He was my very best teacher

Teachers step into our lives in so many forms and circumstances and sometimes they exit before we are ready.

The anniversary of my father’s passing, an invisible entry on my calendar that is impossible to forget, is upon us again. Nine years gone, both an eternity and the blink of an eye. He was my very best teacher. After his death I worried that I would forget him – his contagious laugh, his strength (physical, emotional, character, all of it), the songs he whistled, his love for a good television cartoon (think Pink Panther and Bugs Bunny), how much he enjoyed an after-dinner coffee and something sweet, his story-telling ability and the substance of those stories, the essence and the uniqueness that was him.

I realize now that I won’t forget him. Dad gave me priceless gifts that will never tarnish or fade. These gifts are life lessons woven into my very being. Sometimes I still discover something I know intuitively and then I realize it is knowledge I gleaned from my dad.

I can identify birds by their songs and sounds. My father never set me up with a bird calls app on my iPhone nor did he send me off to a fancy summer camp to study wildlife. He simply sat on our screened porch, or in the backyard, or walking on the golf course, or while raking leaves and called my attention to what the cardinals, chickadees, wrens, quail, robins, mockingbirds (they are the tricky ones)  and blue jays had to say or sing.

I know that dogs go crazy-happy when we pet them with gloves on…work gloves, leather gloves, winter mittens, whatever…and especially on their muzzles and their ears.

Dad loved animals and they loved him back. By love I mean that bond between one of God’s creatures and a human that radiates mutual trust, kindness, and joy. It’s like Dad and animals had an unspoken language only they understood. Chipmunks came up to Dad and ate seeds and nuts at his feet. He made friends with a carpenter bee in the backyard. I’m serious, they hung out together!

Dad was passionate about responsibility to our family pets. He was the leader of the pack. He taught me the hardest promise a pet owner must uphold: in exchange for a pet’s unconditional love we must help it maintain its dignity. We must be worthy of the trust they place in us. What does that mean? That when a pet grows old, infirm or very sick, we must put aside our selfish wishes to keep that pet alive at all costs and do what is kind, respectful and humane.

When I feel stressed or sad or mad, taking a walk helps me work through what’s bothering me. Dad showed me by example that walking can be a great way to meditate, to pray and to keep a healthy body.

All things cars: Dad tried and tried to teach me the habit of a 360 degree walk around my car before driving to check for a tire that could be going flat. He showed me how to check the oil and the water levels and how to safely handle an overheated radiator back in the day.

And this: “Vivian, in driver’s ed your teacher will teach you about defensive driving. The heck with that, I’m telling you to drive offensively! People are crazy out there. Put the key in the ignition and let’s go for a drive.”

Cooking barbecued chicken Eastern North Carolina-style is part art, part science. Because of my dad I know that you need the right recipe, the right cooking equipment and a good supply of wooden handled, cotton-topped mops to sauce the chickens. I also know that you find those mops at the hardware store, not in the kitchen section at Wal-Mart. And you use charcoal to cook the chicken “slow and a long time”.

Dad taught us that one wheelbarrow and one lawn mower will last a lifetime with the right tools, parts, spray paint and a mindset to “repair, not replace”.

Dad loved apples and oranges and he bought them by the bushel. Dad grew up during the Depression when money and food were scarce, especially for a farming family in rural NC. An orange or an apple in his Christmas stocking was a treasure and, perhaps, the only present he received. After we grew up, moved away and came home for visits, we almost always left with a bag of fruit. Every apple or orange that he gave us was a way of saying how special we were to him.

I could continue writing for days about the list of life lessons I learned from Dad. His lessons are always with me, in my heart, in my thoughts, in those moments when I feel his presence so close I can almost touch him.

Make each day count.

Count my blessings every day.

Fill my heart with love and understanding.

Seek to please God. – Thames E. Lee  1919-2007


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