Originally published as part of my “The View From Here” column in The Recorder in 2003.
Everyone remembers learning how to drive–it’s one of those milestones of growing up. I remember it vividly, even though I was only about seven years old at the time. But I wasn’t learning to drive a car–no, it was a 1950s Allis Chalmers tractor, my Dad’s beloved and rusted antique. Since I was a toddler, I’d ridden that tractor with Dad, as he carefully plowed the red clay dirt in our two-acre garden along Blue Run.
Then one day, I was sitting in the smooth, worn metal seat; Dad was standing behind me as I steered through the soft earth, dragging a plow behind. I was tooling right along, thrilled that he had released the steering wheel to me. My mistake was looking back to discover Dad was no longer standing behind me but had hopped off the tractor, apparently in an effort to show me I really could drive the thing on my own.
Panic seized me, and I lost control of the tractor. Dad climbed back on in a flash, preventing me from driving the Allis Chalmers through the electric fence that separated the garden from the pasture. “You were doing fine,” he scolded. “What happened?” I don’t remember my response, but somehow not having the comfort of his hand close to the wheel made me lose faith in my ability. Most children know the feeling–it usually happens when their parents first release them on their bicycles without training wheels.
But as William Faulkner once said, “The basest of all things is to be afraid.” Thankfully, by the time I started reading Faulkner, I had learned that lesson and learned it most undoubtedly from my father.
Parents have a natural tendency to want to shield their children from harm, from the loss of innocence. My parents were no different, but I believe they recognized, in particular my father recognized, that adversity and fear are two things children need to learn to face and ultimately overcome. Often, overcoming those things means taking responsibility for one’s self.
When I was growing up, my Dad warned me about everyday dangers–not to touch hot stoves or machinery, not to play near the top of the stairs, not to touch the electric fence. And, like any child would, I touched things that were hot and got burned; I played by the stairs and tumbled down them; I grabbed the electric fence and got shocked.
But I didn’t repeat these mistakes. My Dad’s usual response to my little injuries and my tears of shock was “I told you not to do that.” I didn’t get hugs, kisses, and soothing words, maybe a Band-Aid and a frown. So I quickly learned there was no benefit to getting into trouble; after all, I had been warned. What resulted was a small child who took responsibility for her actions. And that child grew into an adult who did the same.
Today, too few parents teach that sense of self-reliance and responsibility to children. And too many children blame others for their failures. I saw this readily when I taught English to college freshman. When they received failing grades, those failures were somehow my fault, not their own. Failure, in their minds, was unrelated to lack of preparation, lack of research, lack of effort. These same children and young adults grow into older adults who sue others when they injure themselves or who blame society for their personal failures.
When I fail, I know it’s my own fault. Dad taught me that without ever saying anything other than “I told you so.”
But Dad also taught me, by example, that I was responsible for my own success and that I should be fearless in pursuing my dreams. As a child, I watched him pursue perfection as a craftsman, creating beautiful custom cabinets and desks and home additions. And I watched his clients call him back for more work year after year. Somehow I absorbed that perfectionist nature along with the willingness to take risks that is so necessary to success and personal fulfillment. And my father, who was my best friend and playmate throughout my childhood, encouraged me along the way because he knew that parents need to be fearless, too, and willing to let go of their children. My Dad’s hold on me has always been loose; thus, my devotion to him has always been tight.
When I finally learned how to drive–a car, that is–Dad would tease me when I’d take off for college after a weekend visit home, “Drive fast, and take chances.” I thought he said this to frazzle Mom. But as I matured, those words grew into something else. He didn’t need to tell me to drive carefully. He knew I would because he’d raised me to be responsible. “Drive fast and take chances” translated into “I trust you. I know you’ll do the right thing. I don’t need to tell you to.”
And somehow, I think, those words also meant, “Take risks.” Not on the highway, of course, but in life. And so I have, both in my professional and personal life. The results, as Dad must have known, have opened the world to me in ways I never expected. To this day, it is my father who inspires me to live, to look on the world with joy and wonder every day. He is the most fun person I know. He regards life with the curiosity of a child. It was he who told me when I was still a girl, “Never forget what it’s like to be a kid.”
And I haven’t. When a career opportunity threatened to take me 700 miles from the home I’d always known, it was Dad who said without hesitancy, “Go if you get the job. It will be a great adventure.”
He knew I’d come home again. After all, my grandmother told me when I was a girl, “You know, for your Dad, the sun rises and sets on you.”
Perhaps what Dad doesn’t know is that for me, the sun rises and sets on him also. He showed me the sunrise and had the courage to push me toward the horizon, even if it meant I would grow up, move away, and live my own life. What he didn’t realize was that by teaching me self-reliance, by offering me freedom to be myself, he was ensuring that I would always come home again and always look over my shoulder to see if he was there watching. Only now, thanks to him, I know better than to release the steering wheel.