Sunday, June 19, 2011

WWDD? (What Would Dad Do?)

I wrote this essay about my dad for a writing class I took the year before I started this blog. Father’s Day seemed an appropriate time to post it.
When I was five years old my father was laid off from his job as a machinist at a research and design firm that made parts for NASA. Some of his handiwork went into space with the Mercury missions. Sadly, the economy of the mid-seventies made space exploration pretty low-priority to the general public. As an adult I can only imagine how challenging it must have been to feed, clothe and shelter my three siblings and myself on only my mother’s Home-Ec teacher’s salary. As a child though, I was not aware that my family was struggling to pay bills. I had no idea how devastating losing a job you love is. I was only aware that I got to spend more time with Daddy,
            My father went back to school to get his Bachelors degree in vocational education. He would eventually train high school students to become machinists. Dad is a natural-born teacher. He is one of those men happy to explain the way something works without ever talking down to you. He is endlessly patient for those who don’t understand right away. Dad understands that people have different ways of learning and the same explanation won’t work for everyone.
            I was the youngest of four children and just learning to read and write when Dad went back to school. He was studying the way children learn and I was a living example of his coursework. We made a great pair. That year, I spent more time with Dad than with Mom. While most men of his generation spent time with their children on weekends and in the hours between dinner and bedtime, my father was in the thick of it. I’ll never forget the days that my dad would let me play hooky from school. Something as simple as a shared bag of contraband potato chips and a few games of checkers are magical to a child.
            When I am at my best as a parent, I am doing things that he would have done: building a sandcastle, reading a favorite story for the hundredth time, or letting my kids help with a project even though I know it will take longer. He knew that learning wasn’t just for the classroom. It happens in the small moments of childhood—chasing butterflies, collecting rocks, making a mess.
            One day last summer my five-year-old son James came into the house after helping my husband in the garden. He seemed to be speaking to someone on the porch.
            “What are you doing James?” I asked.
            “Nuffing,” he quickly replied as he hid something behind his back.
            “James? What do you have?”
            “It’s a rolly polly”
            “Honey, you really shouldn’t bring bugs into the house.” I reminded him.
            “But he’s my pet!”

            A part of me wanted to order him to take the bug outside. Instead I said, “Okay, how about this? I’ll get you a container to keep him in for a little while. But he goes back outside at dinner time.”
            “Okay!” He agreed with a gap-toothed grin on his face. “Mommy, what do rolly pollies eat?”
            “I don’t know James. Probably something in the garden.”
            “We have to find out. I think he’s hungry.”
I checked my watch. There was a little time before I had to pick up my other son from his play-date. “Want to go to the library?” I asked. “Maybe they have a book that will tell us what they eat.”
James rewarded me with his luminous grin and soon we found ourselves in the bug section of the children’s room of our local library. It turns out rolly pollies, also known as pill bugs, are not insects but isopods and they eat decaying plant matter. We fed our guest a handful from the compost bin and released him after dinner as we agreed.
            Life moves so fast for us with work and school and sports and church that I never consciously think, “What would Dad do?” But in those moments when I am paying more attention to the children than I am to the piles of laundry and unpaid bills, when I am listening to their stories and playing their games and learning along side them that I am doing what my father would do and I know I’m doing something right.