Jancee Dunn’s dad could never resist a teachable moment. He assumed his fidgety daughter was only half-listening to his earnest, fatherly lectures. It was one of the few times he was wrong.
My father, a cheerful, wholesome Midwesterner, spent his youth as a choirboy, a crossing guard, a Boy Scout, and the designated driver for his friends. In the meantime, I squandered my youth cutting gym class and hanging out at the mall. My teen years were trying for the both of us as I grudgingly endured my father’s Mike Brady-style lectures. As he launched into greatest hits like The Importance of Being Honest, I’d stare humbly at the floor, all the while thinking, Tomorrow I’ll wear the jeans with that cute white sweater. No, the black one – it has a better neckline. When his expectant silence indicated that the speech was over, I’d zone back in and chirp, ‘I’ll keep it in mind, Dad!’
He’d nod soberly. “I’m glad you feel that way, honey.”
I always breezily dismissed his advice as corny, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been startled to find that time and time again, his counsel has not only stuck with me, but has shaped my life in endless ways. At least once a day, I find myself automatically doing something he has earnestly recommended. Here are his ten most influential nuggets of fatherly wisdom.
If I found myself in a group and a conversation strayed to an unfamiliar topic, I used to keep an embarrassed silence. My father noticed this, and urged me to say, ‘I don’t understand – can you explain it to me?” He said that asking questions actually makes you sound smarter and more confident — not less intelligent.
He was right. Now I ask questions all the time, and it results in a much livelier conversation. I thought of my father at a recent gathering when somebody mentioned the Mauritius shelf. After the person had finished speaking, I piped up and said ‘What’s the Mauritius shelf?’ All the Ivy Leaguers around me exhaled and admitted that they didn’t know what the hell it was, either.
Shadow The Repairman
My father is practical, thrifty (or, more accurately, ‘cheap’) and handy around the house. He only calls a repairman as a last result— and when he does, he hovers around the guy, chats him up, asks questions, and closely watches what he does. “Pay attention to anyone with a skill that you don’t have,” my father would often say after the repairman left, “and the next time you can fix it yourself.” My two sisters and I have used this advice and are now adept at home projects. I just fixed my own dishwasher, to the amazement of friends who call their super to change a light bulb.
…And Thank The People Who Do Your Dirty Work
Dad is a big proponent of honest work, and drilled it into my head that I acknowledge —and reward— the people who do the most challenging jobs. It always annoyed him that a waiter gets twenty percent for bringing you a ginger crème brulee, but everyone ‘forgets’ to tip the hotel maid who changes your sheets and disposes of your used dental floss. My father learned the names of our sanitation men, and the people who cleaned his office, compensated them at holidays, and regularly told them they did a good job.
I used to writhe in teenage embarrassment when he did this. Now I do the same for the sanitation men in my Brooklyn neighborhood. People give holiday tips to the paper carrier, but leave nothing for the guy who braves rats to haul away a bag of your baby’s used diapers? I stop them in the street to praise their good work. A garbage man once told me with a hitch in his voice that in ten years, it was the first time he’d ever been thanked.
My folks have been married for 47 years. One of my father’s rules for a happy marriage is that if a nasty argument threatens to erupt, hold hands while you hash it out. You’ll feel incredibly goofy doing this (and your hand may sweat a little if you’re feeling especially hostile) but here’s the thing: it works. Recently my messy husband Tom forgot to pay a stash of bills that was buried under a pile of clutter. I was incandescent with rage. But when I held his hand as we worked it out, my blood pressure immediately dropped. My endorphins started flowing almost against my will. It’s impossible to scream at someone who is sitting right next to you, meeting your gaze and holding your hand. It just is.
I was always a world-class ditherer. It used to pain my father to watch me agonize over every dilemma, endlessly weighing my options as entire seasons passed. “Make a decision, and stick with it,” he told me many times. “When you kids get stressed out, it’s from your indecision, not the problem itself. Go with your gut, and follow through. Period.” He is so right. Dad, like many guys of his generation, is a doer, not a talker. My dad never wrings his hands. His mantra is Fix It. Got a problem? Find the solution. Then: fix it. His swift decisions and immediate action always struck me as alarmingly off-the-cuff, but now I know that your gut feeling is really your moral compass, that little voice inside that’s telling you what the right decision is —if you choose to listen. Now I say this wonderfully simple phrase under my breath all the time when I’m faced with a problem.
