When my dad was 5 years old, his father died and his mom was forced to take a job that required her to travel. It was the middle of the Great Depression, and she was lucky to get work at all. As a newly single parent suddenly thrust into the working world, she had no choice but to send my father and his older brother away to boarding school.
When my parents had my brother and sister and me, you would have expected my dad to be clueless about how to raise us -- after all, how could a man who had few memories of his own father create an ideal childhood for his kids? But with my mom he created a home in which we all thrived. Now that I have three kids of my own, I realize that by being so involved in my life, my dad taught me some special things about being a mom:
Snuggle first, business later. Every morning well into our teen years, Dad woke us up in time for a few minutes of cuddling in the king-size bed he and Mom shared -- no matter how busy the day ahead promised to be.
In my own full-size bed, whole-family cuddles aren't as easy to arrange, but every night, my husband and I climb into bed with each child, round-robin style, before they go off to sleep. It takes a solid hour of snuggles -- first stories, then prayers, then singing in the dark -- to get our boys to sleep. But when I'm tempted to cut the ritual short (who wouldn't be at the end of a long day?), I remember how good it felt as a little girl to start the day in the arms of my family, and I nestle in again with my children.
Father doesn't always know best. A lot of my friends were raised on the principle that whatever Mom or Dad says goes -- so they weren't allowed to show their anger at parental decrees, say what they really thought about a house rule, or even cry when things didn't go their way. But my father welcomed the challenge of a good argument. Although my siblings and I rarely won a battle of wits or moved him to change his mind, we knew we always had a shot, which gave us confidence in our own good sense.
I admit that at times I've fallen back on the classic "Because I said so, that's why" retort when one of my boys questions me. But I try not to, and instead borrow a line from Dad: "Okay, let's hear your side of it." And then I listen -- really listen -- to the kid version of logic that follows. Mostly my edicts remain unchanged, but every now and then I get a glimpse at how much smarter my children are than I'd have known if I'd insisted on being an unchallenged voice of authority.
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.