Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Tribute to My Dad

Last month, for Mother's Day, I wrote a tribute to my mother.  This month, let me do the same for my father.  And of course, one of the primary reasons that I'm able to write these tributes is because they were good parents as a unit, not just as individuals.

The older I get, the more I realize my profound luck in having the parents that I have.  Sure, there are ways we could have been better to and for each other.  But overall, my parents gave me some profound gifts that have helped strengthen me in so many ways.

Here are some of the gifts my father gave me:

By now, everyone probably recognizes this picture, albeit blurry, as a computer part.  But I knew about computers long before many people did.  My dad was a computer programmer from way back, from the days when computers took up a whole room.

We knew about punch cards and how to communicate with the computer.  My dad helped me put together an 8th grade science project that traced the trajectory from vacuum tubes to transistors to the microchip.  He even brought one from his office, with a magnifying glass so that people could get a closer look.

The project won an honorable mention.  It was back in 1978.  Who could have dreamed how the microchip could change the world?

My dad knew, and he taught us.  The reason I'm not as afraid of computers as I might be is because of his guidance.  And happily, I never got any whiff of discrimination from him.  There was no notion that computers being for men while women should stay home and take care of kids.

I wish I had done more with the computer programming that I did in the 7th grade, when we learned to program in BASIC.  What a thrill when I wrote a program that had the computer play Hangman. 

Yes, there could have been more thrills, but I chose different paths.  The fault is mine, not my dad's.

No, he didn't give me that typewriter, although I did get a Smith-Corona typewriter for my high school graduation.  That typewriter as a graduation present symbolizes what's most important about my dad, at least for me.

He expected that I would be smart.  Many women will tell you about the societal forces, including their parents, who expected them to hide their brains so that they could attract a man.  I feel so lucky that my parents never suggested such a thing.

I also know women who had parents and other well meaning adults who told them that they needed skills because, for whatever reason, they couldn't count on men to be there for them.  I didn't get that message either.

No, we were expected to be smart because my parents had the belief that we were smart.  It's circular reasoning, I know.  My parents seemed to believe that most people are smart.  It's not like today, when it seems like every child is supernaturally gifted or deeply disabled.  No, my parents believed in a basic intelligence, and they didn't have much patience with laziness.  We had to try, really try.

So, when I came home with a C in 9th grade Algebra, we had a long talk.  They wanted to determine if I had really tried.  Did I need a tutor?  Why did I find the subject hard?  Why did I make better grades in every other subject? 

I could whine, "Math is hard."  But that explanation would not suffice.  Lots of things are hard.  That doesn't mean we give up.  It's a valuable life lesson.

The typewriter also reminds me of my writing, and all the ways my parents have supported my writing through the years. 

I got my first notebook in which I would write short stories when I was in the 3rd grade.  My dad was finishing a degree at Auburn University at Montgomery, and we went to the campus bookstore.  My sister got a tiny stuffed tiger, the AU mascot.  I wanted a spiral notebook.  I remember wanting it with an ache.  My love of office supplies started early.

My dad bought me that notebook.  I filled it with short stories about monkeys and other creatures.  I illustrated those stories.  My parents read them and took them seriously.

We've also explored great writing together.  Above is one of my favorite recent pictures of my dad reading Flannery O'Connor.  They discovered O'Connor long before I did, and they encouraged me to read her work--just one of many great authors we read together.

But it wasn't only my mind that my dad nurtured in a way that wasn't typical for every dad in my generation.  He also gave me permission to live in my body in less than feminine ways.

BackCountry Permit

My dad discovered backpacking in the early 1970's; we became a family who went on many camping trips and a few trips into the back country where we carried everything we needed on our backs.  Those experiences gave me an understanding of self-sufficiency which I still have, even though it's been years since I went on a backpacking trip.

We were also a family of runners.   There was no suggestion that running would damage our lady parts; I heard that message from others, but not from my dad.  We trained and got ready for 10K races.  We carbo-loaded before the race.  It was great family togetherness building.

But more than that, being a teenage runner gave me a confidence that I don't know how I'd have gotten any other way.  I started out unable to run a block, and then, by training and achieving incremental goals, I could run further and further.  That lesson has never left me. 

What seems impossible at the beginning is likely not impossible at all, especially if you work at it daily.  It doesn't have to be a lot of time each day, and maybe you can take a rest day each week--but if you show up to do the work, you can achieve all sorts of wondrous things.

That's one of the most important lessons my dad taught me, both directly and indirectly.  It's one I try to remember every day.   

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