Family, Fatherhood

Lessons my Father Taught Me (That I Wish I had Learned Better)


As a mother of five sons, I am troubled by the trend to disparage fathers’ roles in the family and to treat men as dispensable.  Some of the most important lessons that were modeled for me came from my father.  I can say the same about my mother, but despite the fact that my father was extremely busy running a business and serving for most of my life in an unpaid ecclesiastical position at church as well as participating in community organizations, he had a profound influence on me.  My feelings about my dad may be viewed by many as exaggerations, but my husband can vouch for the veracity of my sentiments.  Ever since we were engaged, he frequently remarked, “There are very few men like your dad.  He is awesome.”  I agree.  Now that he is gone, there is so much that I miss, but his memory definitely lives on.  He taught me:

  1. Practice Discipline.  My father was a paragon of discipline.  I could set my watch by my dad arising at 5:30 a.m. every day to get ready for work and coming home at 6:30 p.m. every night before leaving to volunteer in church service.  On Saturday, he still arose at 5:30 and worked until 12:30 that afternoon.  He was entirely reliable and predictable.
  2. Things don’t buy happiness. Even though he could have afforded to purchase more material possessions, trips and leisure for himself, he did not.  He once said that one of his goals in life was to, “make as much money as I can and not spend it on myself.”  That’s exactly what he did.  He helped family members in need frequently, but he was never the first person to buy the latest technology and he was entirely modest in his appearance, and thought buying things to impress others or “keep up with the Joneses,” was “foolishness.”
  3. You can be happy even if bad things happen to you. I never knew my paternal grandparents because my grandmother died when my father was 14 and his father was murdered by a Los Angeles street gang when he was around 30.  It was a case that made the front page of the L.A. Times when it occurred, as well as coverage of the trial in which the murderers were freed instead of being held accountable for their actions.  My father never mentioned this to me, but after my mother told me when I was a teenager, and I asked my father how he kept from being bitter, he said, “It was very difficult, but you can make a choice about your future despite what happens to you in the past.”  He had no patience for a victim mentality.  He came home every night from work smiling and as he entered the house, shouted, “Is everybody happy?”  (see previous blog post  His happiness was contagious.
  4. The best things in life are the simple things. Even though we lived 20 minutes from the nearest beach, I spent far more time with my father in the mountains.  Every year we took a 2-3 week vacation visiting national parks, and my father made it magical.  He would invite me on hikes to go “exploring,” and our family was often the only one in the freezing swimming holes in the Sierra Nevada mountains.  My father would jump in first and start barking like a seal, in reference to the cold water, and we would follow his lead until our bodies were red and numb.  He made pineapple upside cake in the Dutch oven and played his harmonica while he was driving.  As we drove long distances, he made up stories for us.  One of his ongoing themes was that he was half Navajo, and he spun sagas about his days growing up on the reservation (he had grown up near Native American reservations in the shadow of Mt. Graham in Arizona).  While we hiked, he remarked that if I wanted to be a good Navajo, I would make far less noise so as not to upset the animals.  When teaching me to build a fire, he remarked that a Navajo would wisely build a fire which smoldered without large flames so you could get close to it to be warm, but that the “foolish white man,” builds a large fire which you can’t get close to without risk of injury.  Because my father had dark hair, I completely believed that he was half Navajo, which absolutely thrilled me.  I was so disappointed when I found out at age 10 that I really wasn’t part Navajo.
  5. Reach out to people. This one is hard for me.  I’m an introvert by nature.  My father, however, made people feel important wherever we went.  If we were being waited on in a store or restaurant, he would enthusiastically ask the service personnel how their days were going, and he was genuinely concerned about their welfare.  In California, we had neighbors representing various ethnicities and religions, and he frequently took our Jewish, Egyptian, and Asian neighbors, etc., bags of citrus fruit from our trees or vegetables from our garden.  He introduced himself to new neighbors and came home telling us about them—not just to be nice, but because he was truly interested in others.
