June 17, 2013
This weekend was Father's Day, which is also the traditional weekend for the U.S. Open, one of golf's four major tournaments. This is a perfect match because my love of golf is but one of the many things I learned from my father.
Our practice range was the half-acre field behind the house on Beechwood Street. This would have been in the early 1960s. There was 120 or so yards of open ground, perfect for practicing with a pitching wedge or a 9-iron. After dinner, he would grab a couple of clubs and maybe six golf balls, which we would hit back and forth the length of the field ... or not, depending on who was doing the hitting.
At that time of day, we often found ourselves sharing the field with bats looking for an evening repast. My father would point them out and then throw a golf ball into the air. We would watch them swoop down and then just as quickly veer away, seeming to instantly realize that this wasn't what they were looking for. One of many moving parts of the natural world that I first saw through his eyes.
I was left-handed; golf clubs in those days were almost entirely right-handed. Custom clubs were out of the question. It was play right-handed or not play at all. I bowed to the inevitable and learned to play right-handed, a choice which, surprisingly enough, seemed natural right from the start. That was maybe my first lesson learned, that you can do more than you think you can.
Next was the swing itself. I won't bore you with mechanics, but I will say that my father had a very natural swing. It didn't hurt that he had spent decades hammering nails, resulting in hands and wrists of exceptional strength. He would take a pitching wedge and send it effortlessly on its way 100 yards down-range. I would swing with all my might and maybe get 50 yards if I was lucky. And don't even ask about direction.
After a wayward shot I might try to shift the blame to the club, pointing out this or that perceived imperfection on the club face. My father would take the club from my hand, set it behind a golf ball, and send it flying upwards in a beautiful right to left arc to its appointed resting place at the other end of the field. Then he would turn to me and say something like, "I don't think it's the club." As a carpenter and cabinet-maker, my father well understood the meaning of the phrase, "It's the poor workman who blames his tools."
He also taught me that it wasn't so much about how far you could hit the ball with a particular club. Sure, he could hit any given club much farther than I could, but the secret was in knowing your distance for each club and then picking the right club for the right distance. The goal was to perform consistently time after time. If I could do that, I could compete with anyone. Later in life, I translated this into my own definition of consistency: show up every day and do a workmanlike job, even on the bad days.
A lot of parenting occurs by proximity. We see what our parents do day in and day out, and we absorb it, whether we want to or not. My father never spent much time lecturing me. His lessons were from the doing of a thing. Going to work every day, rain or shine. Loving music, even if that meant listening to Lawrence Welk. Showing me the proper way to saw a piece of wood. Teaching me the basics of the golf swing. Being honest in all things big and small. Treating people as equals. Appreciating the natural world.
The legacy from him is still growing in that I continue to learn about him and from him. But maybe the the most important thing my father did is what he didn't do. He didn't try to remake me into his own image. Instead, he let me be who I am while he stayed who he was. What more can you do for a child than let them grow into themselves? The irony is that I find myself to be more like him than I would have imagined. At least I hope so.