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What I Learned by Observing My Father

Jun 01, 2023 06:00AM ● By Chris Jones

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always enjoyed Father’s Day. I would burst from my bed and dash down the hall into the dining room where my grandfather would be reading The Washington Post and drinking coffee from his Redskins mug. In the background, my grandmother’s radio piped out old gospel choir music and the smell of fried potatoes, scrambled eggs, bacon and biscuits clothed the air like a blanket. My grandfather—to whom I’ll refer to as dad now forward—had a way about it that hasn’t changed in the 40-plus years that I’ve known him. His slender figure sits perfectly straight at the head of the table. He crosses his legs with his calf resting on his knee. And as far as I can remember, he is a jeans and undershirt type of guy, with the undershirt tucked into his pants exposing his thick, brown belt; a set of keys dangling from a leather strap looped around his belt.

I remember the scent of my father’s cologne—Stetson or English Leather. On Father’s Day, he would hoist me onto this bony lap and I would give him the card and the gift that I got him. I could see the joy on his face, and he would thank me, and I’d jet off on my way.

I have never seen my father cry, but that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t happened. He has a gentle strength about him. But I have seen him tired. I’ve seen him fall asleep on the couch, in his recliner, at the picnic table, in a lawn chair, in the front seat of his white Cadillac, and in his bed. But he was never too tired for me. When I was in the fourth grade, he built Jamestown with me from clay and Popsicle sticks. He built a rocket with me from paper towel tubes, duct tape and the caps from his aftershave bottles. He took me to baseball practice and watched my games. All of this he did because he wanted to do it. It was who he was. My father was a provider. He expressed his love through the time he gave.

Throughout my life, when I have faced challenges and obstacles—like failing a class in my final quarter at art school that caused me to graduate three months late, going through a divorce, or losing everything I owned in an apartment fire—and my dad talking was always that reassuring voice I could count on to snap me back into reality and into focus. When I had doubts about myself or overcoming situations I found myself in, he’d utter his famous quip, “I can’t is an excuse for the weak and a challenge for the brave.”

I learned from my dad that fatherhood and life aren’t easy, but both are equally rewarding. I have to keep showing up for those I love, but most importantly, continue showing up for myself. And most of all, live a life my kids can be proud to associate with. That’s what he did for me. Of him these Clarence Budington Kelland words hold true: “My father didn't tell me how to live; he lived, and let me watch him do it.”

Thanks, dad.

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