Lessons from My Father
In my parents’ house, my mother keeps a shelf of photos of her relatives. These formal portraits, each housing a stern-faced aunt or grandmother or the like stared down at me as a child. Even without having ever having met most of them, I have long felt as though they have a presence in my life. The strong influence of the women in my family, on both sides, has never left me, and into my work, it’s an influence that has carried on. I’ve been fortunate, particularly in my line of work, to be frequently managed by or working alongside a whole cohort of wonderful women.
From my working life to my home life, surrounded by aunts and sister-in-laws and, later, a niece, too, I have felt myself learn and grow from all of them and their vast array of experience and knowledge. It was something I would frequently acknowledge and be grateful for but with three older brothers besides, I certainly had some male influence, too. My relationship with each of my brothers is something I’ve long been confident in, in what role each of them plays in my life, in who is the best source of support in any particular situation.
But my relationship with my father is something that has only really solidified itself over the past couple of years. The block of conflict I have chunked out in my mind as being such a large part of my relationship with him during my teenage years often causes me to overlook all the many things I have learned from him throughout my life.
It was a realisation I came to perhaps most prominently this summer. It was a chilly evening in the Finnish countryside, the sun on the verge of setting as I steered the rowboat back towards the jetty. My father sat on the end of the jetty, awaiting my return.
“Your mother sent me,” he called out. I could have as well guessed.
I rolled my eyes. “I know how to row,” I protested, always a tad more petulant in the company of my parents than I am otherwise, as I suspect most of us are.
“I know you do.”
I hopped out and splashed barefoot into the cool lake water as he walked round to help me to pull the boat up onto shore.
Of course he knew I could row because he was the one who taught me. The one who quietly bore the weight when I would triumphantly declare I was rowing far before I had the strength to tug the whole weight of the wooden oars through the water.
Many of the lessons were ones learned in this same place, the yard of our cottage my training ground into the lay of the land. When faced with a wood-burning sauna last year, having ventured out to a different summer cottage with my brother and his family, I took charge of lighting the fires. A careful construction of logs and the secret ingredient, birch bark, quickly taking up a roaring heat, observed by my niece and nephew who crouched behind me with intent gazes.
“How do you know how to do that?” My niece asked, I think perhaps a little dumb-founded by the countryside version of her aunt who appeared to be a bit more handy than her city-living counterpart.
“From watching my dad – your grandpa.”
All other questions were halted at that point so that no small hands would get scorched by hot things.
There are, however, some things my father tried to teach me that he did not succeed at. There was the first and last time he took me out driving when I didn’t know the difference between the speed dials on his dashboard and nearly took out a cyclist going 50 miles an hour down the beach boulevard. His attempts at teaching me to swim were similarly disastrous to the point of his believed success having me emerging coughing up a lungful of water.
I suppose you could say my father taught me my hunter and gatherer skills which as an anthropologist, I’m sure he’ll get a chuckle out of even if no one else does. I can navigate a forest and row a boat because of my father. I can start a fire and toast sausages because of my father. I can shoot a bow and arrow and even make the bow myself because of my father.
But some of it is less grit and mortar as all that. I can pick myself up and dust myself off after a rough time and try again because of my father. I can hold my own in any argument, philosophical or otherwise, because of my father. I can quote scores of children’s books and have an extensive knowledge of Elvis Presley’s Greatest Hits because of my father.
I am a sum of my parts and one of those parts is the lessons I have learned from my father, even in my most stubborn moments. We are, in many ways, far more similar people than I often acknowledge. We both work too hard, and care too much, and have a synchronised response of “let me just finish this sentence!” when called to a mealtime. I’ll continue to learn from him in the years to come and I wonder, maybe, if he’ll learn a thing or two from me in return.