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Things I’ve Learned From My Father

June 19, 2011

Today is Father’s Day – a day set aside for acknowledging our fathers and the influence they’ve had on our lives.  My father passed away on Boxing Day (December 26), 2008, three months shy of his 94th birthday.  He may be gone, but the things I’ve learned from him remain with me to this day. 

Our Family in 1963When I think about my father, I find it hard to get a clear picture of him in my mind.  I suppose that’s because my brain can’t isolate his various ‘faces’ – the fortyish businessman who was rarely around when I was small, the middle-aged teacher/politician who always had something to say, or the elder statesman and ‘rabble-rouser’ who couldn’t be silenced.  Other than his ‘signature’ Stetson, here’s what I do remember clearly.

My father always had a bit of a ‘warped’ sense of humour – you often didn’t know if he was being serious, or joking with things he’d say. When we were young, if you asked him what he was doing, the answer was always: “Washing my feet in turpentine, what does it look like?”  If he was getting ready to go somewhere and you asked where, he’d say, “Constantinople and Timbuktu” (when I was young, I thought those were fictional places). He told a lot of stories over the years – I don’t know how many of them were true, or how many were figments of his imagination – designed to entertain and/or make the listener stop to think about what he’d just said.  You just couldn’t tell with Dad.

Dad Reading to Us (1956)Until I was about ten, Dad ran his own business (selling parking meters, setting up municipal house numbering systems across Canada, parts of the U.S. and even in Venezuela), working from a converted garage out back of our house.  We’d usually only see him at dinnertime – he worked all day and well into most evenings. If my mother had to go out somewhere, my sister and I would be ‘allowed’ to spend time in ‘the office’, rolling blueprints or ‘testing’ parking meters (with a roll of nickels – that’s all you paid for a half hour in the 1950s).  Dad didn’t talk to us much or spend any real ‘quality’ time with us. (Although apparently my mother tried to remedy this once by having him take my sister, in her pram, downtown with him when he went to buy cigars.  When he got home and she asked ‘Where’s the baby?’, he realized he’d left her outside the drugstore.  Lest you think this was seriously neglectful, let me assure you that in the 50s, EVERYONE left babies in their prams outside stores on the main street, and the drugstore was only three blocks from our house).  I have a couple of photos of Dad reading to my sister and I, but I’ve often wondered if they were ‘set up’ – I honestly don’t recall him reading bedtime stories to us; he just wasn’t around enough back then.

Dad and Mom in 1970By the time I was in my early teens, my father had sold his business to pursue a lifelong interest in politics and economics; he took some courses and soon began to teach in the Henry George School of Social Science (he was appointed Director of Studies there in the mid-60s).  I remember this as a particularly hectic time – he always seemed to be busy, and had little time for family or friends.  My sister and I were ‘recruited’ to type up newsletters, brochures, and other propaganda (on ‘stencils’, which we then ran off on a Gestetner printing machine) and fold, staple, and bind them for distribution (quickly, accurately, and without pay).  When Dad said ‘This needs to get done,’ you didn’t argue!  He later went on to work in downtown Toronto as an ‘economist’ (although at the time, I had no idea what that even was); he took the ‘Businessman’s Express’ bus into the city each morning, and returned home late at night.  By this time, I suppose we were sort of used to not seeing much of him. He was always working; Mom was responsible for raising the five kids.

Dad at 60The clearest picture I have of my father was the years (late sixties to mid-seventies) when he decided to get actively involved in local politics. He had several successive terms as a town and regional councillor – and suddenly he was home ALL THE TIME (councillors worked from home back then).  Having him ‘underfoot’ was a bit of an adjustment for everyone in the family – there were always piles (and piles and piles) of council-related documents on the dining room table, the phone rang constantly (my father was one of those ‘always available to my constituents’ types), and I don’t remember too many dinners or social events that weren’t interrupted by someone wanting something from him.

During these years, Dad became something of a local celebrity – not a week went by that his name wasn’t in the local paper.  He was always championing some ‘cause’ or other, and Dad was the kind of guy who refused to back down or give in.  At times it was embarrassing; at other times it was a source of great pride for me that he ‘stuck by his guns’.  (In my high school yearbook, I listed my ‘Claim to Fame’ in 1970 as ‘being the daughter of …’ my infamous father!)

Dad's Retirement Gig - Sandcastle KingWhen Dad left politics (or, rather, didn’t get re-elected in 1980), he and my mother moved from the town where they’d lived for over 40 years to a ‘beachside’ community about 120 miles away.  My mother thought she’d finally get some ‘peace and quiet’; the rest of the family thought Dad might relax and learn to enjoy life.  We should have known better.  He was soon up to his ears in controversy – trying to tell everyone from the overseers of the planned community where they lived, to the manager of the Chamber of Commerce, to the town council how things should be done (and, yes, he even ran for town council once – but lost!)  When he wasn’t ‘stirring the pot’  in the town of 1,000, he was writing letters to the editors of various newspapers, penning an opinion column for the local paper, or haranguing provincial politicians about one issue or another.  At this point in his life, he was in his 80s, but there always seemed to be something that Dad thought needed ‘fixing’, and he was tenacious about each and every one his ‘causes’.

