June 22 is my father’s birthday. As I reflected upon our relationship, I drifted back to the days we lived in Maryland. During those years, I was seven, eight and nine – grades two through four. I have many memories from that phase of life, but two particularly stick out.
This first one isn’t so nice…
It was a cold winter day. I don’t remember the exact month or year, but there was snow on the ground. I was on my way home (from somewhere) and had just reached the edge of our property. Suddenly, one of the kids from across the street came running out of the house. It was Michael McCormick and he made a mad dash right at me. He plowed into me, knocked me to the ground, shoved my face in the snow, and started screaming, “Christ killer!!!” I still remember my state of shock and confusion. “What?!?! Who is Christ?” I couldn’t breathe. “I swear I didn’t kill anyone!!!”
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of red and rapid movement. I realized it was my dad. He came flying out the front door and ran barefoot across the snow, wearing a bright red sweater and dark slacks. In a flash, he pulled Michael off me. He lifted the bully by the front of his jacket and shoved him hard against the telephone pole.
Through gritted teeth, in the chilling voice he used when he was really angry, Dad hissed, “Don’t you ever f***ing touch one of my kids again…or else.” I remember thinking, “that was a bad word” and then “I didn’t know Daddy could run so fast!” My father was about thirty years old at the time. He was big. He was strong. He was scary. He was my hero. And I’m sure he scarred Michael McCormick for life. (I wonder if he still hates Jews.)
That version of my father is sharply contrasted with memories of the man who read us nightly bedtime stories. Our favorites were about Winnie-the-Pooh. Dad would read us a chapter each night, changing his voice to suit each character’s words and speech patterns. I’ll never forget the excited anticipation of learning what would happen next to Christopher Robin, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga and Roo, Tigger and Pooh. Even years later, I remember loving those nights snuggled under the covers and listening. No matter what was going on, Dad didn’t let anything get in the way of storytime.
There are many, many stories I could tell. These two, however, were early ones that shaped me.
* * *
At the end of the day, my father tried to be a good teacher. I think he would agree that this list encapsulates much what he tried to instill:
- Don’t be a by-stander (even if you end up getting punched in the mouth)
- Be curious (ask lots of questions)
- Be respectful (watch your tone)
- Have passion (be wildly crazy about something)
- Be a creative problem solver (there always is a possible solution)
- Get a good education (the best you can afford) and don’t waste it
- Put your brain in gear before putting your mouth into action (resist the urge to speak before thinking things through)
- When entering a new situation, walk in with your right foot first (it can’t hurt!)
- It’s not whether or not you make the right decision, it’s that you make the decision right (once you make your mind up, turn that decision into the best possible outcome)
- It’s still perfectly okay to drink Harvey’s Bristol Cream…straight up with a twist…regardless of what others say or think (it’ll always be “downright upright”)
I am who I am today – in large part – because of my father. The experiences we shared and the lessons he taught have served me well.
Happy birthday, Dad. I paid attention. Thank you and I love you.