People sometimes refer to my father as “a character.” The label probably fits, since he’s given me plenty of writing material, along with a book title. But I’ve also come to appreciate both him and Mom as unheralded fonts of wisdom. (On reading this, I bet the two of them will smack their foreheads: Forty-five years of sacrifice and they get one laudatory line in a blog. Not even a T-shirt.)
In honor of Father’s Day, I decided to cull through the various pieces of advice Dad has given me over the years and share five of my favorites:
- “Do something, even if it’s wrong!” This sounds like an invitation to make rash decisions, but it wasn’t. It was Dad’s call to action any time we kids found ourselves frozen at the precise moment when a swift move was needed. On one such occasion, our family of six had gone crabbing on a brackish creek below an unused bridge in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Crabbing required nothing more than string, raw chicken, and a long-handled net, so it was a budget-friendly activity and we loved it. On the day in question, my parents had set us up with long pieces of string, a chicken part tied tightly at one end of each piece. With the string properly baited, all we kids had to do was hang on to the un-baited end and toss the chicken towards the water. Two measly steps– hang on, and toss –that’s all we had to remember. Yet one of us somehow forgot Step 1, causing the chicken to careen gracelessly through the air, hit the water with a resounding smack, and then sink, destined to become an all-you-can-eat buffet for our prey unless Dad managed to scoop it out. Like a surgeon who must keep his eyes glued to the patient, my father had to keep a bead on the sinking fowl. This meant someone had to hand him the net, and fast. Unlike a surgeon, Dad used something considerably louder than an Operating Theater Voice when he asked us to get him the net. The net, being no dummy, always chose moments like this to disappear. The four of us might have too, had panic not rooted us to our spots like 200 year-old redwoods. Soon we heard, “Do something, even if it’s wrong!” One of us, probably Suzi, snapped to attention and got the net. (I know it wasn’t me because I’m pretty sure I’m the one who forgot the “hang on” part.) I haven’t gone crabbing in a while, but that advice comes back to me whenever I need to be reminded that the regret of inaction will haunt me more than a mistake. It usually works, once I stop laughing.
- “Sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you.” When I was a kid, this one cracked me up because it made no sense at all. Dad grew up on a farm in small-town Pennsylvania, so maybe he saw the occasional bear. We, on the other hand, lived in Springfield, Virginia, and even your most navigationally challenged bear was not inclined to roam the D.C. suburbs. We were carnivores, yes, but we stuck to beef, chicken and pork. I soon learned that saying was just Dad’s way of acknowledging that sometimes things don’t work out, a useful corollary to “Do something, even if it’s wrong!” Though I can’t speak for my siblings, I’ve given more than a few bears a case of indigestion.
- “Hit ’em where they ain’t.” My father loves baseball and, as the coach of an American Legion team for over 25 years, has dispensed this piece of advice to his players (including my brother) hundreds of times. I’ve come to view it as not just the foundation for a winning offensive strategy but also a good metaphor. You don’t get an infinite number of at-bats, whether on the diamond or in life, and you have no control over pitch selection, so try not to waste the juicy ones.
- “You know you can call it off if you want to.” In 1995, I was engaged to be married and living with my parents to save money. I had dated my fiancé for four years –we’d lived together for one of those –and an argument we had about careers had exposed larger, crucial conflicts we couldn’t resolve. I didn’t know how I felt about the relationship or our future. Yet the venue was already booked, a dress had been bought, and invitations were about to go out, so what could I do? Canceling it didn’t seem like an option. Soap opera characters did that sort of thing all the time but I didn’t know anyone in real life who had. As the days passed, my stress increased and I took up running as a way to deal with it. My parents didn’t say much about my new habit, so I figured they thought nothing of it. When I returned from a run one December afternoon and sat on the couch to catch my breath, Dad lowered the newspaper he was reading, looked at me, and said, “You know you can call it off if you want to.” And then he went right back to reading the paper. He’d been paying attention, all right. With a single sentence, Dad made sure I understood my happiness trumped lost venue deposits, a beautiful but useless dress, and the embarrassment of admitting I’d made a huge mistake. This episode and those words sprang to mind again in 2011 and gave me the encouragement I needed to end my ruinous marriage to the Lawnmower.
- “That’s why you work.” This one’s a comparatively recent entry. When we were kids, we often heard Dad say, “Money doesn’t grow on trees.” I took this to mean we should plan and save, something he and Mom excelled at. Making a single government salary stretch as far as those two did required serious skills in either gratification delay or money laundering. And I doubt it was the latter, otherwise they wouldn’t have had to wait until retirement to do all of their traveling. I was unaware of it at the time, but they made (and still make) enormous sacrifices for us because they, like most parents, want us to live better than they did. Since all four of us seem to be doing okay, Dad now encourages us to enjoy some of our earnings in the moment, responding to my Costa Rica trip announcement with a smile and a hearty, “That’s why you work.” Yep, Dad, that’s why. And also because it doesn’t grow on trees.
Happy Father’s Day to a true all-star, a Hall of Famer, and a legend in all the ways that matter. We love you, Dad!