Ten Things I Learned from My Dad

Have you ever shopped for a Father’s Day card? Too many of them rely heavily on bathroom humor or remote-control jokes. Or incompetently executed home repairs. Or the assumption that dads are the biggest doofuses ever.

None of these work well for my dad—or more dads, I suspect. (Can someone please clue in the greeting card companies?) I’ve learned many things from my dad, none of them related to bathroom humor or swearing on the golf course. Here are ten of them, in no particular order.

1. Just because other people have one doesn’t mean you need one. For several years our house was devoid of a television set. Any suggestion to rectify this situation was met with “And why would we need one of those?” In high school, my sisters and I didn’t have our own car. (Because, why would we need one of those?) And so on. We must have survived these deprivations, because here we are.

2. Whatever you own owns you. Why gather stuff when you’ll just end up catering to it? Temptations to accumulate things notwithstanding, this is the bare truth. With this in mind, sometimes I envy the Ingalls family despite their having to haul their own water, contend with Nellie Oleson, and keep one eye out for panthers and wolves at all times. Everything they owned fit inside a covered wagon. Freedom!

3. One secret to happiness is recognizing what is and what is not your problem. I could expect this advice when fretting about a situation that didn’t concern me. The mean girl mocking me? My problem. My sister’s chores? Not my problem. I still check in with this truth occasionally. Turns out a lot of things are not my problem, and I am happier when I keep this in mind.

4. Don’t noise up the place for no good reason. My dad would often each over to turn off the radio (despite having probably selected the station himself), saying, “This music is not an improvement on silence.” Nothing wrong with stillness; no need for mediocre background noise. Just appreciate the quiet already.

5. Work and play. My bedroom window overlooked the back patio; I remember waking up on snowy mornings and looking out the window to check for his footprints to determine whether he’d been called to the hospital before dawn, for he worked at all hours of the day and night. Other childhood memories include him chopping wood, gathering maple sap, shoveling snow, picking corn with my mom (and gleefully piling it in front of the designated huskers, aka his daughters). They also include him attending concerts with my mom, enjoying afternoons the beach, building snowmen, playing chess, driving the family on road trips, walking in the woods, cross-country skiing, picking up our friends to take us all out for ice cream, hanging out at a cottage for a week. He works, he plays—he has found the balance.

6. People aren’t watching you as closely as you think. My dad once told me this once when I was in the throes of adolescent angst about . . . well, something. I’ve long forgotten the (probably trivial) situation, but I just knew everyone was jeering at me. Turns out, he implied, that probably nobody had noticed, and those who had probably weren’t even thinking about it. This was a gentle way of telling me to get over myself, a crucial step in overcoming self-consciousness—especially the misplaced variety.

7. Be there for your family. He does this and always has, in many different ways. He and my mom once came home from vacation a day early in order to see me in my school play. When I was sick and J was traveling out of state, he drove over 70 miles to hold newborn Sonny for a couple hours so I could take a nap. When his parents were in declining health he traveled regularly across three states to check in. Later he moved his nonagenarian father to across those three states to a residence a few miles away so that he could care for him. You get the idea. So did I, early on.

8. You can’t have too much garlic. Although my mom has always been the family cook, whenever the menu featured spaghetti or lasagna my dad would prepare the garlic toast. Heaps of it, heaped with buttery garlic. He’d smuggle garlic into the scrambled eggs and once, I suspected, over the popcorn. Whenever anyone would object, he’d simply reply, “You can’t have too much garlic.” He loves garlic.

Not being quite the garlic fan that he is, I’ve taken the liberty of extrapolating on this idea: “If you enjoy it and it’s not harmful, indulge to your heart’s content.” Dark chocolate, for example. You can’t have too much of that.

(Turns out that garlic has been declared a superfood. So has dark chocolate. I guess we were both on to something.)

9. Be a jokester once in a while. One April Fool’s Day I woke up in my sister’s room and she in mine, having been the victims of a midnight switcheroo. Occasionally—rarely enough to catch me off-guard, but occasionally—I’d find myself sprayed with the hose while minding my own business in the yard. And only a couple years ago I was baffled by an egg that refused to crack. Turns out he’d smuggled a ceramic egg into my egg carton while visiting one day, even though he knew he wouldn’t be on-site to witness my confusion when I’d try to break it open. Want to hear him laugh? Ask him about the egg.

