A Man of Economy: Lessons from my Father
There is a story I love to tell about my father. Certainly there is more than one but this one stands out because as a parent I have a different take on it now than I did as a fourteen year old kid.
In the first month of my first year in high school one of my girlfriends and I were invited to a party. It was a party being thrown by our friend's older siblings so I was pretty sure there would be a keg or two and who knows what else because I had never been to a high school party. My girlfriend, Tracy was all in but I have an older sister , who by this time had been through high school and was away at college. So my parents knew what a party was for kids in high school. I knew that I couldn't just ask to go a party like this so my girlfriend and I hatched a plan. We would tell my parents it was a "cook out" and if there was drinking or anything of that nature we would call my girlfriend's dad and he would come get us and take us to the movies. Surprisingly this seemed to work.
That evening Tracy's dad dropped us off and we told him we would call him later when we needed a ride. We quickly found our friend and his best friend ( who I will mention here I married 15 years later and I guess we could blame him for being a bad influence at the time.) We hung around, neither of us took the beer offered. I had no taste for it and if I am going to be honest I had my eyes peeled for my father because I was nervous. We were surrounded by college aged kids and lots of beer. My girlfriend knew I was uncomfortable so she suggested a walk and the four of us took a walk down the road. On our way back as we got closer to the party house we noticed someone walking toward us. Someone asked "Is that your father?" And Tracy responded for me, "Bill's here." I focused my eyes and sure enough it was my dad, casually strolling along, hands tucked into his tan khaki pants, wearing his signature light blue windbreaker. My heart started to race and I thought I was in for it. He clearly had seen the party, would know I had concocted a lie and my high school career was about to end before it had begun.
When we were up close he greeted us and simply said, "I called Mr. Bartlett and let him know I would pick you girls up and get you to the movies." Then he turned and headed back to the car. Tracy looked at me as though I was going to the gallows but she followed me into the car. My dad dropped us off at the movie theater without saying a word about the party or getting mad at me for lying. Which technically, I didn't lie so much as stretch out a partial truth. I still thought the next day when I got home there would be a lecture, punishment, something to make a point that parties like that were not going to be happening. My father never said a word. Perhaps he realized when he didn't catch me mid keg stand or passed out on the grass that he didn't have a partier on his hands. When he picked me up the next morning the only sound on the ride home was the band music he loved playing off his cassette player in our Honda.
Admittedly I didn't give my father many reasons to lecture or punish. Our parents rarely yelled, raised their voices perhaps from time to time, but mostly our house was calm. There was never tension or unease. If you did something wrong you knew it by the look on his face. If you did something that required more than a look there was still a steadiness to his reaction. He was never volatile or unpredictable. He was always calm and loving. The ultimate "conscious parent". He taught two teen-age girls to drive manual shift and he never once yelled. I yell at my thirteen year old for being a backseat driver!
My father spends time volunteering with fourth grade students. At the end of this school year the teacher asked the students to use one word to describe my father and she wrote them on a white board. My father stood surrounded by those words and she snapped a photo. It is a striking image. But what is even more extraordinary is how smart those fourth graders were to pick up on my father's best qualities. They described him as calm, patient, kind, gentle, sweet and peaceful. That does sum him up. He is all of that. And he brought that to his parenting. I don't doubt he brought it to his job as a teacher and administrator and to his friendships as well.
My father was the quiet soul behind my mother's illness. He was the one who came home from work and made dinner each night, helped my mother with tasks around the house and did so with humor and compassion. He taught me, by his actions, to be tolerant and accept people for who they are. He taught me that you get up and do and help. You help your neighbor before they ask and your friend even if they think they don't need you. I remember visiting a family friend many years ago, who was in the hospital on hospice. We were only in her room a few moments when she said to my dad ,"You're a good man, Charlie Brown." That was her good-bye. We were dismissed with a wave of her hand. As we walked out my dad chuckled and said "Isn't she funny?" That was it. He didn't feel slighted. He wasn't upset that we had made a trip to see her and that was all she said and was done with our visit. I am sure I would have felt a bit put out but not my dad. He just wanted her to know he cared by showing up. You cannot get a better life lesson than that.
My father has always been a man of economy. He doesn't waste words or movements or money. He is an observer and contemplator. He moves and speaks with a slow deliberateness. He is always a calm and peaceful presence. He doesn't always say much. He is happy to sit on the fringe and watch and listen. This makes the compliment he extends or the observation he shares even more precious because it is from his heart. I think of my dad when I find myself in a tough situation and I think of what he would do. And then I pray that I am emulating him. I can think back over many lessons but the one that I carry with me as a parent is the image of my father strolling down the road, away from a rowdy keg party without so much as a frown on his face and calmly steering me back in the direction he would prefer me to go.
Me with my dad ,summer 1981