Like many young boys, I didn’t always see the wisdom in the things my dad told me while I was growing up. My dad was always full of little strange anecdotes and pearls of insight, and I was often the hardheaded kid who had to learn things my own way. Over the years the principles my dad tried to teach me were kind of lost. Left behind as muted relics of a childhood I thought for a long time I needed to escape.
Now that I’m older, and unfortunately now that my dad is gone, I’ve come to realize the truth in many of the things I used to take for granted. I used to roll my eyes when my dad would say some of these things, over and over, because I was smarter, you know. I was already well versed in the ways of the world, just like all ten-year old boys seem to think they are. Why do we come to understand these kinds of things so late in life? How young we were, when we thought we were giants! Or is it just me? I can’t be the only one who thought they knew more than their parents. I see this in my own kids from time to time, and its frightening how brazen they can be in their innocense. I must have looked the same way to my parents.
As I think back on some of these things, I realize how much of an impact my dad really had made on me over the years. Our relationship was always kind of strained and especially later in life our communication was often forced and uncomfortable. We lost something in those middle years of life, as I raced from boyhood to man. We were like two pieces of iron grinding against each other. But I understand now that he tried to teach me what he knew, and in so many ways I wouldn’t be the man I am today if it wasn’t for him. Iron sharpens iron, as the saying goes, when both pieces strike against each other enough times.
My dad was pretty simple. He was often frustrated with life and by his own expectations of the people around him. He was challenged and flawed, like many of us are. But he wasn’t complex. Like Popeye used to say: “I am what I am and that’s all that I am.” That was my father. But he had known hardship, and he had known hunger, and he had known addiction and pain and what it feels like to strive for things mostly out of reach. To want and to not have. I hope he knew what it felt like to be happy too, to have a sense of joy, a sense of wonder and fulfillment.Those were things he didn’t express very well. He understood the world in a blue-collar way that I think gave him a caliber of wisdom that I wish I could have tapped into a little more. There is a way things work. So it is from his life experiences that these lessons have come, and it’s just now that I am learning to appreciate them for what they are. Even though I have lived with them, like one lives with ghosts, all my life.
It’s a long ways from your heart
This was probably one of my dad’s favorite sayings. Whenever I’d get hurt – fall down on the pavement, skin a knee, get scratched up by the blackberry thorns, whatever – my dad would kind of scowl and say: “Well, at least its a long ways from your heart.” As if that was the last word, the final diagnosis. It didn’t help alleviate the pain of some of those wounds, but to be fair most of the wounds were superficial.
This was my dad’s way of trying to toughen me up. It’s no different from telling someone to “rub some dirt on it” or “shake it off”. At the time, I just wanted a little empathy, and maybe a little attention. My dad was looking at the bigger picture.
Now, I don’t want to make my dad sound like he was cruel. Obviously this didn’t apply when I broke my collar-bone or got the tree branch stuck through my knee. Those were maybe a little “closer to the heart” than a little road rash on my elbow. He was mostly silent during those times, but in silence my dad said many things that he could not articulate with words. I know that now.
You’ll become whoever you’re hanging out with
When I got into my early teens, I hung out with some scrupulous people. I didn’t see it at the time, of course. Kids are often blinded by their own naiveté, and when you’re at that age where friends are EVERYTHING its hard to pull back enough to see what’s really going on. But my parents, they knew. And they weren’t afraid to let me know when they didn’t like someone I was hanging with. Especially my dad.
I always kind of resented him for this.Its that whole “parents just don’t understand” thing, sure, but for me it went a little bit further than that. My friends were my only escape from a house full of tension, and so I fought tooth and nail to preserve what I thought was something holy, something sacred. These were my blood brothers! The only people on the planet who truly got me, right? Oh the teenage drama. And it only made me dig in deeper when my dad showed any animosity toward my friends. This was the hill I would die on.
The guys I palled around with smoked. They drank. They stole things and skipped school. And you know what? It wasn’t long before I did those things too. You either hang or you get pushed out of the pack. Those are the rules. It was when I was arrested for shoplifting at JC Pennys when I started getting the hint that maybe my dad was right. And then it really hit home when I had my own kids and heard myself say those same words again and again to them, and watched the same glazed eyes roll back into their stubborn little heads.
We are often doomed to repeat our mistakes through the choices our children make. There is a way things work.
You’ll always use math, no matter what you do
I was pretty good at math in school, but I hated the subject. It was torture everyday I had to go to class. With the exception of Geometry (I loved geometry for some, strange reason), I would rather have my eyes pecked out of my skull by a flock of mad seagulls than sit in another math class. And so, it shouldn’t have been any surprise to anyone that the one class I elected to “miss” as much as I could (see notes about skipping class above) was math. This never made any sense to my parents, because they knew that it came easy to me. I simply refused to engage and apply myself.