  6. You can’t control other people. My father wasn’t afraid to dispense advice, but he also recognized that people need to carve out their own lives.  When I said I wanted to get married, he was less than thrilled, but he said it was my choice.  The night before my wedding, he counseled, “I just want you to be happy.  I want you to know that even though the invitations are out, you can still change your mind.”  Even though he ended up loving my husband and often remarked that, “Your husband loves you as much as anyone I’ve ever seen love his wife,” he had genuine concerns about my age at marriage, but was supportive.  When I said I wanted to be a therapist, he was confused about why I would choose that instead of computer science, but again, supported me.
  7. Anger should be used sparingly. For the most part, my father was a thermostat.  He raised his voice rarely, and was direct but calm in his communication.  I remember one time in particular in which he was expressing a concern he had about me, and I reacted with typical adolescent defensiveness, and I wasn’t nice about it.  He stayed very calm, and looked me in the eye and said, “Lori, you are not being honest with yourself.”  I knew he was right, and I had no response.  His incisive observations, followed up occasionally with, “I’m very disappointed,” earned more of my respect than if he had been harsh.
  8. Work and productivity are valuable. My father was a very hard worker.  After working all week and part of Saturday, instead of using his time in leisure, except for the occasional golf match, he routinely came home and we worked alongside him.  He scrubbed our kitchen floor because he knew it hurt my mother’s back.  He grafted fruit trees and tended them to grow various citrus fruits and avocados.  He planted a large vegetable garden which yielded frequent dinners entirely composed of the seasonal harvest, and he took great pleasure in eating one of his homegrown tangerines or tomatoes…and the thing is, for lack of leisure time, I remember my dad as being very energetic and fun.
  9. Women are just as valuable as men. For my whole life, my father encouraged scholastic achievement, because he saw education as “your best insurance policy.”  He talked to me frequently about the importance of being educated.  Being pragmatic, he was not as encouraging of the arts as he was of math and science, but he took a lot of interest in me and I never felt like a second-class citizen because of my gender.  He loved and respected my mother a great deal, and intervened if we were sassy toward her.  He did chores around the house to make her life easier and was sensitive to her ongoing back pain.  In turn, I knew my mother thought my father was amazing and she admired and respected him.
  10. Do what makes sense. In the world today, this seems somewhat controversial, but my father was a practical man.  When I was taking both piano and gymnastics/dance lessons he pointed our regularly that, “By the time you’re 30, you’re not likely to be putting on a dance recital or doing back flips, but you will be able to play the piano into your old age.”  He said this whenever I wanted to quit piano lessons because it wasn’t nearly as fun as dance and gymnastics (mastering the piano is much harder than most people who haven’t done it think it is).  However, I was never ever required to learn the piano–it was my choice.  I puzzle over parents who try to force their children to learn musical instruments, which often robs the process of independence and fun.  I owe my proficiency on the piano and organ almost entirely to my father’s encouragement without coercion.
  11. Don’t take yourself too seriously. My dad was funny without being mean-spirited and without drawing a lot of attention to himself.  He had a quick wit and was just basically pleasant to be around most of the time.  I still marvel that after running a sizeable business in L.A. and San Francisco, volunteering his time in the leadership of his professional organization, and volunteering LOTS of time in our church, he was as engaged and fun as he was.  I honestly don’t know how he did it.

This is a small snapshot.  My father made me feel like the luckiest girl in daddy-dom.  I truly wish I were more like him.  I asked my husband to read it and see if I left anything out, and in his words, “You could add that his life reflected that true joy comes from loving God and family first—and then, maybe work, country and USC football (his alma mater).”  He was the king of balance, and somehow managed to leave a legacy of work success and fun.  I know nobody’s perfect, but I am 100% convinced my dad was as close as one can get.  I’m still hoping someday more of his training will stick.


2 thoughts on “Lessons my Father Taught Me (That I Wish I had Learned Better)”

  1. What a lovely testament to your dad, Lori. His was a stealth presence ito those of us who knew you when.
    Fatherhood and fathers matter a great deal. Find one as a grown woman, and you see fathers in a whole new light.
    Honored and humbled to learn of the man right from his daughter, who has always been one of the great ones. -dd


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