This story will eventually spin around to a dog named Lady. So, you’ll definitely want to stick around for that.
But, this story is, more importantly, about my dad.
They say you won’t understand your parents until you are a parent yourself. This has always placed me at a disadvantage.
But, I’ve realized a few things since they’ve been gone.
My mom taught me “things.” The skilled how-to-do “things.” My dad, in a weird way he probably didn’t realize, taught me how to figure things out for myself.
I’m always interested to hear other people’s “father stories.”
“My dad taught me to bike … “
“… to fish …”
“ … to drive a car …”
“… to throw a baseball …”
And, to be honest, it always makes me a little jealous.
My dad didn’t teach me any of those things. But, I think my dad gave me space to figure things like that out for myself.
When I wanted a bike, like all the neighborhood kids already had, he said, “When you show me you know how to ride a bike, I will get you a bike.”
This took more than practice. This required me to cajole my friends and barter with them into loaning me their bikes, five minutes here, 10 minutes there, so I could practice. I’m sure I bent a few handlebars and dinged up a few frames when I wiped out. But, I figured it out, and one night after my dad got home from work, a friend – I’m pretty sure it was Pam, the girl down the block – loaned me her bike and I rode it to my house so my dad could see that I had learned to ride a bike.
That weekend, I had my bike.
And, it was purple with a flowered banana seat and it was exactly — exactly — the bike I dreamed of.
So, my dad didn’t teach me how to ride a bike. Not exactly. Or, did he?
My dad also gave me space to make decisions on my own, and here’s the story I want to tell.
My parents grew up on farms in North Dakota. When they married, they headed west, eventually ending up in California, where my dad had a comfortable middle-management job with an oil company. I, their only kid, showed up about midway through those California years.
My dad liked his job. He got regular promotions and raises, had a company car and all kinds of perks, and was good friends with his boss, who would invite us each summer to his cabin at Big Bear Lake. We had a nice house, one block from a nice neighborhood pool, in a nice part of town.
Things were good.
In the summers, during his two-week vacation, my dad would drive us to North Dakota to stay on my mom’s family farm. My dad would help out with farm chores (that was his vacation), my mom would visit with her parents, aunts and uncles, and countless cousins, and I would stick like glue to my grandfather, riding for hours on the tractor with him, going fishing at the lake with him, and playing with his dog Lady.
That’s my Grandpa, Lady, and me.
It was a great vacation for me. Tractor riding. Fishing. Having a dog. I had it made.
I loved Lady and Lady loved me.
My dad just worked. He was probably happy to get back to California and his desk job.
One day, when I was about 11, that grandfather called to tell us he was retiring and he offered to rent the farm to my dad. My parents were in their late 40s and the farm was a robust 800 acres of small grains. Making a massive job-life change like that was no easy decision.
And, so they thought about it.
And, a couple days later – or maybe a couple weeks later – they took a vote.
My mom voted to move, she missed her family in North Dakota and wanted to go “home.”
My dad voted to stay, he liked his job and his life in California.
At a stalemate, my dad said I would have the deciding vote.
I took this decision seriously. To this day, I am not one to decide quickly on anything – deciding what to have for dinner can paralyze me, and I spend months researching and deciding on simple things like what pillows to buy, or shoes, or Yoga pants, or which cat food is best.
I thought about it a lot. I didn’t want to make a bad decision, but I was 11 and didn’t know how to decide what was good or bad.
My grandfather called again and I think my mom or dad said something like “Jackie hasn’t decided if she wants to move.”
Seeing an opening, he asked to speak with me.
I am paraphrasing this conversation, but I believe this is pretty close:
“So, you don’t know if you want to come live in North Dakota?”
“I’m still deciding, Grandpa.”
“Well, you know, Lady sure likes it on the farm. I don’t think she’d want to come live at our new house. Would you be able to take care of Lady if you moved out to the farm?”
“What? Lady would get to live with us?”
“Well, if you would want her to. She sure would love living with you.”
I don’t remember specifics, but I do remember getting his offer clarified. “So, you’re saying I could have Lady?”
And, he said yes.
The conversation ended, I hung up the phone, turned to my dad and said,
“I want to move to North Dakota.”
Yes, this is true. Our family left California and a job my father loved to move to a farm in North Dakota because I wanted a dog.
And, so we moved and Lady stayed on the farm with us.
What my young brain didn’t understand at the time is that a dog’s lifespan is not “forever” and 12 is pretty old for a dog. Lady died not long after we arrived.
I think my dad was fine with moving, but he wanted me to have a stake in the decision. If I hated it, he could at least say, “It was your decision and now you have to live with it.”
He was brilliant that way.
I took this lesson to heart and, to my credit, I have never made a decision based on getting a dog ever since. I’ve also been a little better about checking the “fine print” in any deal.
My dad turned out to be a terrific farmer. He was smart, had good business sense, worked hard, and never skimped on perfection.
The next year, my dad got us a “replacement” Lady. She was a black lab, Chesapeake Bay mixed pup named Duchess. She was a good dog and stayed glued to my dad out there on the farm and loved him far more than she ever loved me.
My dad may not have taught me things. But, he taught me how to figure things out. We fought about stuff – a lot of stuff – along the way. He didn’t agree with every decision I made. But, he taught me to think for myself. And, he taught me to trust my ability to make a decision.
What a gift he gave me.