My father would have turned 82 a few days ago. His birthday always fell around Father’s Day which, if the grief is circling back around, can make this time of year doubly difficult. Ours was not the easiest of relationships, and his was not a “Hallmark” passing. Much was left unsaid at the time of his death. Of the many things he taught me, here are three that come to mind.
1) How to drive a stick shift
During two of my college summers, I managed a franchise of College Pro Painters. My father didn’t understand why his (nice Jewish) daughter wanted to hire and oversee crews of painters, schlep 32′ ladders from site to site and drive around for hours each day in a van filled with cans, brushes and fumes. He argued with me about my plans, but that just reinforced my resolve to do things that were a stretch for my personality, ethnic background and gender, to force myself out of whatever box I thought others might put me in. But once he saw my commitment, and I found this van (a former chicken delivery truck), he taught me how to drive it. On Sundays, he sat in the passenger seat and, in a deserted shopping mall parking lot, coached me on the subtleties of depressing and releasing the clutch while switching gears. He endured much lurching and shaking as I rattled around, my frustration mounting every time I stalled. Eventually, I was able to maneuver this beast through the winding streets of Boston’s suburbs, even barreling uphill from a standing start as I perched behind the wheel, surprised by my prowess and feeling on top of the world.
2) The joy of irreverence
Pomp and circumstance have their place and satisfy some people’s need for closure. But some of us find certain ceremonies a bore and prefer to stick out our tongues! I remember little of my college graduation; I don’t recall who gave a speech, what they said, or even what food was served afterward, but this photograph stayed with me. It always makes me smile and reminds me to lighten up, which is more valuable and pertinent than much of what I studied back then.
The rest of the family just celebrated my oldest nephew’s high school graduation. We hired a photographer to take some family portraits. She happens to be a friend, and a bit of a goofball, and she had us run around, Chinese fire drill style, to loosen us up and create more spontaneous images. While she did not have us stick out our tongues, I think the images, and the experience, will be as memorable as this one.
3) When to be reverent
My father had little interest in keeping a tidy environment but he was dedicated to caring for his hiking boots (and other shoes). I believe the boots were Swiss made, rich brown leather with bright red laces, built to last a lifetime. He brought them to the basement and buffed them with a brush and then a cloth, removing the laces to make sure the cream or polish reached every last square inch. He was a study in Zen focus as he completed this ritual, one of the few things he wasn’t willing to interrupt. Like a good writer, he practiced “show don’t tell”. I don’t recall that he lectured me about what he was doing; he just did it frequently enough that I could observe and absorb the message. At the time of his passing, the boots still looked almost new, the leather smooth to the touch, even though they were decades old. I hung onto them for several years as a reminder to honor that which is personally meaningful.
Recently I waterproofed my hiking boots and, trying to save a few minutes, didn’t remove the laces. But, remembering his example, I felt I was letting myself down, so I unlaced the boots, spread open the tongues, and started again.