My dad’s birthday is June 20th, so every year, in the middle of June I make my pilgrimage to the card shop to find birthday and Father’s Day cards for him. Just the proximity of the two special days makes it hard to choose cards that don’t mirror one another or exceed my schmaltzy limit (I know it when I reach it). Often, I would select a more sentimental card for Father’s Day and something a little humorous for his birthday. To add more difficulty to this process, my dad and I have always had a challenging relationship. He grew up in a boy’s boarding school because of the situation within his own family and because of that experience he was more comfortable with schedules and rules and discipline than he was with the interpersonal parts of family life. That’s the dad I came to know most directly and it was a rocky road for both of us a lot of the time. So the card picking has never been easy, particularly during the years when I was darn sure NOT going to give him a card that said anything more than what I actually felt. One of my methods was to choose cards that wished him lots of good things, which I could sincerely do, rather than those that listed all the things the kid was grateful for – a lot of stuff that didn’t happen. As I’ve gotten older and had my own parenting experiences, I’ve mellowed and relaxed my attitude about the cards and allow them to say the things that will make my dad smile and warm his heart. A wise friend said to me a few years ago, “If my dad has a bad day, it won’t be because of me.”
As I’ve grown and moved further away from our parent-child interactions, I’ve been able to see more clearly what he really did contribute to the person I’ve become. Yes, he taught me to ride a two wheel bike and drive a car, but other influences were more subtle and more profound. They also show me that there was a lot more to my dad than rules and rigidity.
I remember mornings as a very young child, when Mom would wake me up saying, “Come on, get up, we’re going to the shore.” It was a weekday but my dad was in sales, basically self-employed, setting his own schedule. I learned later, and sensed even then, that my mother wasn’t 100% in favor of this way of living. Sales work on straight commission doesn’t lead to the security of steady income. It’s either feast or famine and, as my dad would always say, it’s all about the law of averages. If you knock on enough doors, you’ll get enough sales – not evenly spread through the weeks, but overall. He worked long evenings and weekends when necessary and took breaks during the day when he felt he could afford to. Those early mornings packing the car happened as a result of a good sales week.
What this gave me was a love of spontaneity and an appreciation for the freedom, rewards, and responsibilities of the entrepreneurial life style.
There was only a two year period in my childhood during which my dad had to work a specific schedule. This was when he was promoted to a management position in the home office of the company for whom he had the sales job. He was not a happy man during that time; later when I read The Peter Principle, which stated “in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence”, I recognized him in it. I’d say we rise to the level of our discontent which is sure to lead to incompetence if we stay too long in the job. He hated his corporate gig; it was a spirit killer for him, being tied down in a small office, among many other small offices, dealing with politics and structure, and no interaction with customers.
This gave me a bit of a phobia about working in great big buildings with lots of little rooms.
My dad brought home a beautiful, two piece Magnavox stereo console set one day. This was our first introduction to the technology of stereo sound. A speaker in each cabinet, one also held a turntable and the other offered storage for LPs; they opened from the top. The two pieces were made of a beautiful wood, pecan or something similar in color. I remember him placing the two cabinets carefully to maximize the separation of sound. We spent the evening listening to symphonic music, as my very excited dad pointed out the sounds of different instruments coming out of separate speakers. It was impressive! After that, I remember many occasions when my dad was relaxing in his favorite chair with his eyes closed, listening to his favorite records. Every now and then I’d see a tear on his cheek.
This gave me the awareness necessary to really hear music and to experience it as a multi-layered, multidimensional living entity. It proved very useful in my future appreciation of rock and roll, but what it also gave me was a level of comfort with other types of music – classical, opera, traditional folk, and swing – because of the records he introduced me to at home.
One of my favorite games to play when I was a kid was desk clerk. Mostly it consisted of me handing keys across a table to pretend customers. Motels were a significant part of my childhood – we moved a lot and always stayed in motels along the way, we took vacations, and long weekends. Lots of miles on turnpikes and interstates through the diverse topography and scenery from New York to Colorado, lots of HoJos, lots of “Fill ‘er up!”, and lots of desk clerks, lobbies, ice machines, pools – all fodder for my developing imagination. I particularly loved the motels with themes, like cowboys or Mexican adobe casas or island bungalows.
My dad also traveled for his work, sometimes for weeks at a time. He’d call home regularly but what was most special to me was my growing collection of post cards he’d send me from the towns he stayed in and the scenic areas he passed through. I would lay them out in a grid on my bed and pore over them, rereading the messages but mostly imagining what it would be like to be in the pictures.
These experiences gave me a curiosity about places outside of my experience and a love for travel and the freedom of the road. One of my first adult jobs was as a desk clerk and, to this day, I’m always ready for a road trip, the more spontaneous, the better!
From one trip, Dad brought home a book called Folk Medicine by D.C. Jarvis, MD. It was first published in 1958 and is all about the benefits of apple cider vinegar and honey, which became a permanent part of our pantry and breakfast table condiments. Recently, I was reminded of this book while researching remedies for ear infections in dogs. Those smelly, icky, shake-the-head conditions are often yeast-based and easily resolved by cleaning the ears and putting a few drops of apple cider vinegar into the ear canal. It can also be added to their food to increase acidity in the dog’s system. I’ve always been interested in herbal and homeopathic medicine, not to the exclusion of conventional medicine, but often as a first stop or a last resort.
My dad’s introduction of these new, but old ways of being well into my consciousness was so valuable to my eventual life as a gardener. The belief that nature holds the keys to all our maladies and dis-eases has become completely integrated into how I view life, health, my gardening and my career in horticulture and design.
I doubt my dad planned to teach me any of these things, although I know he was aware of the importance of setting a good example. Of course, I appreciate all the typical dad lessons he taught me, but the most valuable gift he gave me was the curiosity to explore places, experiences and ideas.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad! Thank you.