Durability of relationships – My dad went to boarding school. He was very tight with a group of 8-10 classmates and their wives. They took a weekend trip together every year when they retired and talked all the time. He was always their “class president” and he loved it. I think his buddies still revered and respected him. They also remembered his kindnesses 50+ yrs after they had graduated.
Two friends’ stories about my dad in particular stuck out to me.
1) One buddy transferred in after freshman year and was Jewish (in a 1950s Protestant boarding school – they had services every morning). Dad defended him and helped him survive. Mel joked that mydad was really hard on him with practical jokes etc., but it was always in the spirit of INCLUDING him in the group rather than excluding him. Dad tweaking him and taking him under his wing was central to his acceptance at school and he never forgot it.
2) Another buddy was brilliant but really struggled with the discipline and structure at school. He always felt like Dad’s friendship and riding him kept him in school. He never forgot it either and made a point of telling me the impact Dad had on him.
Below, I’ll touch on how the latter years of Dad’s life were hard on him (I think) and he was in many ways a shadow of his former self. But what was moving was how all his buddies drove from far away and truly loved him. Early relationships are often the deepest.
Everyone deserves a chance and should be judged on their performance…
My dad was a big believer in equal opportunity and performance. He grew up privileged and white in NY and went to boarding school, so I don’t know where this came from. Maybe having an Irish immigrant mother with a big family. Maybe it was idolizing a young Willie Mays as a HUGE NY Baseball Giants fan (he knew exactly where he was when Bobby Thompson hit “the shot heard round the world). Maybe it was playing HS lacrosse against Jim Brown and getting his ass kicked. Maybe it was knowing detractors had painted swastikas on my grampa’s door during WW2 despite his commitment and dedication to the US war effort. Maybe it was his military service where, in the draft era, EVERYONE (more or less) had to serve and seeing the disparate backgrounds guys came from. Maybe it was his deep and abiding faith. Who knows?
But he clearly believed early and strongly in standing up for the weaker guy and giving everyone a shot. Then performance will tell…
This played out both in what values he communicated and taught and in his career. He was a pioneer in diversity hiring in the 1960s at his company. This wasn’t without its social and political challenges in that era. It took a toll on his career as well, but that didn’t really bother him. It was important to do what’s right.
Don’t be whiny. Life’s hard for everyone…
This is a bit of a “suck it up Nancy” message and both my parents believed it. Also a bit of the Irish suffering mixed with a little Protestant work ethic and a sense of original sin thrown in for good measure. Somebody always, always, always has it worse. So get up and go to work. And don’t be whiny. Nobody likes a whiner. And whiners don’t get anything done.
The enduring power of a parent’s love…
I don’t think I ever once questioned how much my parents loved me. Seriously. Never. I may have wished for different parents at times (who doesn’t?), but I never doubted their love.
As I have grown and met many people from many different backgrounds, I’ve come to appreciate what an unusual gift that has been. It gave me confidence to stretch and try things, confidence to persevere through difficulties and the ability to shrug off a lot of things.
My mom was particularly fierce. She could ride me pretty good and we had notorious “high volume” discussions about some of my shortcomings as a child, but woe (and I mean woe) to the person outside the family who criticized me. She seriously took to her grave a grudge against my 1st grade math teacher who improperly assessed my potential. She’d always say “I can say anything I want about you, but nobody else gets to.” A bit o’ the Irish in her I suppose.
But it created a sense of confidence and self-belief, balanced with a healthy sense of my shortcomings that’s been healthy.
The value of mercy and the fact that some things are best left unsaid…
Three days before my college graduation, I had a minor fender-bender. I was going <10 mph, but my 1973 Cutlass did a number on the Ford Tempo we hit. A heavy metal meets cheap plastic moment with heavy metal carrying the day.
I was stressed and pissed at myself, knowing my mom would get worked up and that I had potentially wrecked the family fun of the graduation. I talked to my dad and he came to the body shop with me. To keep my driving record clean for insurance and to keep the family peace he just wrote a (fairly large to me at the time) check to resolve the situation. It was unsolicited and I assumed I was hosed. Dad was big on taking responsibility and owning your mistakes, so I assumed I’d be owning this one for awhile.
His explanation to me was essentially (paraphrased):
1 – “We both know your mom. This isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but would probably wreck her trip and enjoyment. So why do that if you don’t have to?” This is the leave things unsaid bit…
2 – “My dad (my grampa) was pretty tough, but he always felt like you got one free pass on something dumb but innocent…even if it was a biggie. He bailed me out of a situation that we kept between him and me and now I’m paying it forward. Just remember this when you have kids.” I do.
A Father’s mercy can be a powerful thing.
Funny, but after Dad died this story came up with my mom and 15 years later she still hadn’t been aware. I told her about it around the time of the funeral (needed to because I used it in the eulogy). She laughed and said that; Yes, she would have been pissed and we were probably better off for not having shared.
One more post on what I learned from what happened to them later this week…