My dad taught me a great deal about life and living, delivering most of his lessons by example rather than through a formal lecture session.
That might have been what Italian novelist Umberto Eco had in mind when he wrote: “I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.”
Little scraps of wisdom. I like that. During the week leading up to Father’s Day, I’ve thought several times, as I seem to do every year as the third Sunday in June nears, about how much my dad taught me without ever seeming to lecture me.
Don’t get me wrong. My dad did plenty of talking. We could get in the pickup to run to the Co-op in Reliance, and he’d talk the whole trip. At the store, wandering among hanging rows of fan belts and shelves of motor oil and huge pails of red barn paint, he could carry on a spirited conversation with any and all other customers who happened by. If no one happened by, why, my dad would go ahead and talk all by himself, like one of those soliloquies in a Shakespeare play. Back in the pickup, he’d talk the whole way home, sometimes picking up the thread of a conversation where we’d left off when we parked in town, other times embarking on a new subject as naturally as if we’d written out a script ahead of time.
I learned everything a farm kid needed to know about the weather during those trips, long before The Weather Channel came along. My dad got most of his weather information early in the morning from WNAX radio in Yankton, and he passed it along throughout the day. Sometimes he’d forget to mention WNAX, which might have left a listener with the impression that the weather report was something Dad had come up with by checking the sky, sniffing the breeze and flexing a knee that always acted up ahead of a storm.
I didn’t talk much on those trips. I listened and learned, whether it was about Eisenhower’s golf game (played too often), Roy Campanella’s mastery behind the plate (unmatched) or Elvis Presley’s talent (overrated). I learned a few untruths, too. My dad sometimes would tell me more than he knew — oh, not about important stuff, just about odds and ends. Like the place in Sylvan Lake where no bottom had ever been found. I believed that for years. He’d heard it somewhere, and, hey, who knew it wasn’t so?
I’ve come to understand that’s just something dads do. Kids expect fathers to know everything. That puts pressure on farmers to answer every single question, whether they know the answer or not. I’m a dad myself. I know that pressure. At time or two, it could be said. I’ve succumbed to the pressure and answered questions with information that maybe wasn’t quite accurate. Kids — young kids, especially — want their dads to have the answers.
I said my dad taught mostly by example, and it’s true. I learned a lot by watching — how to pick the right wrench for a stubborn cultivator bolt, how to scoop wheat so it didn’t spill over the ground, how to work all day and be ready to do it again tomorrow, how to treat family and friends, how important reading and schooling should be, and even how to see the beauty in a summer evening in spite or a twisted, hailed-out corn crop. I didn’t know if those are the bits of wisdom Eco meant, but they’re among my dad’s letters.
One of the characters in a Jodi Piccoult novel said that fathers “always wanted you to measure up to something,” I didn’t get the feeling from my dad that he wanted me to measure up. I suppose he did. And I’m sure I gave my kids the impression that I wanted them to measure up.
If I gave that impression, it was only to hide the fact that I was trying to measure up to them.