I stopped by my parents’ house yesterday to get something and I talked with my dad for a second. He told me he has enjoyed reading my blog and thinks I should publish a book. This makes me 1) pleased, because I want my father to be proud of me for all the same reasons I wanted him to be proud of me when I played in piano recitals or got A’s in school, and 2) nervous enough to go home and check all my previous posts for anything offensive or any references to M*A*S*H*, which was banned in our home growing up so I never stayed up late to watch it, turning down the volume at the beginning to mute the incriminating sounds of the opening theme song. Ever.
I wish that I were a talented enough writer to publish a book because maybe then I would also have the skills to paint a portrait in words of the man that is my father. I’m afraid of sounding sentimental if I write about the smell of his Old Spice cologne and the way I can always guarantee he’ll be carrying a fingernail clipper and a real handkerchief in his pants pocket. I could use clichés to talk about his silvery grey hair, but how do I explain that I remember when his hair was dark, have watched it gradually lighten, and know that some of those grey hairs have my name on them? I don’t think I could account for the fact that as a child I feared his disapproval and now am jealous of my children because their grandpa is far mellower than my father was. I also can’t describe how it feels to watch a man who once set a blistering pace as he led a wife, 9 kids and 40 college students through every major cathedral and museum in Europe now wince as he goes down stairs.
I owe a great debt to my father. I have inherited from him much more than my blue eyes and a love of Snickers bars. I’m afraid once I get started listing the lessons I’ve learned from my father, I may be typing all day, but I’ll try to limit my list to a few of the most significant.
Lessons I’ve learned from my father
Life is tough
My father grew up during the depression and I suspect always regretted the fact that his kids had it too easy. To compensate for our lives of relative luxury he created opportunities for us to learn the value of hard work – things like rising at 5am to pick corn and haul hay on Grandpa’s farm or spending a Saturday afternoon picking fruit at the church welfare orchard. I cannot stress enough the fact that I hated every moment of these outings. I did not learn to love the bounties of nature or how to make a job fun by whistling while you work or other such plucky drivel. But I did learn that life requires effort and that (despite my bleary-eyed protests to the contrary) getting up early will not in fact kill me.
How to be a teacher
I once took a class from my father. I did not at the time intend to follow in his footsteps and be a college professor (I wanted to be a news anchor which seemed like a good short-cut to celebrity status). But his energy and enthusiasm made a big impression on me. He could make anything meaningful and exciting – even conjugating Spanish verbs into the past perfect subjunctive tense. I think if you ask my students today, they’d tell you I’m also enthusiastic (perhaps even “willing to make a fool of herself for the cause”). I tend to flail my arms around while describing my favorite paintings and I get all blubbery when I play Beethoven’s 9th symphony.
How to be a student
A few years ago, my dad took one of my classes. He was the best student I ever had and never once corrected my pronunciation on the titles of French, German, Italian or Spanish paintings even though he speaks all of those languages far better than I do.
There is no such thing as a short answer to a quick homework question
I’ll leave it at that.
Never stop learning
My father’s so called “retirement” currently consists of serving a full-time mission working on a new translation of the Bible. He has an unbounded passion for learning new things. If I walk into my parents’ house any random evening, there’s a pretty high likelihood I’ll find my dad in the midst of reading something. My brother was right when he once called Dad an omnivorous reader. He reads everything – newspapers, magazines, fiction, non-fiction, children’s literature, assorted pieces of paper left on the couch, anything in print. The rule in our house was never walk away from a book if you're still in the middle of reading it. If you do, Dad will pick it up and then you'll have a tough time getting it back.
My father has always loved peonies but for some reason has had trouble getting them to grow in his yard. One summer he planted several small peony plants along the back fence and babied them for weeks. They were scraggly little things but were showing signs that they might actually someday produce some blooms. One day, I was watching him as he trimmed the tall grass growing by the fence. He accidentally got a bit too close with the weed whacker and suddenly the long spinning wire severed the peonies down to little stumps. “My peonies!” Dad cried. Oh, it was awful. My heart still drops when I remember the look on his face. After all these years, it’s almost a funny story. But not quite.
I hope it’s obvious that I love my Dad and could go on forever with my list. But I’ll try to save a few for Father’s Day. I’ll wrap things up with Picasso’s sketch of Don Quixote because not only was my father the first person to give me an appreciation for Spanish art, but he’s also the only person I know who has read to the very end of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. The unabridged version. In the original language. Many times.