My dad would always tell me that no matter what I did in life, I would use math. I can’t remember what I thought I was going to do with my life in high school, but whatever it was I knew my dad was wrong. Math? I mean, really? Who needs this junk? Algorithms and formulas and the Pythagorean Theorem? Sorry Dad, but you’re wrong about this one!
So I got out of high school and started finishing concrete. I became a bakery manager at a grocery store. Evolved into a grocery store manager while working through college, where I studied psychology (statistics and probability!). Became an equipment salesman. Then a Sales Manager. For a GPS technology company. And through it all fell in love with woodworking.
Ah, you see a pattern here? Everything I have ever done with my life involved math on some level. EVERYTHING.
So maybe Dad was a little right. Kind of. Marginally. Statistically speaking, of course.
Put some aloe on it
Did you ever watch the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding? The father of the bride used to tell everyone to put Windex on their wounds. Got a pimple? Put some Windex on it! A cut on your finger? Put some Windex on it!
My dad was the same way with aloe. It was the end-all cure to everything. As far back as I can remember, we always had an aloe plant. Maybe it was the same aloe plant that kept regenerating itself every time a piece of it was cut off. I don’t know. But whenever one of us had a cut or skin abrasion or whatever, my dad would tell us to go to the aloe plant. Like it was some kind of healing shrine. This of course after he assessed the situation and offered his “well its a long ways from your heart” dissertation.
The funny thing about this is that usually this worked. Rubbing aloe on a cut or burn soothed the pain. And now I see many of the health gurus talking about the wide benefits of using aloe. You can take it as a supplement. You can find it in hand lotion. It’s everywhere.
But my dad, and likly his whole generation, were doing this well before the fad caught on! For us, it was just part of growing up. Maybe my dad was smarter than we gave him credit for.
Wash your face and comb your hair before you even sit at the table
My dad was never one to wear a suit or tie, so I never learned from him the basics of dressing for success (shoes should match your belt, never wear white socks with black pants, make sure the tip of your tie falls in the middle of your belt buckle). I would learn those later on in life. What I did learn from my dad was more basic than that. The foundation of hygiene, you might say.
And I hated it.
But I find myself doing now out of habit. And its a good habit. Because this basic discipline sets the tone for the rest of the day. It also sets the foundation for hygienic awareness. My dad worked hard, came home filthy and after retirement spent more time in his lounge pants than jeans. But he was always clean. He always smelled like Old Spice. He was always trimmed up and proper in an old school, nineteen fifties kind of way.
Now that I’m older I admire the old school manners. And I wonder if I should have worked harder at instilling this basic tenement into my children’s lives. I think about that as I have to explain to them why they can’t wear pajamas to school, or why they need to get out of bed before 9am or why they need to cut their fingernails.
There is a way things work.
I find it uncanny, and unfortunate, that I am able to appreciate my dad’s wisdom now that I’m almost 40 years old. I wonder if I had only listened a little more as a kid how easier I could have made it on myself. How many hard knocks could I have avoided? But then again, my dad learned all of these through practice. Maybe its the circle we are all naturally inclined to follow. I don’t know about that. But I do find myself very lucky to have some of these lessons to fall back onto. My dad tried to pave a pathway for me that would, if I had only listened, made my journey through childhood a little less treacherous. I strayed, but if that pathway hadn’t been set before me I’d have nothing to return to once I started to figure it all out. For that I am extremely thankful.
I could probably write a book about the things my dad used to say. They weren’t all practical or even helpful, many of them woudln’t be PC today, but they were all very much my dad. Everyone of them. And they do haunt me, as I said before. Like echoes that never quite fade away. I’ll leave you with a few more to enjoy. But consider this: its often the memories of a person that we hold onto long after they are gone, because its all we have. And memories are often words, and words have the power to heal or destory. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, they can amuse.
You make a better door than a window – whenever I was standing in the way of the TV
Get the Merthiolate – if you’re a child of the early 70s and 80s you’ll understand why I used to cringe anytime my dad used to say this. First came Merthiolate, and then came aloe.
Once a liar, always a liar – my dad was a good judge of character
If you’re willing to lie, you’re willing to steal – my dad had a thing with liars; I think it’s why I don’t like lying either.
Ask your mom – my dad always had an opinion, except when one of us wanted to do something. Then it was all up to my mom.
Is it soup yet? – apply this to everything; beans, gravy, chicken fried steak. I think it means ‘is it done yet?’ But I’m really not sure.