Happy to be here: Lessons my father taught me

Published 9:08 am Saturday, June 3, 2023

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A few weeks ago, I drove past a home where a father, maybe a grandfather, was teaching a child to ride a bike. The youngster pedaled furiously, wobbling. The older man ran alongside, a hand ready to reach out to avert a spill. 

The scene brought back memories of my own journey to competence on a bike. First there were training wheels. They were raised, then removed. My father ran alongside as I learned the skill of balance. It’s an ability that has enriched my entire life.

My father taught me many other things. I remember sitting with him on the porch, watching lightning and counting the seconds until the thunder came. Thanks to his influence, I have never been afraid of thunder. I learned to hear it as nature’s applause for a spectacular light display.

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My father was a marine biologist, so I spent a good portion of my childhood hanging out at the water’s edge or in a boat. He taught me how to catch sand fleas when receding waves revealed their hiding places. He called them “oops-oopses” in honor of how often they escaped and slipped out of my clumsy little fingers. 

He taught me to swim. He taught me to ride the ocean’s waves and to delight in the tumbling when they came crashing to shore. I learned to jump out of a boat and not fear the deep water. He said all I needed to know was that the water was over my head. Any amount of extra depth didn’t matter.

He often collaborated with international researchers. As a result, our family hosted visitors who came from all over the world. They spoke English with varying levels of expertise. I was strictly forbidden to giggle at strange pronunciations and awkwardly formed sentences. My father explained: People who speak with accents are people who have had life experiences that are different from yours. Listen. You can learn from them.

He tried to teach me to enjoy some of his favorite things, but I didn’t embrace them all. For example, he loved scuba diving. He yearned for the quiet of being in a submerged environment. He marveled at the beauty and diversity of the creatures he found there. When I donned scuba equipment, I felt claustrophobic, which made the experience uncomfortable for me in a way he didn’t understand. On one outing off the Florida Keys, an encounter with fire coral reinforced my opinion that I’d rather stay at the surface than explore the depths.

Of course, like all human fathers, he fell short of perfection. My relationship with him took a bumpy turn during my teen years. I started to notice his faults, and I perfected some of my own. I made mistakes. Big ones. Plenty of them. Neither of us had much practice with the art of forgiveness.

I learned some things from him that I’ve spent a lifetime trying to unlearn: hanging on to pride, walking away when the going gets tough, holding a grudge. And, some important lessons, I learned in reverse. His estrangement from certain family members ultimately helped me understand the importance of investing the effort required to maintain relationships despite their challenges. His dependence on alcohol taught me to value the benefits of a clear and sober mind. 

By the time I entered into adulthood, he was just a dim shadow inhabiting the periphery of my life. When my husband and I produced his grandchildren, we were delighted that he responded to our attempts to reconnect. My father and I were just beginning to move beyond the ways we had wounded each other, when a car accident left him with a traumatic brain injury. Although he physically lived for a few years, he passed away without ever recovering.

We are all children of fathers, grandfathers, and forefathers who have passed along diverse lessons. There’s some good stuff in the mix. And, yes, some bad stuff, too. It is our responsibility to honor those who came before us by sorting through the challenging detritus of their legacy and letting the light of their best strengths shine through as we walk together into our shared future.

Karen Bellenir has been writing for The Farmville Herald since 2009. Her book, Happy to Be Here: A Transplant Takes Root in Farmville, Virginia features a compilation of her columns. It is available from PierPress.com. You can contact Karen at kbellenir@PierPress.com.