Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Father's Day Gift to My Dad (June 16, 2013)

The submitted photograph of my father taken at the wedding of his granddaughter Molly (July 2009)

On June 13th I received an email from The Washington Post inviting me to submit for consideration a personal story about my father to run (if selected) on  as part of a Father's Day feature.  The theme or prompt for submissions was “What’s a story that makes you proud of your Dad?”  The submission format included some basic information about authors, a request for a description of the father being written about, a space to provide the story itself, a place to submit a photograph of the subject, and a concluding inquiry, “How has this story shaped your opinion of your Dad?  How has it shaped you?”  There was no stated limit on length for submissions and in fact the format stated at one point, “Don’t worry about rambling; the more detailed the better.”

I knew immediately and exactly the story I wanted to finally commit to writing.  AND, I thought if by some wild chance the story were selected for use, it would make a nice Father’s Day gift to my 90-year-old father.

I submitted my story on June 13th and received a thank you for the submission.  My story was not selected for use today, but you can see and read those that were selected here.  Since my story was not selected for publication, that now leaves me free to share the story here and offer it as a Father’s Day gift to my father! 


What’s a story that makes you proud of your Dad?

When I was about 10 years old, we were living in what was then called Salem Depot, NH. It was on the border with Lawrence, Massachusetts. My father was the Operating Superintendent/Assistant Manager of the Sears store in Lawrence and he worked long hours and often on weekends and evenings. We lived in a fairly new development in Salem in the second house my parents had ever owned -- a four-bedroom Cape Cod with four children between ages 1 and 10 and a dog.

My mother was a Registered Nurse who still worked part-time to supplement the family income and because she loved the work (and probably the break from four kids and a dog). My father had his hands full pursuing his career, being the principal support for a young family, and trying to assist around the home so my mother could also keep her hand in her nursing career. The last thing my father needed was an irritating incident that made no sense; but kids being kids, we supplied them on a regular basis -- and I provided my share.

One day (and this was in the days of party-line telephones), I answered our phone when the woman next door was calling for my mother -- who I am sure must have been working at the hospital in Lawrence. I explained the situation politely, but somewhat shyly in the way a 10-year-old boy would do.  She asked me to give my mother the message that she had called. I agreed. She said thank you. And then, just before I hung up (not knowing of course who might be listening on the party line), the rascal in me took hold for no reason other than an innocent desire to flip the usual response. There was absolutely no malice or hurt intended because I knew and liked this lady who lived across the street and who had young children also. Without thinking -- or actually thinking I was probably making a joke of some kind -- I closed the brief conversation and her polite ending with an easy, lighthearted, "You're not welcome." And then I quickly went back to whatever I had been doing without a second thought or a care.

A day or so later, my mother and the lady next door must have connected to chat and of course my flippant response to her was revealed. My mother was an equal opportunity disciplinarian in the household and things of that nature were not simply left to my father; but as I recall it, the incident was not discussed until my father got home from work, we had supper and my siblings went on to watch a little television.

I was called into conference with both parents and the phone call content was accurately revealed as though there had been a transcript made of it.  BUT, since I had intended no harm and actually thought I was being somewhat humorous in setting the usual polite phone ending on its head, I did not realize the misdemeanor I had committed. And I think my parents quickly understood that I was simply young and impish and had intended no harm by my words.

Spanking was so rare in our household that I am hard pressed to even recall more than a handful of such incidents -- and these days they are actually the subject of much fun and laughter when they are recalled at family gatherings. The telephone incident, I am proud to say, never became one of those rare spankings. It became something much more. Something that I have often thought back on and have related to my own sons and others.

My father said softly, "Come with me. We're going for a little walk." We went outside and eased down the driveway as my father very slowly and gently explained that what I had said to our neighbor was wrong. It was not funny. She was a nice lady and a friend to my mother and she especially deserved polite responses from my siblings and me. We talked it over for a minute or two until I think my father thought I understood and would not do such a thing again. I thought that was the end of it and that I was on my way back into the house to watch TV with my siblings.  But then my father said that there was only one thing left to do and then we could forget it ever happened. I thought it might be one of those very rare spankings, but he said, "YOU need to go next door and apologize to her. I'll walk to the yard with you, but you have to go up, knock on the door and apologize to her. Tell her you are sorry, you did not intend to hurt her feelings or to be mean to her . . . and tell her it will never happen again." I froze because I was a ten-year-old boy and did not speak to many adults outside of my parents and teachers at school.  I actually wished he had decided to spank me instead.

It was an agonizingly long walk across the narrow residential street and a very lonely walk up to the front door as my father stood back at the border of the yard with the street. I was petrified and looked back at him several times in the short walk hoping he would give me a reprieve or at least accompany me at the last minute, but he stood there slowly waving me on. It seemed to take an eternity before the door was answered by our neighbor despite my almost audible prayer that there please be no one home. I rushed through my eyes-averting apology as our neighbor listened. I think she even tried to suppress a small smile as I glanced up once or twice (just to see if she was listening and what her reaction was) and saw her looking past me to my father out at the yard's edge.

When the deed was finally over and I walked back toward my father, I saw him smiling slightly past me toward the front door and then I heard it close slowly behind me. My father put his arm around my shoulder and we walked back home. Not another word was said about the incident or the apology that I recall -- and my father has never been a man at a loss for words or one who was incapable of making the same point in several different ways!

How has this story shaped your opinion of your Dad?  How has it shaped you?

I think at ten years old I was just beginning to understand that my father had a lot of responsibility both at work and in the family and that my foolish incident with the adult neighbor next door was an unnecessary intrusion on the little time he had to relax at home. But he did not treat it as a crime needing swift and simple punishment. He recognized it for what he made it into -- and that surely took him more time than some quick punishment. He saw an opportunity to teach, not punish, and he made it into a lesson -- one I have recalled for the last 51 years. It made me realize that my father could be patient and be a teacher -- and that being a father was no easy thing!

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Copyright 2013, John D. Tew
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