Three of the Greatest Lessons My Father Ever Taught Me


Today my dad turns 58. Here are 580 words on three of the most important lessons I have learned from him, and the memorable moments that proved them.

Don’t Wait for Memories; Make Them. A few years ago my family and I sat around a table as my parents told my incredulous wife that when I was a boy, if the snow was falling hard, my dad would come up to my and my older sister’s rooms after we were long asleep, wake us out of a stupor, and rush us downstairs. There we would find my mother waiting by our snow clothes that she had lain out on the floor. They kept the house dark to preserve the moment’s dreaminess, and soon we were plodding bleary-eyed through the snow to go sledding–on a school night. We were sure that every other kid in the hemisphere who was our age was asleep in bed, clueless as to what thrills they were missing and what winter constellations loomed over them. But we knew.

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained. On one such late-night excursion, my sisters stayed inside while my dad and I dragged a single sled to the hill separating two brick apartment buildings in Quantico, Virginia. The trick was to sled farther each time and then roll off to one side, grabbing the sled, lest gravity and ice send us careening over an 8-foot drop into brambles and thorns. On one run, our sled found a slick lane we had missed. We zipped downhill, across the cars’ alley, up the opposite curb, and almost immediately it was time to roll. But we leaned in opposite directions, so each of us was held prisoner to the sled by the other’s weight. (My seven-year-old frame kept my dad from leveraging his legs.) At the last moment, he flipped the sled with his pent-up strength. The sled disappeared. We hung there for a full minute gripping a system of exposed tree roots. Then I pulled myself onto terra firma while my dad disappeared into the brush to retrieve the sled. Then we climbed the hill to go again.

Work Is Honorable. I went through a lazy spell between ages 11 and 13, and it took another snowstorm to break it. My sisters and I missed four weeks of school due to blizzards during our family’s first year in the house my parents still live in. After two weeks of freezing ourselves for fun, we grew bored and lethargic. Not my father. It seemed to me that he and I were constantly shoveling, not just paths through sidewalks, but the entire width of the walks, on principle: “There is cement under there. Expose it.”

Of particular concern to my father was the inch of ice that had formed over our long driveway, thickened every time our vehicles labored back and forth to the cul-de-sac. He was determined that we should shovel the ever freshly falling snow to prevent the slab from growing thicker. I mutinied: “That’s a waste of time! It’s just going to keep snowing! Just let me wait until it stops.” My dad shelved a dozen things he might have said. Instead he leveled his gaze at me and punched each word: “Son. You have no concept of work.” Then he turned and began shoveling.

This may seem like the unkindest cut of all–but it remains one of the kindest of my life. I stood there in the open garage, watching the snow land on his coat and around his boots. In the following minute my boyhood laziness melted. I picked up a shovel; I have not yet put it down.

Image via Shutterstock