10. It’s okay to be the minority in one’s own house. “Oh, your poor dad,” some folks would say with various degrees of jest upon learning that he had three daughters but no sons. And he would occasionally lament about being outnumbered—usually when my sisters and I were hosting sleepovers, or when his favorite reading chair was occupied by Barbie paraphernalia, or when the kitchen reeked of three Ogilvie home perms. But what I remember most clearly is the time he told my sisters and me that he was glad to just have daughters.

As the mother of sons, I have been offered sympathy and encouraged to have another child to give myself a chance of having a daughter. But you know what? I’m thrilled with having sons, content with being outnumbered. And just so Sonny and Ace are clear on this, I follow my dad’s example and tell them that I am glad that God gave me boys.

And, I am glad that God gave me the parents that he did.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I love you.

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Ten Things I Learned from My Mom

It’s Mother’s Day, that day when we officially focus on doing what we should do every day of the year—express gratitude for our mothers. And while I don’t say so nearly often enough, I am grateful for my mom. She’s taught me many things, some of which are spelled out below.

Of course this list could go on well beyond ten points; sorting out which messages to include proved more difficult than I expected. But then I decided to stop overthinking things (something my mom taught me) and just get on with it (something else she taught me), because this list doesn’t have to be perfect (see item # 9 below).

So here are, in no particular order, ten things I learned from my mom over the years.

1. It could be worse. Occasionally, or more often, my sisters and I would offer up to her various laments. She would sympathize as the situation warranted but then, when the time was right, point out that it would be worse. A scrape? At least we didn’t need stitches. A disappointing test score? At least we cared enough about our grades to be upset. An infected mosquito bite? At least it wasn’t a bee sting. The power went out? At least we usually had power at our house, unlike most of the world for most of time.

“It could be worse” is a lesson in perspective and in gratitude. Go ahead and nurse that wound for a little while, but know that it’s not as bad as it could be.

2. “Serviceable” is good enough. Occasionally our family would rent a camper for a summer trip—usually new large pop-ups, and once even a motor home, so when I learned my parents had actually purchased a camper for our upcoming vacation, I envisioned something similar to these. “Don’t get too excited,” my mom warned. “You haven’t seen it yet.” Well, I did get excited, because, really, how bad could it be?

Pretty bad, as it turns out. This camper was little more than a faded canvas tent over a flimsy metal base. This camper was ancient. This camper was rickety. This camper was homemade.

It was the most embarrassing camper in all the land.

But camp in it we did. While for a week my sisters and I slunk around the campgrounds, valiantly avoiding association with it, my mom was unfazed. “It’s just fine,” she maintained, confident in its utility. “It’s serviceable.”

It was, in fact. A family can still sleep and consume S’mores and play cards and sightsee while burdened with a decrepit RV. This vacation proved to be just as enjoyable as previous vacations. To this day we reminisce fondly about our trip in The Serviceable Camper ™, and to this day we all appreciate that something that can only be deemed “serviceable” is usually good enough.

3. Beautify your surroundings. Despite her contentment with serviceable accommodations, my mom cherishes beauty. So she plants flower gardens. She repaints the bathroom if she doesn’t like the way it looks. She garnishes food with a strawberry or a mint leaf or a swirl of frosting. (If you ever find an ice-cube-encased pansy in your lemonade at my parents’ house, fear not; pansies are edible.) She regularly turns on classical and sacred music. She sets the table with attractive napkins. As seamstress to all of our childhood clothes, she would adorn them with the prettiest possible buttons—sunflowers, strawberries, ladybugs.

She knows it’s within everyone to make the world a more beautiful place, so she does it.

4. Keep commitments. When I was about 10, a blizzard struck on a Saturday night and drifted our road shut. Did my mom plead “snowbound” and shrug off her obligation to play the organ at church the next morning? No. Instead, she contrived a solution that involved riding shotgun on my grandpa’s tractor.

