Teach Your Parents Well (Fathers Day Reflection)

My father failed. I gave up trying. And then it happened, thanks to my two sons. With future pluperfection, they defined what will have been. Fathers Day is an opportunity to look forward and back, with only continuity in between. Time is less orderly than we believe. Destiny admits only that we learned too late the consequences of our choices.

Struggles stretch over generations without our knowledge or permission. The sins of the fathers are visited on the children. But it can also work in the opposite direction, and I am the beneficiary. The courage of the sons emboldens the father.

I grew up poor, which is not cause for sympathy. I learned to fear abundance as unnatural, which is. The past decade has taught be to give away much that I inherited.

It’s a long story and I love to tell it, but my father’s best friend once read a column I wrote for this newspaper and wondered if I was my father’s son. (This has happened to me more than once.) Bill Johnson and I have spent many hours together since. My father left the family when I was in grade school and died a few years later, so this recent friendship filled in many blanks for me about my father.

Like so many soldiers from the middle of last century, my father was the first in his family to go to college. He and Bill were roommates. Bill vividly remembers a young man determined to surpass his parents on one ineffable level — class.

Bill told me about my father’s first heartbreak. He traveled to Michigan one Thanksgiving break to meet his girlfriend’s parents. They were steel magnates and insisted their daughter end the romance, because “he’s not one of us.”

My dad’s parents were wage earners. They always had enough, but never plenty. As his career flourished, my father bought diamonds once a year to remind himself that money and wealth don’t always look the same. Class is not an altitude — it’s an attitude.

My father’s foray into a higher class didn’t last. Alcohol and ambition didn’t mix well. Envy is still fear, but in better clothing. His marriage crumbled. We became the neighborhood charity case, a single mom with seven kids. In my ten-year-old mind, upper class was anyone with a second pair of shoes.

So, of course, I wanted to do better for my children. We all do. My sons grew up with more, but that hardly matters. It’s not what you have; it’s what you do with what you’ve got. Here the generational learning truck began beeping in reverse, blaring loudly enough to wake me.

Slowly but surely, my sons have helped me reinvent my world, replacing “good enough” with “couldn’t be better.” They’ve animated a world that is both less acquisitive and more abundant. Class is defined by fear. My boys have less, and now so do I.

I’m still mortified to see anything go to waste. My boys don’t feel the same obligation toward consumables. They don’t shake the shampoo bottles of life for the last drop. They don’t often eat leftovers. In the world they’re creating, there will always be enough.

They’re still coaxing me into the world my father had wanted to provide.

My brother remembers when it happened for him. With an engineer’s precision, he identified exactly when and how he exited the fear-based, zero-sum world we had known as children. “I became a good tipper,” he recalled. For him, it was as simple as that.

Generosity is the tool that builds abundance.

Two years ago, Bill gave me a precious gift. It was a keepsake camera that my father had given him as a wedding gift in 1955. “It was the best that money could buy at the time,” Bill told me. A generous gift to a best friend 60 years ago was passed to me. I bought a camera just like it last summer at a yard sale for five dollars.

My sons will now each have the thing — and the story. Only the story, begun by my father, matters.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.