My father once said that he liked the idea of being a renaissance man. He admired great ancient Greeks who were important thinkers, teachers, mathematicians, and athletes. These, he said, were men of worth, character, and intelligence.
And my father does live in such a way. He is interested in a great many things, and while it cannot be truthfully said that he has great athletic skill (a defiency which, I am saddened to report, his progeny have inherited), he is a constant thinker, an inventer, a mathematician, a teacher, a mechanic, an electrician, and a licensed contractor.
He was a schoolteacher for 35 years – math, for 13-year-olds. This takes a good deal of patience, of course, but also a lot of creativity. He spent many hours developing lesson plans designed to engage the kids, to mount a counterattack against the fear of math implanted on so many youths. His lessons were positively amusing. One such was for teaching compound interest, in which he used a picture of a fancy Porsche and provided a backstory.
When he retired, he was a little bored at first. Being in white-collar work for many years, he wanted to go blue and so took up electrician coursework. He completed the work, sat for and passed the contractor’s license test, then upgraded the electrical service at my house. Single-handedly. Oh, I do recall handing him some sort of tool (I think it was called a gizmo thingey), if that counts as collaborative.
Currently, dad is recovering from rotator cuff surgery. He’s doing remarkably well; in fact, he is recovering much quicker than one of my coworker’s who had the same surgery and is 20 years younger! Dad injured himself while rewiring the kitchen. He has been a frequent Kaiser visitor, and I’d not be surprised if the ER nurses know him on a first-name basis; that lack of athletic skill also means a decided lack of grace and good timing, so there always seems to be a cracked rib, a deep cut, or a sprain after a big home project.
My father also possesses the soul of an artist. He is sensitive to the suffering of other people, and active in providing assistance where he can. Our home was a warm gathering place constantly filled with friends, old and new: a pair of young African men who found asylum in the US, a man learning to speak and walk after being in a coma for several months, a painfully shy young man and gifted musician, a young Spanish couple who were in the States to raise money for the orphanage they ran … These were people who needed, and to whom my father provided, shelter or money or attention. He has a penchant for misfits.
My father is not a perfect man. No, in addition to the decided clumsiness, he can be a bit rash.
I have some very fond memories of those impetuous moments. When we were children, we drove through Indiana one summer on our way home from Boston, and decided it would be fun to get a tour of the famous racetrack. Dad was quite impressed with the track, and asked the docent many questions – one of which was, What would happen if someone drove their car on the track? The docent’s response was famously understated, so my dad drove the family station wagon, fully loaded with his wife and three daughters, onto the Indianapolis Speedway (from which he is now banned for life).
When LDS missionaries arrived at the door, he would pull out his Hebrew Bible, read to them, translate into English, then proceed with a explanation of why he did not believe that the Book of Mormon was inspired by God – puzzling the poor, tightly starched youngsters.
Due to a childhood ailment, my dad is slightly deaf and wears hearing aids. Far from treating this situation as a handicap, he wickedly takes advantage of his condition. His hearing aids are state of the art and equipped with an easily-controlled volume lever. When his grandchildren were small, screaming, squirmy little monsters, he simply dialed down and smiled complacently.
And dad has a weight problem of the opposite sort that afflicts so many: he is very thin. This means he gets cold easily. While publicly he seems to feel a little sorry for himself about this, I suspect he takes a secret enjoyment in acquiring clothes, and putting together outfits. He has a larger collection of sweaters than any of his daughters, and a great variety of snappy shirts. Whenever going out he is outfitted in a studied casual manner, all in the name of warmth but with no compromising fashion: well-cut turtleneck, striped canvas shirt, cashmere crewneck, freshly pressed wool slacks, and top-siders. He could be in a Ralph Lauren ad. And though he would likely deny it, I have actually heard him utter the words Oh wow what a nice Hilfiker shirt!
I write all this because recently it occurred to me that I am very fortunate to have such lovely parents, and that my dad is the real reason why I became so absorbed in learning about history, wondering about how things work, wanting to be involved in something bigger than myself, and wanting to have a worthy life. I also think he is the real reason why I adore my Prada loafers, cashmere sweaters, and Escada shift.