My relationship with my dad is hard to explain. Maybe all dad / son relationships are hard to explain. Maybe it’s the different hobbies and zip codes and communication styles and myriad other nuances as kids grow up and make their own way. I wouldn’t say we were close, but I wouldn’t call us distant either. I guess we talked when we had something to say. I’ve long believed that one should try to emulate the good and leave the bad when it comes to others, family or friends.
All parents are flawed (my own parental flaws are, of course, minuscule) because all people have flaws. As parents we do the best we can and ask for the benefit of the doubt. In my case, my parents were no different. Again, the best idea is to internalize and act out the good that parents modeled, and try as best we can to not perpetuate the flaws. Sometimes that’s easier said than done; DNA, nurturing, stressors, and all that. I have and will endeavor to recognize and fix the not-so-good’s of the mixed bag I was handed, and to model in my own life the good. That’s all any of us can do.
In that spirit of clinging to the good, I learned some valuable life-lessons from my dad.
Men Should be Manly. Men should be tough. Strong. Capable. Friendly. Brave. Able to fix things. Able to stand outside the car in the winter while pumping gas. Men should not run from the rain, or any weather. Men should know how to shoot guns, fish, back trailers, and swing an ax. They should bear a few scars, and should know the basics of tools. Handshakes should be firm, tears if any should be minimal, and solutions should always precede, if not replace, complaints.
Men Should Take Action. When I was maybe 6, my dad pushed over a dilapidated 2-car garage. He didn’t ask (it belonged to a relative), he just did it. After the dust settled, he said, “There. Now I guess I need to build a new one.” Men should investigate the noise at night, the squeak in the car, or why the furnace won’t furnace. We should build, create, learn, fix, help, lead, make mistakes, figure it out, and occasionally break things (needed replacing anyways). Talking is nice, but “I really ought to’s” and “Someday I’m going to’s” are wimpy and take valuable time away from actually doing things.
Men Should Eat the Damn Cookie. This is sometimes a hard one for me. I’m pretty careful with my diet. If I can work my brain around to a more metaphorical position, maybe it could also mean to enjoy the good “tastes” of life without so much worry over the little things. Dad was a firm believer in a preset death date; he would die on the exact time and date that was designed for him. Nothing and no one could change that. While we differed there, the belief allowed him to live a fuller and less worried life. Maybe the idea is to eat the “cookie,” savor it, and then move on to what we know are better things. Perhaps this could even carry over into, say, martinis (Gin, of course). (Look at me learning!)
Men Should Follow the Spirit of the Law and Round Edges Where Needed. Dad was a Maine State Trooper for several years. I think he always regretted getting out before retiring. Back then the State Police paid too little to support a young family with 3 kids, so he moved into insurance as many of his colleagues were doing. Dad came with built-in stories. He seemed to hold great tolerance for people that made honest mistakes, and little for those that were dark or disrespectful. He kept a binder of some of the cases and crimes he worked; some of the photos are quite gruesome. Through all the stories, all the people he “let go”and all the ones he didn’t, there seemed a common thread of seeing the good, the goal, and the purpose, and not being caught up in details.
Men Should Take Care of What They Have. This was a big one. Dad was always mowing, cleaning, adjusting, repairing; making things better or keeping them as good as they could be. It taught me to respect what I have and to be thankful that I have it. We don’t need everything brand new (most of what we had as kids was not), but we can keep it in as good a condition as possible. Even older things can be nice.
It’s OK to Do Stuff Alone. Over the years after I left home, all of my dad’s hunting buddies died. As he aged, he moved away from the hobby of firearms hunting and took up archery. I don’t really know how he learned it; it was before the time of YouTube videos and I don’t remember hearing of lessons. He seemed to just decide he was going to learn archery hunting, talked to folks at LL Beans, bought a bow and all the accompanying stuff, and started practicing in the back yard; far too close to the neighbors (sorry neighbors). Tires were punctured, sheds were holed, cats accidentally went missing. But he did it. And he seemed to really love those solitary hunting trips, even if it was just him. He was not afraid to try new things.
I’m sure there are a few more life-lessons I learned from my dad but I guess those are the big ones. He died a few weeks ago, after succumbing to dementia. Covid made it impossible to see him and perhaps no matter there; he was not one for philosophical departing words, or philosophical words of any kind for that matter. We hunted and fished together for years when I was younger, but my Coast Guard career made it increasingly difficult to get home. I’ll fly to Maine in a few days to visit and help with what I can. I’m still processing his life and what it meant to me.
Our last words were when we were departing after a visit and he shook my hand after a little dementia-fueled blow up the night before.
“No hard feelings and let’s just forget about that thing last night.”
“What thing last night?” I said.
He smiled, choked up, nodded, and looked away.
To this day I struggle with keeping my voice during times of high emotions. Praying at family dinners gets a little drawn out while I work to get it back under control. So much for moving orations. Thanks dad.
One of my favorite memories is of sitting together in a field after a day of hunting and watching the treeline as cold Maine November dusk settled. Not alot of words; more a feeling of presence. I’ll miss him in that time. I believe I’ll see him again, and I hope we can sit a field again at dark and watch the treeline.
For now, I think I want to draw his bow and see how it feels.