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.