup of coffee, or watch television with my feet tucked up under me, I remember that a part of him still lives in me. I remember his blue eyes, the way he jingled his pocket change and coughed when he came home from work, and how he drove through snowstorms to bring me home from college for a long weekend. I remember, and with a lump in my throat, I give thanks.