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.
Good, good stuff.
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Made me remember things about my dad that I haven’t thought about in while. Thanks.
My dad let me make big decisions at a similar age. Not quite on that scale though. I was allowed to choose between the school he taught in, the normally allocated one according to where we lived, and the one most of my friends went to. I chose to stay with my friends only to get put in a separate class from anyone I knew. That decision has affected my entire life. If I’d gone to my dad’s school I’d likely have ended up with a Cambridge degree in English (generally useless) rather than a degree and PhD in chemistry. Not that my school was strong on the sciences, more that his would have pulled me to follow in his footsteps. I would never have met my husband during our PhDs or become the analytical person I am if I’d made a different choice. But for a father to have the confidence that their 11yr old can make such a big decision shows a lot of trust and respect. Thanks for making me think about that – especially today on father’s day.
I love stories of how our dads helped guide us … by letting us guide ourselves! Thanks for sharing the story of you and your father!
Thank you, Gloria!
Very nice remembrance.
Very cool Dad.
Yup, he was a good dad. He inspired me to love sports … although he wasn’t a big baseball fan. Basketball was his passion — and he was crazy about this teams. He was fine with baseball (he was a Dodgers fan) but it wasn’t his passion. As for me and baseball … he would often say, “I don’t know where you got that, but you didn’t get it from me.” :)
I loved this. So very true as I looked back and frankly I do remember the bike without training wheels lesson. He just stopped running with me and I turned to look and crash! But I had traveled solo! you gotta look forward, not behind you.
I missed out on training wheels and lessons. My dad didn’t give me lessons, he just told me to go figure it out … so I had to barter with the neighbor kids so I could borrow their bikes so I could learn. (I believe I traded a lot of silly putty in those little eggs … 1 thing of silly putty and they’d let me borrow their bike for 10 minutes or something like that.)
It sounds like your dad gave you a lovely memory of learning to ride your bike!
Jackie, that sure isn’t the typical father daughter story. It doesn’t sound like he pampered you at all. In a lot of ways, I’m jealous of you because your dad taught you how to, as you say, trust your ability to make a decision. I often times struggle with that when it comes to switching jobs or finding a new apartment or even simper things like should I wear a spring jacket to work or is it too warm?
In any case, I really enjoyed this tribute to your dad and your two dogs and wow, to be 11 years old and have to make such a big decision…..amazing, the way it should be, to make a girl become a women, a real initiation.
My dad took me to baseball games at County Stadium Milwaukee. At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate what he was inviting me into, but now I realize, we baseball fans are part of a huge family and that is comforting and kind of solution to what’s the meaning of life? It’s to love baseball of course.
Thank you, Steve! Well, I still dither over decisions … so, maybe my dad helped me recognize the importance of doing my homework — thinking things through — before deciding anything.
“I realize, we baseball fans are part of a huge family.” I love that … I absolutely love that line. And, what a beautiful connection to be handed down from your father to you.
Such a wonderful story. We all seem to learn something from our parents, even though we do not realize it at the time. Thanks so much for sharing a part of your life with us.