“He didn’t tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it.” Clarence Budington Kelland
I saw this quote posted on Facebook on Father’s day. It reminded me of my father right away. He is a simple man, low maintenance, you might say, never wanted much more for himself or for us than to be happy, whatever that looked like. Although he did do some telling us how to live, actually, but the advice was always stemming from his love and care for us.
One piece of advice I clearly remember him saying, around about when I was in high school, was, “Don’t focus on having good times. Focus on having a good life. If you have a good life, the good times come along with that.” Maybe not something that a teenager either wants to hear or wants to implement, but it stuck with me long term and I’ve thought of it many times since.
Have I created a life that my father is proud of me for? Hard to know. Proud of, probably. Approve of, not so sure. This is a man that worked for 43 years at Westinghouse, at (nominally) the same job. Did it to be secure, to make sure he could provide for his family, which is what he figured his role in life was. And he accomplished that, and eventually gave himself a comfortable life too, though we were not without struggles for money and the wearing of pants that were too short.
That was one of his roles in our family too, to take us shopping for school clothes. At that time, you went shopping once a year, at the beginning of school. Wore those same clothes all year round. It was the annual pilgrimage to Sears and Roebuck in East Liberty. That was the Walmart of those days. I don’t know what the budget was, we never talked about money. I would pick out clothes that seemed ok, and he would peruse the sale racks. One time he found a rack of “plus size” clothes (they were all marked size 6 ½, 8 ½, etc. That’s how they did it then, marked in half sizes.) Way too big for me of course, skinny farm kid that I was, but I tried them on anyway. I remember hoping they would fit so that I could choose something that was cheaper.
He also took me shopping for my first pair of high heels. I was probably a junior in high school, maybe even a senior. We were in a store like Sears, but it might have been Kaufmanns, downtown Pittsburgh. I remember it had a couple of shoe departments. I tried on a few pairs and one pair was a totally stylish, totally teenish pair of shoes, and the other pair was a classic pump. I remember him reserving judgment from what he probably thought was an atrocious pair of shoes, allowing me to make my choice. When he finally offered his viewpoint he did it gently, telling me that certainly the pump was a more wearable shoe in the long term, more classic and grown up. I chose the classic pair and wore them for years probably.
What is a live well lived? A good life? For him I think it was the predictability of life, of going to the theatre, to having a girlfriend for 30some years (Nancy, his “buddy”), to watching his children grow up and, while for the most part not picking the career path he would have wanted me to pick, eventually becoming accustomed to my “freelance” lifestyle. Maybe sometimes, it’s too much for him, that whole big townhouse in the city, all those floors, great for me maybe but not so much for him. He is comfortable in his small house on a modest street, with the world’s largest deck out back, one that includes a hot tub, a shower, a dining area and birdfeeders Audubon would be envious of. A bird watching experience to be proud of. All of which he built himself, even put on an extension to challenge himself in his 84th year of life. Still playing tennis, still able to run circles around me. Still thinking up new ideas, new inventions. Still willing to get into his car and drive to Downsville to my country house, where he asks what projects need to get done, putting in new doorknobs and outdoor lights and clearing branches that have been there since day one. Enjoying listening to my plinking sounds of a ukulele, listening quietly while tapping his foot. One day I asked him if he wanted to learn how to play, insisted, really, and he obliged, not because he wanted to maybe but because I asked him too. As someone who has always enjoyed music, he never learned how to play it himself. Always willing to give it a shot. Then to go back to the quiet of his deck (when the dogs are not barking), listening to birds with his field guide in hand, reflecting, perhaps, of a life well lived. A good life.
Thanks go out to my sister Jennifer for encouraging me to do this “fastwrite” of my father. A fastwrite means to write fast for 10 minutes without any plan. Rules for fastwriting: 1. keep the hand moving, 2. don’t cross out, 3. don’t think, 4. don’t get logical, 5. go for the jugular. (Natalie Goldberg from her book Writing Down the Bones.) Here is a fastwrite prompt for you: What is the good life? Post in the comments below or send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.