My father’s best advice wasn’t anything he ever put into words. It was something he taught us by example, through the way he lived.
That’s not to say he wasn’t fond of dishing out advice. He was full of helpful hints and suggestions, most of which were somehow related to trusting our instincts and paying attention to the “vibes” of any situation. He had many fantastic stories about times he had narrowly missed death or some other catastrophic event because he listened to his gut and walked away from situations.
No father would ever want his children to live the way my father lived. To say he had a rough life would be an insult, because his life was so much worse than just rough. He grew up in abject poverty, lost his father at the age of twelve, lost his brothers in a freak boating accident when he was twenty-one. After that, he basically lost the rest of his family as well because his mother and four sisters never fully recovered from that tragedy.
He was married three times and divorced twice. He moved to California when my sisters and I were very young, so he lost his children as well; even after he came back, we all three nursed a grudge toward him that even the strongest man would be hard-pressed to overcome.
He drank. He drank a lot. He narrowly avoided arrests for DUI on several occasions, but only because he was a silver-tongued devil who could talk his way out of almost any situation.
Through it all, he never stopped trying to form a relationship with his daughters. He never stopped reaching out to his grandchildren. He never stopped working; even on his worst drinking days, he was an exemplary employee who showed up at work to offer help on the days he wasn’t scheduled. He was a meat cutter, a manager who managed his department even on his days off.
I guess you could say that life really kicked my Dad’s ass.
Through it all, he never stopped finding a reason to laugh. He had a quick comeback for everything. He told the raunchiest of raunchy jokes, the kind of jokes that take your breath away and make your toes curl up in your shoes. The kind that make you gasp and go Oh, my God, did he really just say that?
He had the kind of self-deprecating sense of humor that showed the world he didn’t take himself too seriously, but he didn’t sink into self-mocking humor that was painful for the rest of us. No, his goal was to make the people around him comfortable, even at his own expense.
I got to know him, adult to adult, in my late twenties. He really liked my ex-husband, although Dad insisted on calling him “Ted.”
For the record, my ex-husband’s name is not Ted.
During one particularly rough patch in our adult relationship with our father, one of my sisters blasted into Dad about all of her feelings. She talked about having “baggage” from all those years of growing up without a father, about the anger we all held toward him for his years of drinking and hard-living.
He listened to her. He didn’t apologize because an apology at that point wouldn’t have changed anything. He just took it. He sat there and took it because he loved her and he knew that she needed to tell him those things.
He always tried to organize “family camp-outs” with all of his daughters and our families at a dreary little campground in Allegan, and that year’s attempt came shortly after her outburst. It was a tense, uncomfortable affair. I stayed away that year, but what happened next has gone on to become legend in my family.
Everyone was short-tempered and angry and really, really wishing for an excuse to leave early, or at the very least a chance to use indoor plumbing. As the group cleaned up after dinner, Dad turned to my other sister rather unexpectedly and asked her, “So, do you have any baggage?”
That was unfortunate, because apparently, she did. She let him have it with both barrels. She chewed him up one side and down the other and let him know, in no uncertain terms, that she had baggage. In fact, as the story has been relayed to me over the years, her exact words at the conclusion of her tirade were “So if you want to call that baggage, then YES, I have baggage!”
An uncomfortable silence fell across the group. Finally, after a moment, my stepmother leaned over to pat my sister’s hand. “Honey,” she said softly, “your father asked if you had any baggies. You know, to put the leftovers away.”
“Oh. In that case, no. I don’t.”
Life went on. Dad never responded or defended himself. He forgave, although he never asked for forgiveness. When he died a few short years later, our family gathered at the church to talk to his pastor about what we wanted for his funeral. We discussed his favorite hymn and decided who would sing it, and then the pastor asked us, “Is there anything you want the world to know about your dad?”
The three of us looked at each other and smiled, and we all three spoke at the same time: “He didn’t have any baggage.”
My father’s best advice was to let go. Let go of anger, of grudges, of regrets. Let go and move on. Life, he seemed to say, is too short to dwell on pain. I often tell people how grateful I am to have inherited his sense of humor, but I hope I also got even a small bit of his resilience, his strength. His ability to let the bad things go, to bounce back and get on with his life.
Dad’s greatest accomplishment in life? He died without baggage.
This post is part of Finish the Sentence Friday, in which writers and bloggers finish a sentence and “link up” their posts. This week’s sentence was “My father’s best advice was …”
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