Saturday, June 18, 2011

Stuff our dads said - and didn't

Happy Father's Day, everyone. Here's Sunday's Observer column...


The Look. You sons and daughters know about this. It’s the tilt of the head you got when you misbehaved. The flash of the eyes. The lips clenched shut.

I’ve been a father for 10 years now, and my Look doesn’t come close to my dad’s Look. His was versatile, with variations for different levels of transgression. There was head-to-the-right, eyebrows raised for basic bad behavior. If that didn’t work, the head got tiltier, the glare meltier.

And for the bigger things, it was different – not so much a harsh stare, but disappointed that I didn’t get the wrongness of what I was doing, or maybe that he hadn’t taught me to get it.
That was the look I hated most.

Today is Father’s Day, of course, and in our Carolina Living section, we honor dads by having readers tell us about the best advice their fathers have given them. I peeked this week at those submissions – and at some we didn’t have room to print. There were quips and wisdom and combinations of both.

“Don’t worry about your reputation, work on your character,” said one dad. Said another: “If you can figure out a way to get into jail, you can figure out a way to get out of jail.”

Then I came upon Debbie Bateman. “The best stuff my dad says is without words,” she wrote of her father, Stephen Smith.

My father, Bob, like Debbie’s father and many of their generation, is not the kind of man who feels like he has to say something. We talk, sure, at least once a week about what’s happening with him and my mother in New Hampshire, with me and my family in Charlotte. But advice? He’ll tell me what to do with my leaky water heater, and even the bigger stuff, if I ask. Most times, I don’t have to.

He owns a carpet store in New Hampshire, and when I was growing up, I’d get to go out with him to measure houses and meet customers. I watched, like many sons and daughters, how he treated people at work and at home, what he said about them, and what he didn’t say.

I learned that you show up five minutes early to every appointment. You don’t take advantage of people. If you make a mistake, you acknowledge it and make it as right as you can. And if a Boston sports team is winning, you never call him before the game is over and say, “Looks like we got this.”

I forgot about that last one recently. I could almost see The Look coming through the phone.

Debbie Bateman knows about this, too. Her father, Stephen, is a quiet man, she says. He asks questions instead of offering answers, but she’s never had difficulty knowing what’s important to him. And on those occasions she forgot, he had a Look, too. “It’s hard to describe it,” she says, laughing. “But you know what it means.”

Eventually, yes. My dad coached me one year when I played Little League in my small New Hampshire town. The town field had little fencing, so if you hit the ball to the bushes that marked the end of the outfield grass, it was a home run. I’d never come close to those bushes, until I caught hold of a pitch one day when I was 12. My dad, who was doing double duty as an umpire in the outfield, didn’t turn in time to see the ball land past the grass. But he had to make a call. Double, he said.

Not long into my protesting the injustice, he met me with a look. Not the one for misbehaving, or the one for really misbehaving. It was that last look, the one that wondered why I didn’t get it. And right then, I did: There was no other call he felt he could make.

That understanding didn’t come from some big cloud break of perceptiveness. It was because I knew enough about my father, that even if he didn’t get everything right, trying to do so was important to him. Pretty much everything flows from there with him.

So today, we officially remember and celebrate and appreciate. “I treasure his wisdom,” Debbie Bateman says of her father, and if we’re lucky, we get to feel the same, whether it’s the dads who tell us what we need to know, or quietly remind us that we already do.


Leslie Wyatt said...

I know Debbie's dad. I also know his wisdom and how he has passed this wisdom to his children. I also know that you never forget the "look" as my father sometimes gave me that spoke paragraphs. Happy father's day gentlemen!

John Chi said...

My dad lived the American Dream. He came as an immigrant with two suitcases and a scholarship. Eventually got his PhD in chemical engineering and an MS in Industrial Management from Johns Hopkins. Now he is the CEO of a small company toying with the idea of retirement again. He is the measuring stick that I constantly try to measure myself by and never seem to surpass. Funny enough he still gives me the other LOOK - the one of unspoken pride he has in his children's accomplishments and a quiet vanity of a job well done on his part (he reminds us with a smile that he takes credit for all the good stuff we do in our lives). That LOOK is the one that keeps my brother and me to keep trying to surpass that measuring stick to be best dad and man we can possibly be - that may be the lesson he was trying to teach us all along.