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My Dad's Gift


Keeping The Legacy Alive

Think big, but follow your heart.Perhaps because he survived the Depression, my father genuinely believed in the American Dream  -- the ability to start from nothing and, with hard work, end up with a lot. Even more important, though, he wanted us kids to be happy. Unlike other ambitious fathers, with their dreams of my-son-the-doctor or my-daughter-the-diplomat, he had no preconceived notions about what we should do with our lives. When I, the great debater of the family, told my dad I'd decided against going to law school and wanted to study creative writing instead, he immediately gave up on the idea that I was headed for the Supreme Court and became an avid reader of poetry, confident that one day he would proudly watch as I received the Pulitzer.

Which explains why I, the sports agnostic who managed to reach the age of 34 without once sitting through an athletic event of any kind, am now a passionate supporter of three baseball teams, a basketball team, and a soccer team. I'm also the pitcher in our neighborhood after-supper kickball games. My kids love sports, and now I do too, if only because they're the ones sliding into home or going in for a layup.

Children should be seen and heard  -- often. It may have been a social liability at times, but Dad didn't want to banish us to the children's quarters when company arrived. So for the dinner hour at least, we had the heady privilege of participating unself-consciously in adult talk  -- even when some of the grown-ups involved didn't seem particularly thrilled to have us there. At 12, I once informed the family priest that I did not believe in hell. He looked a bit taken aback, and I think my mother might have winced, but my father simply asked, "Oh, and why not?" leaning forward to hear me out.

Up until now, my husband and I have flat-out failed to do this. When we have friends over, we assign the kids to the far corners of the house, eager for some grown-ups-only conversation. But we do make a point of eating as a family every night, lingering together over the dinner table and listening to what our boys have to say about the world. It might be a lament by 5-year-old Joe that the "kissy girls" at preschool managed to trap him under the slide, or a demonstration by Henry, 7, of how to produce armpit farts. Unremarkable stuff, really, except that it gives us great insight into our kids' lives  -- insight we wouldn't get if we used the dinner hour to watch television or divvy up the evening's chores.

Weekends are for each other. I don't know if my father would have given up golf, an obsession of his young adulthood, if he hadn't injured his back. All I know is that while other dads spent most of their weekends on the golf course or parked in front of the TV, ours played with us. He took us camping and on picnics, challenged us at board games at the dining room table, and helped us make papier-mâché rockets and build tepees. We piled all the neighborhood kids into the old station wagon and headed to the drive-in. For Dad, a holiday was any day he spent with his family. He made us believe that simply being together was the best fun there was.

Of all the things my father taught me about being a mom, this is the most important: Listening to each other, snuggling together, and playing with one another are all about taking pleasure in being a family. It's a remarkable legacy, coming from a man who spent his childhood in a school dormitory, and I hope with all my heart that I'm passing it on to my own kids  -- and that one day they'll do the same with theirs.


Contributing editor Margaret Renkl's dad passed away last year.