My Dad was a hard-working guy. I’ve often joked (sadly) that the view I remember best is the back of his head, as he sat at his desk, working and studying. My father was not much involved in his children’s lives. That was my mother’s job. As immigrants, they worried about fitting in and both spent a lot of time learning how to fit into a new culture. But some traditional values of the mid-20th century governed their lives: Dad was the breadwinner, Mom stayed home with the kids. I’m not saying everyone loved the arrangement, but that’s what it was.
With my father out of the house from early in the morning till 5:00 p.m., when he arrived home promptly every night, it’s amazing he had such an influence on my life. Maybe it was genetics. Here, on Father’s Day, and in the week he has been dead 36 years, are things I learned from him:
1. Education is important. Learn everything you can. Book learning was valued in our house. So was curiosity about anything. We’d ask questions and then get to figure out the answer with some parental guidance. Nature had a lot of lessons for us, so we spent a lot of time roaming around outside. All this served me well in my adulthood.
2. It’s not all bad to be a workaholic. After being raised to expect that a man “would take care of me,” I experienced a life in which I was responsible for supporting the family. I learned how to plow through work, persistence, long-term goals, rewarding myself (when no one else would), and determination. Not bad.
3. Arts (of all kind) are part of life. My Dad had amazing drawing talent. I inherited a tiny bit of it and have used it in much of my work. My family sang a lot (OK, my father and I are tone-deaf, but someone needs to applaud). I took piano lessons, so I can read music. I took ballet lessons, so I learned to loved movement, and learned how to separate being smart from dance talent. I overheard my teacher once tell my mom, “She’ll never be a ballerina with those legs, but she sure is determined. (See #2, above.) My parents went to the symphony regularly. Art was never separate from “real” life.
4. Learn to talk to people who are not like you. My father was truly brilliant. I learned early that he wouldn’t really enjoy a conversation if you couldn’t keep up. I could tell when he was bored, but he was always gracious. I learned how to listen to people who didn’t agree with me (including bosses) and find a way to engage them. Important adult skill.
5. When people make fun of you, pretend you don’t understand. My father spoke with a heavy accent, and people often made fun of him. I would get enraged for him, and I knew it bothered him, but he would always fix his tormentor with a level gaze and say, “Explain why that is funny to me, please.” Later, I learned that this is a valuable comeback in a tight spot of almost any kind.
—Quinn McDonald has fond memories of the back of her father’s head.