My dad and I didn’t connect very well on any level. I was, I’m sure, a puzzle to him, someone he’d had a hand in creating, and yet someone who could hardly have been more different than he was.
If we shared much of anything, it was befuddlement at the other’s interests. I wasn’t a sports enthusiast. I wasn’t mechanically inclined. Though he never said anything to that effect, I doubt a day went by that I didn’t feel I had disappointed him in some way. There was a kind of guilt, too; I could have tried harder to like the things he liked, but I didn’t want to put forth the effort. I think he may have worked harder to understand the pursuits that were important to me, but without much success. We were just “wired” so differently. So instead, at some point, we each tossed up our hands and decided to settle for mutual civility and awkward gestures of affection, and we called it good.
He’s been gone for about 23 years, now. Only recently have I really begun to understand and appreciate my upbringing and the guidance he provided. At the time, it frequently seemed harsh and unsympathetic; now, I realize I couldn’t have asked for a better father or mentor.
When I was six or so, I came stumbling into the house upset because the neighborhood kids were choosing up sides for a softball game and I’d been picked last. Someone had said, “We don’t want Scott on our team; he’s no good.” My dad’s response? “Well, when they’re picking on you, then they’re giving someone else a break. That’s something, isn’t it?”
That wasn’t what I wanted to hear. Not at the time, anyway.
In junior high, I came home one day, full of righteous indignation about something a teacher had done to me. I can’t even remember what it was at this late date, but I complained bitterly about how unjust she was being. My father listened carefully to my whole diatribe, and when I finished, he nodded and said, “Okay. Now, how about we call your teacher, and we hear her side of the story?”
That stopped me in my tracks. Okay, maybe I’d weighted the story just a little bit in my favor. Who knew my dad wasn’t just going to take my word for things?
As a kid, I marveled at his interaction with other adults. He held them as accountable to their actions as he did his son. He respected everyone and was intimidated by nobody. He told me once, “Everyone you meet deserves your respect, unless they do something to lose it. He negotiated all cultures, all levels of society, all peoples with what seemed to me to be effortless aplomb.
What I hadn’t realized, in all the years he was alive, was that, if we didn’t quite understand each other, and certainly didn’t always see eye-to-eye on many things, he nevertheless imbued me with a really good value system. It happened quietly, mostly when I wasn’t paying attention. Which was a good deal of the time. He taught me to look out for the underdog; to hold myself accountable for my actions; not to point fingers unless I was certain that my own behavior was scrupulously clean. And, damn, it never was.
But it was—and is—far better than it might have been. Because of my father. I kind of wish I’d told him that when I had the chance. But then again, that’s another lesson I’ve learned along the way.