The Lessons We Leave Behind

Dad and meWith the recent experience of my mom’s health challenges, I can’t help but reflect on my dad. Though he died when I had just turned 21, I find him with me in one way or another on most days. He left behind many lessons for me. Some were life-shaping and some merely enriching in a smaller way.

Many of his life-shaping lessons were work-oriented. As a product of the Depression, he knew how important education was—he worked hard and cut every corner he could (like eating “butter sandwiches”) to put himself through college—and he would put his kids through, too. I always knew I was going to be able to go to college. What a blessing. Interesting that I was a teacher for several years and my sister teaches, too. Go figure.

He wanted his kids to work hard but be happy with their choices, so he made sure from an early age we knew that we should love what we do. The way he saw it, you were guaranteed to be working for at least a third of your life, so it would follow that you should strive to find something you enjoy doing. I am grateful for being taught that the world was wide open to me–I know many people don’t have that same kind of encouragement.

And he instilled in us that all work was honorable. Whatever your choice, be the best at it. One of his phrases was, “If you’re going to be a ditch digger, be the best damn ditch digger you can be.” Anyone who worked hard had his respect. Slackers, losers, and users did not.

Beyond the work ethic he instilled in me, though, he also had lots of other, lighter lessons to impart merely by example. For instance, he taught me that it’s perfectly normal to sing at the top of my lungs when I’m in the car. Alone or not. There were several times that my mom, sister, and I would be traveling in our car running an errand and we would pass my dad’s car on his way home. He didn’t see us, but we would see him—mouth wide open, head moving around as he belted out a number.

Understand: the man was not one to carry a strong tune. It didn’t matter. Though the line “dance like no one is watching” is popular today, my dad was ahead of his time with the embracing of “sing like no one is watching (or listening).” There have been many times I’ve been singing and bopping around at a stoplight to turn and see someone looking at me like I’m nuts. I just smile and keep on keeping on…I feel bad for what they are missing out on!

He also loved to laugh—big, hardy laughter—the kind where he would typically end up coughing because he was laughing so hard. I so miss the sound of that laugh, but I think my sister and I are doing an amicable job at carrying the torch on this one.

Of course, he wasn’t perfect, as no one is. One painful lesson I learned from him was the very specific “don’t wear shorts to play in a softball game.” (This was before it was common for girls to have shorts as uniforms and apparently be taught how to slide without ripping up their legs…still don’t get that one. Back then, we played in our jeans. Yeah. We’ve come a long way, baby.) One 100 degree day when I was 12, I begged him to let me wear shorts to my game. He explained the risks, and I said, “Don’t worry—I won’t slide,” and he told me that if I did get hurt, he didn’t want to hear about it. Well, as my life would have it, I hit a lovely triple that night that I greedily wanted to stretch into a homerun. Not only was I tagged out on the slide, but I had to pick tiny pieces of gravel out of my shredded thigh. It was freakin’ AWesome. He was so mad at me (and himself for not holding to his rule, I think) that he didn’t talk to me for three days. Lesson learned.

One of his universal lessons was “when you play, you gotta pay.” This worked for so many things…goofing off on homework, staying out late, drinking…whatever the case may be, he didn’t want to hear any whining if I was suffering from a choice I made like that. I now hear myself uttering these very words to my kid for various reasons.

It makes me wonder what lessons I will leave behind for my son. Will he, too, have memories that he realizes were lessons on how to make the most out of life? Or will he be at a loss if someone asks him, “What is one important lesson you learned from your mom?”

I know I can’t simply wake up and think, “Today is the day I will teach my son to understand the value of (insert lesson).” If that were the case, the poor kid would be facing a curriculum every day of things I deem worth knowing.

No, I think it is much more a matter of living life by example and purpose and praying that some of the good sticks (and that the bad doesn’t stick but still teaches something). I know a lot did with me and my dad. I hope my son feels the same way someday.

11 thoughts on “The Lessons We Leave Behind

  1. Love that photo. You look exactly the same. In fact, try braiding your hair again- it’s a good look. Loved your dad. He made me feel like an honorary Italian. As for the kids- they are sponges absorbing every little action, word, and example we put out into the world. Good news and bad news. xoxox

  2. This story made me tear up. I almost lost my dad 15 years ago when he had a heart attack and subsequent quadruple bypass surgery. Thankfully he made it through but it changed my life forever. Thank you for sharing your memories with us!

  3. Ahhh, I remember you both then. When I see and listen to you even now, I do hear your dad. Your dad reminds me of mine and the impact is profound. It’s so amazing how God has provided the special structure we call family, unique to each of us. None are perfect, but the best ones love and learn through the mistakes. My dad’s birthday was yesterday…and celebrated in heaven! (How timely your “Dad” message.) I miss him always, but am so blessed to have called him my dad…a man after God’s own heart. I respect and hear your gratitude as well. Your dad (and mom) have joined forces to raise an amazing daughter like you. Because they live well in you, you will live well in your son. Enjoy the beautiful reflections!

    1. I love how you say “a man after God’s own heart.” Such a lovely image. Thanks for your thoughtful words…I pray you are right about the “living well” with my son!

  4. Your dad sounds so much like my dad. As you know, my dad has dementia. I miss the many things he used to do – like singing out loud at the top of his lungs. Even tho I miss how he used to be, I feel so lucky to still have him around to hug every chance I get. Thanks for the memories.

    1. Your dad is so sweet. I’m sorry he’s going through what he is, but I’m glad you’re hugging him up. Thanks for your kind words.

  5. And don’t forget the lesson of anonymous generosity….remember how he would pick up the dinner check of an unsuspecting couple, and then leave before they knew their bill had been paid?

    And he was steady as the sun— the tune he whistled every evening when he entered the house after work…the money he slipped us every now and then for gas, food, etc….the unconditional love he had for us even though he would get too mad to talk to us every now and then….every morning off to work….every Sunday, church and breakfast…

    And the final lesson he taught me when he said, “I’m not afraid to die. Don’t get me wrong, I will miss you very much, but I’m not afraid to die.”

    1. Yes, yes, yes. I think maybe he started the “random acts of kindness” movement. A generous soul in every way.

      And his testament in crossing over was indeed the biggest life lesson of all. I don’t think I could write about it without being a mess, but I am grateful you mentioned it here. We were indeed blessed to have him as our dad.

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