Things My Father Taught Me

I love my father dearly. He's one of the world's kindest men. As a traditional father figure, though, he's not, well, very traditional. Other than the Superbowl, he has absolutely no interest in sports. He neither taught me to throw a football nor to bat a baseball, and I've been the laughing stock of pickup games from sea to shining sea. He's completely useless around the house: I have never seen the man so much as pick up a hammer to put a nail in the wall. He can't mix a drink or deal a hand of cards, and he never tried to drive my boyfriends away - in fact, he usually liked them better than I did.

Nevertheless, he's been, in his own way, a role model. Lately, I've been thinking about things he's taught me. Let me share a few.


My father has worked in financial services his entire life, so I've learned a lot from him here, but as you'll see, it's not how to pick stocks or arbitrage bonds. His teachings are more basic, as follows.

1. Waste not, want not. This is a foundational wisdom handed down from my grandmother, who, of course, lived through the Great Depression. My father is also a Yankee to the bone. In my family, if you're buying something for yourself, you squeeze a nickel until the buffalo roams off the coin's face. (With gifts, you're allowed, even encouraged, to be generous; see #2)

2. Following from #1, take good care of your clothes and watch your weight. Then, if your style is generic, you can wear the J.Press suit you bought in 1952 to your 50th college reunion in 2004. (From time to time, you do need to invest in a new tie, but if you're lucky, you'll get a really nice one from your daughter on your birthday or for Christmas, or maybe both - remember #1.)

3. Following #1 and #2, if you don't buy anything, you never have to worry about clutter. Most of the furniture in my parents' small house came from my maternal grandmother's apartment in New York - which she moved out of in 1959. All my father's possessions, except for his snowshoes and cross-country skis, fit into his 8x10 home office - including his clothes, which are in a 3-foot wide closet. My own clothes also fit in a tiny closet, but I've actually given away a few things since college, which is a shame, since I see the peasant blouse is staging a comeback.

4. If you must buy something, travel out of state if it saves you sales tax. I buy everything from toothpaste to tomato sauce from - no sales tax and free delivery!

5. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. This has two corollaries: buy low, sell high; and what goes up, must come down. I've learned that contrarians may miss the peak, but often, they avoid the crash.

Family Life

My parents have been married since 1958. Like any couple, sometimes it's worse than others, but I believe they've stayed together for two main reasons: my father loves my mother to death, and my parents always stand together in conflicts with my brothers and I. I don't have kids or a traditional nuclear family of my own, but if I ever do, here are a few things I know.

6. If you don't want to do something, don't learn how. Recently, I lived with my parents for a while between life phases. My shock and awe at seeing him unload the dishwasher is now legend. My father pulls his weight in many ways, but he is neither domestic nor is he handy. Every time he sees me do some basic, simple home repair, like fixing a running toilet, he acts as if I'd split the atom. But just don't try to teach him how you did it.

7. Always, always complement the chef. When my mother and father were courting, my mother told my father she'd attended the Cordon Bleu cooking school. In truth, she could barely boil an egg. She learned fast, though, and she became an amazing self-taught chef. After practically every meal, my father tells, her, "Huns, that was the best thing I've ever put in my mouth." Fifty-one years later, he gets a gourmet meal almost every night.

8. Be loyal and keep in touch with your high school friends. Someday, one of them might give your teenage daughter an underpaid job as an au pair for his five kids from three different marriages, thus relieving you and your adored spouse of the burden of her sullen presence around the house all summer.


For years when I was growing up, my father's job involved a huge amount of travel, and sometimes we traveled with him. Now, he won't fly except for emergencies, and he's pretty happy blowing the snow in the winter and mowing the lawn in the summer, but I did pick up a few things in my youth.

9. Stretch your trip. Always get to the airport three hours before anyone else so you can get an exit row or bulkhead seat, even if the flight is only half an hour long.

10. Learn the language only enough to be amusing. Famously, my father once told a French cop that he didn't want the red light ("je ne veux pas le feu rouge"), instead of saying that he didn't see the red light (he would have been trying to say, "je ne vois pas le feu rouge.") Laughter ensued; a ticket did not.

I don't mean to make fun of my father. He's a great guy, and, let's face it, these days, what are fathers "supposed" to teach us, anyway? I feel lucky I learned this much.


Trish said...

I liked your honesty. I enjoy reading this kind of thing way more than the gushy "cliche, but it's true" posts.

Amy said...

Thanks, Trish. Sometimes I wish there were a few cliche things about my father, but hey - you can pick up conventional wisdom anywhere, right?

Post a Comment