My sister and I were blessed with a great dad.
He didn’t teach us to hunt and fish — those are our husbands now.
He couldn’t strip an engine or build a boat — that was my son’s father.
But he always had an awesome vegetable garden and sang tenor in the church choir, and he taught us the values we needed in life, along with the great qualities that set a dad apart from simple fatherhood.
I can remember his disapproving look, but it was never a look that meant you were no longer part of the family. Nor was it a look that indicated you couldn’t change things. He and my mom let us know from the very beginning, that as long as they were alive, they would take care of us any way they could. It didn’t matter what we ever did, they would forgive us and love us.
They met at Bible camp, they went to church and they knew their obligation as parents. But they didn’t see it as an just an obligation, either. They really loved us unconditionally.
My dad showed me that you could be a bit of a dandy, (to use an old-fashioned word), you could love flowers and animals and take care of the elderly — and still be a man who was respected by all, including other men. My dad liked to dress in the latest style, and remembered his great aunt’s birthdays; for years he arranged all the altar flowers, and flowers for friends’ weddings. But the men at our church looked up to him. They might kid him about the flowers, but they knew he had other strengths. He led through the example of his life and his faith. (Like C.S. Lewis, my dad had to find his real faith as an adult, but once he got salvation, he was an inspiration to us all.)
When I was little we didn’t have much money. My dad worked two jobs, and maybe even three for awhile. One was a full-time job in a bank, and the other was a few nights a week and Saturdays in a men’s clothing store. But it made him more of a man to do that. Even as a little girl, when we drove in to Portland to pick him up, and drive him to Westbrook to work in Benoit’s — watching him eat the sandwich my mom brought, while she drove our one car to take him to his second job — the impression I had was of a man who took care of us. He never complained.
And it never occurred to any of us that that was anything but what a father would do.
He taught me that we were equal to anyone, and that we could likely do whatever we set our minds and energy towards. He was fascinated with successful people, important people, and celebrities. But he knew the difference. And they weren’t any greater than we were, just different. You treated everyone with respect, but you didn’t bow to anyone except God.
My dad had an easygoing manner that allowed him to talk with anyone, starting conversations with someone next to us at the Navy Pier while we all looked at a submarine we were in line to tour. Or finding out the man getting a sandwich at Amato’s knew his brother. He was genuinely interested and seemed to have a sense of who had the stories. He loved to read and he knew everyone had stories to tell.
It didn’t matter if you were a Stephen King with a first book and a shakey autograph, or the old woman who ran the library at his club. He instinctively knew which people to talk with, and then, really listened. I have the feeling that if he’d ever met the queen, they would have been scooching down petting corgis, and talking about rose varietals.
Everyone felt he was their friend. My dad was an office manager for an insurance company. He never ran for public office or saved anyone from a runaway train, but he worked in downtown Portland his whole life, and when he died, 400+ people came to his funeral. We were stunned. Total strangers told my mother what he meant to them.
He taught us to respect ourselves and others, the same. So, it never made a difference to me throughout my life if I was poor or had everything — I was still the same, no better or worse than anyone else. And life was the same, with money or without. We still had stories to share and love to give. It didn’t mean we didn’t always aspire to succeed, just not at the expense of values.
The summer my sister was born was particularly challenging. My parents were trying to get together a downpayment on their first house. Up to that point, we lived on the big sprawling second floor of my great Aunt Jenny’s house, next door to my grandparents, and just a few blocks from my two cousins. For a six year old, it had always been heaven. But, we needed more room. So we didn’t do anything “extra” that year. Which meant no circus.
Clyde Beatty/Cole Brothers circus came to Portland every summer, and in those days they traveled in a big caravan of trucks they offloaded from trains. So one evening after work, my dad suggested that he and I go in and watch them unload. He thought we might get a glimpse of some animals.
We weren’t alone. 65 years ago a lot of people still loved the circus, so a number of people came out to watch them set up the tents in the big field. As dusk settled in, we thought we could hear the lions, so we strolled around the outside of the fence until we found them — each in his or her own cage, all of the cages inside the big painted trucks.
The first truck we came to, the lions were just lying at opposite ends, looking over at each other, and sometimes out at us. It was magic. We weren’t more than ten feet away. It was a different time, obviously, and there was no expectation that anything would happen to the lions or the people looking at them, so their canvas sides were open to the end of day breezes.
As we stood there, hand in hand, and quietly watched those big, majestic cats, comparing them to our cats at home, we noticed a man walking towards us, between the fence and the trailer trucks. He didn’t pay any attention to us, but stopped at each truck and spoke to the lions. We couldn’t hear what he was saying, but it was clear they were good friends. We could hear the lions making easygoing lion sounds in response. At each truck, before he moved to the next, he lowered and fastened the canvas sides, and gave the corner of the truck a pat.
By the time he got to the last one, where we stood, we had recognized his trademark jodhpurs, and knew it was Clyde Beatty himself.
I don’t remember any of the conversation, but he and my dad talked about what a nice evening it was, and at some point he told us that, yes, he said goodnight to each of his lions, each night. It was important to him that they were safe and comfortable. (And probably that they liked him enough not to want to eat him the next day.)
Just a pleasant conversation about lions, with one of the world’s most famous trainers. We all said good night.
But my dad and I were both six-year-olds when we turned and walked away.
We always loved the circus. We didn’t see Clyde put his cats through their paces that year, but we did other years, and later my son’s uncle started one of the world’s best one-ring circuses, so we spent a lot of time in the sawdust, and in the backyard with the elephants and acrobats. My Dad was in heaven.
But that night at dusk, watching a man say goodnight to his lions, holding my dad’s hand, remains one of my most precious memories. The sense of wonder we shared. The sense of concern and love Clyde Beatty showed his lions, like a father, and the respect he showed both of us, just two strangers outside the fence — a lot of good life lessons there.
So, don’t think that because you can’t give your daughter a new car for her birthday, that you are not giving her gifts. She probably remembers when you scooped her out of the Christmas party before she got sick, and helped her clean her face and her dress when she did. Don’t worry that you couldn’t take your son on that hiking trip to Yosemite. He remembers when you stayed up all night, helping him build the project that came in just under the wire in science class. And how much better he felt when you put your arm around him after the bad time he had with his buddies.
As parents we worry that we haven’t given our children enough, or exactly the right stuff. But as children, we remember our parents for the feelings more than anything else. The sense of safety and love. The feeling it gave us to make our parents laugh, or make them proud.
If you have integrity and show your children unconditional love (not a lack of discipline, but the knowledge that even if they screw up, you love them still) — that’s what children need from you. They won’t remember all the nights they had ramen noodles for dinner, or the road trips you took because it was all you could afford.
They will remember what it felt like to curl up in your arms and feel better for it.
They will remember it even when they are 71 years old….trust me.
If you’ve never heard of Clyde Beatty you might enjoy this link