Stick It In A Bag
According to my father, there are few things that cannot be stored in a bag. He’ll put the obvious items in a baggie —paper clips, socks, batteries, but he also puts every kind of meat imaginable into his beloved oven cooking bags (growing up, I never knew what was for dinner because the cooking aromas were trapped inside the bag.). Recently Dad found a dead bat in his yard, and wanted to “bring it in to the authorities” to have it examined for disease. Into a baggie it went. He even has a special drawer which houses an array of baggies in every size. I used to mock my dad’s bag habit as eccentric, but now I, too, have a special drawer for baggies, which range from giant two-foot-by-three-footers (for sweaters) to quart size (for bars of soap) to tiny snack size (to stash nuts in my purse.) When I’m missing a size in my lineup, I get tense.
You Can’t Go Wrong With Clint
Dad says if you’re at the movie rental place and are unable to decide, get a Clint Eastwood movie. Even the bad ones, he contends, are superior to most other films. Even Every Which Way But Loose. Even Pink Cadillac. Now when I’m overwhelmed with an avalanche of DVD cases, I simply look for Clint’s scowling face. Dad is correct: every Eastwood picture is moderately to incredibly satisfying. Which is more than I can say about Jennifer Aniston movies.
When we girls hit adolescence, my father doggedly upheld our many family traditions despite a tsunami of teenage scorn. I blush to think of our sniggering whenever he made an emotional Thanksgiving toast, or brought out the silly hat that must be worn by anyone with a birthday. He pretended not to notice our taunts. “Traditions don’t mean anything to kids until they get older,” he’d tell us calmly. “Just you wait. I guarantee you’ll invest in them yourselves.”
Have we ever. The urge kicked in when I turned 30, at the end of a footloose decade in which I’d lived in nine apartments, held countless jobs, and cycled through a few boyfriends. It hit me that those rituals—the flag cake and sparklers on the Fourth of July, the family Easter egg decorating contest—may be corny, but they tethered me to the earth. Now I probably maintain more of them than Dad does. I just introduced a new tradition last Christmas when, after dinner, I solemnly passed out ten scratch-off lottery tickets and a coin for each adult in my family. After a brief period of rejoicing, the whole crew went completely silent, aside from the industrious scritch scritch of coins.
Carry A Hanky
Years ago, my parents and I were visiting a museum and I was fighting off a cold. My father, who is never without a handkerchief, handed me a fresh one and told me to keep it in my handbag, because “you never know when you’ll need it.” I’ve always been a Kleenex kind of gal, but I’ve used that hanky a hundred times since. Tissues disintegrate, but not a nice, sturdy hanky. The dryer in the public restroom is on the fritz? Handkerchief! Need to wrap up the remainder of a cookie plate at a fancy restaurant, and you don’t want Kleenex fluff on the chocolate chips? Handkerchief!
Father Knows (You) Best
I was always conflicted about having a baby. I felt that life was pretty great as it was, but for years, my father encouraged me to try. Every time he brought it up, I’d tell him with testy patience that having a child was not necessarily the key to happiness. “I know, honey,” he’d say. “I certainly don’t think it’s for everyone. But I know you, and I know that you would love it.” Oh, please, I’d think. You’re just greedy for more grandchildren.
Well. Last year my husband and I finally became parents, and, as Dad predicted, that baby is the joy of my life. And now that I have her, I realize that the closeness I have with my child goes beyond the physical sensation of being joined at the hip, literally, as I haul her around. It’s more that I’m intimately familiar, already, with a hundred different quirks of her personality, before she’s even started to talk (beyond something that may or may not be the word ‘papaya.’) I know her —as my father, who has observed me from my very first day, knows me.