If you think this is a woman who would allow her daughters shirk a commitment for any old reason, you would be wrong. There may have been a time when my sisters and I asked why we had to go to piano lessons while in the (non-contagious) recovery stages of virus, what would be the big deal about skipping catechism class once in a while, or why we couldn’t cancel our babysitting plans if a more appealing opportunity came along. If so, we quit asking, because we knew the answer: “You signed up for this,” she’d say. “It’s your job to be there. It’s not okay to let people down.”

5. One good reason trumps several flimsy reasons. “If you don’t want to do something,” she would advise, “offer a solid reason. The more reasons you give, the more it sounds like you’re making excuses.” So true, as was the unspoken but obvious message—if you have to offer several flimsy reasons, you probably don’t have even one good excuse, so examine your motives and act accordingly. (So why, exactly, can’t you paint the porch today?)

6. Know how to refresh yourself. One of my earliest memories involves my music-loving mom leaving the house for a dulcimer-making class. She loves hymns, so she attends hymn festivals. She enjoys sewing, so she sews doll clothes to give away. She travels to other states for Sacred Harp singings. She gardens. She laughs with her friends. She plans trips with my dad. She plays with her grandkids. And her mind and spirit are refreshed, and it shows.
7. Pick your battles. “Nobody will pay any attention to you if you try to get your way every time,” she’s point out; demonstrations abounded. She didn’t hound us over every little thing. She probably overlooked many matters that mattered more to her than she let on, but the standards that she did choose to enforce—among others: using proper grammar, avoiding profanity, participating in the church, and, of course, keeping commitments—highlighted her most cherished values.

8. Family stories matter. What is as captivating as a family story? I love the connection to my ancestors, both recent and distant. My mom is skilled at weaving her own memories and other bits of family history into conversation, sometimes to entertain, sometimes to make a point, sometimes to empathize, sometimes just because.
These stories have always fascinated me: her childhood fall from a moving vehicle; the car-radiator fire that my grandpa doused with their picnic lemonade; the relative who sent his regrets to her wedding because he wasn’t planning to make the five-mile trip into town that day; the notoriously bad cook whom other family members discouraged from contributing to potlucks; my great-grandma’s love of laughter. “You’re related to these people, you know,” she often adds. (Is there anything as humbling as the reminder that one shares DNA with a cantankerous great-great uncle who refused to observe Daylight Saving Time?)

9. Don’t pretend to be perfect. A non-spotless house would never prevent my mom from welcoming someone into it. Pride would never keep her from telling a self-deprecating but entertaining story—for example, that of when looked down while in a meeting only to discover that her shoes did not match. She has always matter-of-factly admitted mistakes, signaling that they are part of life and no cause for shame. “If pretended to be perfect all the time, you wouldn’t fool anyone anyway,” she once said.

10. Loved ones are a privilege, not a burden. I don’t have enough space to record all of the appropriate examples, ranging from dedication to elderly relatives to doting on grandkids, but this one speaks for itself. “Keep it simple,” as my mom would say, so on this final last point I will do just that.

I want to be like you, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day!

On Finger Flippers and Connect Four

I point Ace’s face toward the sketchy pencil marks on the bathroom wall. “What is that?” I demand. He brightens. “A rhino!”

Sonny’s guitar practice sessions often involve more drama than guitar.

The person who is supposed to provide information for an article is not getting back to me.

It’s officially spring, but this morning’s wind chill was 2° F. This winter season will overlap with next winter; I just know it.

When I cook, I prefer to be unobstructed. This scenario almost never happens.

I’ve been on hold for 26 minutes, being periodically (seven times so far) instructed to stay on the line because my call is very important.

Yesterday, after I had to stop suddenly to avoid hitting another car in a parking lot, the driver of the car behind me leaned on the horn and prominently wagged her middle fingers (plural—what was she driving with, anyway; her feet?) at me. (“It’s okay, Mommy!” said Sonny, picking up on a few warning signs. “Just take deep breaths!” “And count backward from ten,” advised Ace. “Shall we do it together?”)

Patience. I need it—badly, sometimes. And when my (frequent) advice on practicing it is handed back to me, it suddenly seems not quite as easy as all that.

