I suppose they were reasonable things to come from a father’s mouth. Still, they took me by surprise. “Only move one body part at a time,” I overheard my husband saying as he helped our young son up a ladder. “Grab it around the stripe; fingers across the laces,” he explained a few days later on the subject of throwing a spiral. That night, he gave an impromptu lesson in scooping unyielding ice cream from a carton: “Use the fancy spoons,” he said. “They don’t bend.”
The information floored me. I didn’t know these things. How did I not know these things? Was I supposed to have learned them from my dad?
I asked friends what their dads had taught them and was aghast to find that their pops had instructed them in physical feats like surfing and fishing, and practical tasks like changing tires and hammering nails. They’d insisted their kids give firm handshakes and pack only what they could carry. They spouted sensible maxims like “Finish what you start” and “There’s no excuse for being late. Ever.”
All of which is fantastic damned advice. How had I missed out on this sageness?
I was sure my dad knew this stuff, as his own father had been a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps guy with a well-stocked tool bench and uncompromising character. But my dad had arrived at dadhood when he’d still had some growing up to do. A significant amount, really. And I don’t think it ever occurred to him to give lessons on adulthood. So the things I wound up learning from him were … well, let’s call them “nonessential.”
My dad taught me to sing backup on the swamp funk ditty “Iko Iko.” We’d make up new verses about grandmas drinking gasoline, then switch to the blues: “Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker/You can drink all the liquor down in Costa Rica/Ain’t nobody’s business but my own … ”
He showed me how to toss cooked spaghetti at the ceiling to see if it’s done (but not how to retrieve it from said ceiling) and how to freak people out by pinching a quarter between my browline and cheek like a creepy monocle. He taught me how to lean into turns on the back of a motorcycle and how to distinguish a Harley-Davidson panhead from a knucklehead — a skill, admittedly, that I’ve yet to use.
Dad demonstrated how to quickly escalate a benign squirt-gun fight into a Holy Water War by turning the garden hose on me full blast — through an open window into his own bedroom. Hey, war is hell.
He nurtured my love of wordplay. We cherished a recording of Shel Silverstein reading his epic poem “The Great Smoke Off,” about a stoner chick who “could smoke them faster than anyone could roll.” A poet in his own right, Dad once rhymed “flammable” with “cannibal” in a song he wrote about setting his flatus afire.
But some of the best things we learn from our parents are the things they don’t realize they’re teaching us. And while I don’t believe it was his intention, Dad did accidentally impart some useful lifelong lessons:
• A brilliant and hard-working woodcarver, he taught me that creative work is hard work, and good work. (And that anything expressed as part of such work shouldn’t be taken personally. Love you, Dad!)
• By occasionally refusing to be the adult in the situation, he taught me to be self-reliant. And I wouldn’t trade that for a firm handshake if you begged me.
• Oh, yeah, and this: Adulthood may well be overrated.
I may never know how to properly grip a pigskin, but I hold out hope that one day I’ll have occasion to whip out my panhead vs. knucklehead savvy and seriously impress someone cool. Someone with awesome, nonessential aptitudes, and a wicked yen for fun. Someone like my dad.