Dad at 92My parents were approaching 90 when they decided to sell the house and move into a condo close to where my brother and I live (with our families). Dad lost some of his temerity because he didn’t know a lot about our fair city or how it operated (he did, however, give regular grief to the condo association!) He had what we suspected was a stroke at 92; a year later he went into the hospital and from there to a nursing home, where he spent the last six months of his life. I’m sure my younger brother and my oldest sister would string me up for saying this, but Dad wasn’t really living those last couple of years – he was merely surviving.  That wasn’t the way he would have wanted his life to end up, so his passing was really a blessing.  And I always imagine that he’s giving God a good run for his money – telling him how to ‘fix’ things up there in Heaven!

My father was a man of many opinions, who rarely (if ever) believed he was ‘wrong’ (even when proven so).  He ‘fought the good fight’, and worked tirelessly for ‘the common man’.  He believed the world could be (and should be) a better place, and he did his damndest to make that happen.  In 1996 he self-published a small book subtitled ‘How to Survive in a Bureaucracy’ (which I had the pleasure of designing and laying out after my sister did the typing); it didn’t sell well, but it included a list of ‘rules’ for understanding how politics and the education system worked (or, rather, ‘how they don’t work’, as Dad always claimed) – and I honestly can’t say I disagree with one thing he wrote!

Dad at 70The face of my father might not be crystal clear these days, but the things I’ve learned from him (for better or for worse) are these: 

  • have the courage to speak up when no one else will
  • stick to your convictions, no matter what
  • press on, even when other people tell  you to ‘sit down and shut up’
  • never stop until you are 100% satisfied that you have done everything in your power to fix whatever it is that needs fixing
  • you can’t fix everything (so pick your fights carefully)
  • the harder people fight you on something that seems ‘obvious’, the more right you are, and the more they have to hide or protect
  • you’ll likely piss off more than a few people in your lifetime – get used to it or get out of the game
  • life isn’t fair – live with it
  • sometimes it’s best to just keep your big mouth shut (this was something Dad never quite learned)
  • at the end of your life, it’s not the ‘great’ things that will be remembered, but the many little things you did that were heartfelt, honest, and true
  • there’s still a whole lot of life to be lived on … the other side of 55.

Roosevelt - Credit Belongs To The Man Quote

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8 Comments
  1. June 26, 2011 9:20 am

    i think if blogs were available to your dad back in the day, he would have availed himself to them. You’re living his legacy I believe.

    • June 26, 2011 10:16 am

      You have no idea how many times I have thought the very same thing!

      Margo

  2. June 20, 2011 12:05 am

    Sounds like a good, old school parenting. Somehow it does not sound that your feelings were too hurt 🙂 And you do not sound scarred at all 🙂 Honestly, nowadays I believe kids are in great need to hear something similar to what your dad was saying. This post is very personal, thank you for sharing!

    P.S. We just came back from Istanbul. It is very real. By the way, my dad would say “to Honolulu on Buyentattia”.I have no idea what this second name means…

    • June 20, 2011 9:38 am

      Oh, Dad hurt my feelings plenty of times (that ‘knowing when to keep your big mouth shut’ lesson was hard-learned) but he always said he was ‘just saying what was on his mind’ (which to him meant he was ‘off the hook’ for saying ‘the wrong thing’); most of the scars I have are ones I can look at and say ‘Yeah, that hurt, but look what I learned from it’. My parents were from the ‘old school’ of parenting – they expected us to do what we were told, not ask any questions or argue, be respectul, and work hard (which we did, for the most part). It’s funny the things you remember (like the odd sayings parents toss at you), and the things you forget (which, at my age, are far too many) – I wish I’d written more stuff down when I was young(er). I also wish my kids had known their grandfather better – he was in his seventies by the time they were born and he really didn’t know how to interact with the grandchildren when they’d visit on weekends – it was a shame because there was a lot he could have taught them about life. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

      Margo

  3. June 19, 2011 8:45 pm

    What a wonderful post. I enjoyed reading it from beginning to end. Your father sounds like an amazing man (and your mother was amazing for her ability to keep everything moving in the right direction even when dad wasn’t around). My take-away from this post…every moment, even those that seem inconsequential at the time, is important and teachable. IMHO, children learn more from observing than they ever do from formal lessons, and it sounds like you had a couple of great teachers. Thanks for sharing!

    • June 19, 2011 10:18 pm

      When you are growing up, I don’t think you pay all that much attention to the ‘lessons’ being demonstrated; it’s only on reflection that you realize how much you learned! Dad (and Mom) passed on a lot of good lessons (and I can only hope that in 20 or so years, my boys will look back and say ‘You know what, Mom taught me so much’ as well!)

      Margo

  4. June 19, 2011 8:27 pm

    WONDERFUL TRIBUTE TO YOUR DAD.

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