But meanwhile . . .

J is neat and organized, but IImage? Not so much. The state of the house usually reflects my habits.

An hour has passed since I told Sonny that I’d play Connect Four with him in a few minutes.

Occasionally Ace confesses that it upsets him when I raise my voice, and I promise to try not to do that anymore. But I keep doing it.

The bulletin board that Sonny and Ace are waiting to have hung on their bedroom has been leaning against the wall for about three weeks.

I have put off responding to a certain e-mail.

My resolution to be cheerful and lighthearted early as the boys get ready for school has not yet come to complete fruition. (Do cheerfully worded comments count as cheerful if they are delivered through gritted teeth?)

Patience. I demand it of others. Sometimes acknowledging this is my fastest route to offering patience to others.

“Love is patient,” says 1 Corinthians 13, and of course this is true. Why is it so hard to be patient to people we love?

“Patience is a virtue,” says common wisdom, and of course this is true. Why does proving ourselves to Crazed  Finger-Flipping Parking Lot Driver sometimes seem more appealing than virtue?

“Though patience be a tired mare, yet she will plod,” says William Shakespeare, via Nym in Henry V. Why is patience so tired? I don’t know. She’s lazy? She’s overworked? She’s underfed?  What matters is that she plods on regardless.

Patience: may she plod on beside you this week, both coming and going.

Post-Valentine’s Day Love

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“When God gave me to you, did he say, ‘Will you love him?’”—Sonny, at age 3

Valentine’s Day, that holiday marked by special gestures such as flowers, candy, cards, dinners out, is over. Valentine’s Day, that holiday unobserved—even scorned—by many (and they have their reasons), will not roll around for another 363 days.

Any day that celebrates love—be it romantic love or love for children, siblings, parents, friends—is worthwhile. Who can argue with love? Who can argue with roses? Who can argue with boxes of chocolate (which are now being clearanced at your nearest pharmacy, so don’t just sit there!). But Valentine’s Day gestures doesn’t compare to showing love the rest of the year in ways unscripted by Hallmark.

For example: We love our children. We love them when they’re loveable and when they’re unloveable. When they’re drawing us pictures, when they’re snuggling to read a book, when they’re doing their chores, when they’re helping their brother, when they’re playing superheroes, when they’re singing in the bathtub. When they’re trashing the house, when they’re refusing to do their chores, when they’re tormenting their brother, when they’re enthusiastically bailing bathwater onto the floor.

But sometimes, I suspect, despite our best efforts, they might not always feel very loved. Maybe we sometimes forget to show love (or are too irritated to do so; see bathwater example), or we show it in ways that they don’t feel.

So, I asked Sonny and Ace and some of their contemporaries (via their parents) what makes them feel loved. Here is what they said:

When you lie down and rest with me.

Going out for lunch with just Daddy.

Getting hugs and kisses.

When you tell me you love me.

When you listen to me.

When you ask me what I think.

When you build things with me.

Snuggling.

Playing Candyland with me.

Notes in my lunchbox.

Laughing together.

Walking the dog with me so I don’t have to go alone.

Getting mail from Grandpa and Grandma.

When you notice I did a good job.

When people say thank you.

Much as they love Disneyland and electronics and staying up late and toys (and lots of them), none of these kids associated those things with feeling loved. They just want a little time, a little attention, a little affirmation, a little sharing of interests. A little grace. Then they will feel loved.

After all, Captain von Trapp loved his children, but they didn’t figure that out until he sang with them.

Adults are no different. Spouses, siblings, parents, grandparents, friends, neighbors—what makes them feel loved? A little time, a little attention, a little affirmation, a little sharing of interests. A little grace.

What does this look like? Depending on the recipient, maybe a phone call. Maybe a chore taken off their hands. Being listened to. A note. A visit. A sincere compliment. A favorite meal. Permission to be themselves. Praise or appreciation instead of criticism. A walk together. Going out for coffee. A hug.

See? You don’t even have to buy any roses or any chocolates (clearanced or otherwise).

So Happy Non-Valentine’s Days, all 363 of them. Don’t forget to celebrate.