My father has been gone now for nearly 20 years. He has been in my thoughts a great deal lately. Here are some of the things that he tried to teach me:
# 1 – We took relatives visiting from Des Moines, Iowa to the Guild Inn. This was an incredible old hotel, with antiquities surrounding the grounds, artist’s studios and an exact replica of massive English cedar maze. I was just four. I ran with my sister and three cousins, all older, deep into the maze. It was late afternoon and I was tired. I couldn’t keep up and was soon completely lost. What had started out as a magical adventure, turned into something much darker as the late afternoon sun slipped behind the clouds and I was surrounded by 9 foot hedges. I started to cry. And then I started to scream.
Very soon thereafter, I could hear my father was calling to me – “Wheeere’s Leslie?” – in a sing-song voice completely at odds with the sound his body made crashing through the hedges. He sounded like a bear coming at a dead run. He broke through the woods in front of me; sweating, and bleeding from dozens of scratches. He lifted me up on his shoulders and I could see our way out of the maze.
Lesson – Sometimes, only sometimes – fuck the rules.
#2 – My father was a very large man, tall and broad, with a deep thundering voice. He was noticed and deferred to in many situations. When we would be in line at a concession stand, at the fair or the beach, the young person serving would always try to serve him first. We would be standing there, impatient, hot and thirsty and my father would say “I think this young man was ahead of me.” and point to the little boy standing in front of us. The boy was shocked and the kid serving might have learned something as well.
Lesson – Play fair.
#3 – When I was about 11 we were at a lovely resort in Northern Ontario where my Dad was the keynote speaker at a conference. In the afternoon, he tried to arrange for me to go horseback riding. They wouldn’t let me go with the guide by myself and my Dad didn’t want to disappoint me, so rather than prepping for his address that evening, my Dad went riding with me. Now I was a pretty good rider – I hadn’t yet made that switch from horses to boys – and it was wonderful for me to be riding on lovely trails through the woods. I’m not sure that my father had ever been on a horse. At one point the guide advised that this was a good place to – “open ‘em up a bit” – and my dad suggested that the guide and I go on and he would follow at a slower pace.
I flew with the guide through the open fields, and I can almost remember how blissful that felt – to be completely without fear. When we reached the other side, we let the horses catch their breath and waited for my Dad to catch up. I could just see him in the distance, coming our way. Now he had told the stable that I could ride but he was not experienced. They, correctly, gave him a smaller, placid horse that would give him no trouble. So here comes my very large father, on a old horse barely taller than a pony. And they were trotting. A very bouncy trot. Man-china busting kind of trot. And it suddenly dawned on me. He was not having fun. I was having one of the best days EVER and he was beyond uncomfortable. He must have been miserable! “Are you okay Dad?” I asked when he caught up. “As lONg aS you’Re haVing Fun hoNey!” he said, as he bounced right by us.
Lesson – It’s not really fun unless it’s fun for everyone (but you can suck it up for your kids)
#4 – When he would be working on the weekend and my mother would come to the office to join him, he would have her call just before she left the house, so he could go down into the lower level parking garage and be there when she pulled in so she wouldn’t have to walk through the underground garage alone. The first time my father drove home a girlfriend of mine to an empty house, he told her that we would wait in the car while she got inside and checked things out. When she had taken a good look around, she would blink the light to let us know everything was okay, and we would drive away. I have done this maybe a hundred times since then. This taught me about caring for people.. But it also taught me about paying attention. And that steps could be taken to perhaps change the outcome of events. My father would sit calm but vigilant while he waited for that light to blink, and I know that if anything had seemed even slightly amiss, he would have entered the home, and whatever situation was unfolding.
Lesson – Show Up
#5 – One of the biggest lessons was the one I didn’t learn. My father got his degree at night school, while dealing with a full-time and very demanding job, a wife and two daughters at home. When I had the grades to attend University, and he was willing to pay for it, he was flummoxed/gobsmacked/stunned that I didn’t want to go. He tried desperately to convince me to go, but nothing he said – nothing anyone might have said – could have changed my mind. What a jerk I was. This ranks right up there in the list of mistakes that I have made in my life. I was a fool not to have gone to University when it was offered to me. (I did go back years later, after I was married but it was different by then. I had been out in the world for a while and I was much more certain about those things about which I was certain.)
Lesson – Remain teachable. (there is much that you don’t know that you don’t know)
#6 – My father was abandoned by his father when he was four years old. His mother worked long hours in their family store and brought home the vegetables and fruits that were going to be thrown out. My father decided at a very young age that he would not be poor for his entire life. He would work hard – so very hard – to give his family, and himself, the finer things in life. He got really excited by every new car, every nice hotel room, every steak dinner that filled the empty places that he had grown up with. He had been both rich and poor and chose to not be poor anymore. He never put on airs – he and my mother were both clearly mutts who came from poor families and often went without while they were growing up. He made sure that my sister and I wanted for nothing – while still understanding and appreciating the value of everything.
Lesson – Work = Rewards. You can choose the life you have.
#7 – Most important of all, my father taught me that there was nothing I couldn’t do. For a young girl that was extremely important. He believed in me. He thought I was smart and talented and able. I took that vote of confidence and respect into every job interview I ever had, on every first date, in every social or business situation. Long ahead of the curve, he hired a black women to head up one of the departments in his company. He hired an openly gay man in the late ’70’s when it was more than uncommon to do so. He respected people for who they were and what they could do – and that was enough.
Lesson – Who you are is far more important than what you are.
I miss him still.