Lessons My Dad Didn’t Know He Was Teaching

Erin Mahone DadI don’t write about my dad much. We have a good relationship. We’re very close. I’m super lucky. There’s not much else to say. Except that I am very aware of how incredibly rare and wonderful our relationship is. He is a good dad.

I learned very young the fallibility of my parents. I got to see their humanity. This made for some challenging times it’s true but largely their struggles were a blessing to me. They got married too young. They didn’t always know how to navigate without stumbling and yet no children ever felt more loved than we did. They taught me about resilience, humility and acknowledging mistakes to learn from them.

In my writing and my live show I talk a lot about my mother. I’m a woman and that relationship is fraught as many mother/daughter relationships are but I don’t write enough about the incredible gifts that my dad has bestowed upon me. Not the least of which is an appreciation for Barry Manilow, Kenny Rodgers, Neil Diamond, M.A.S.H., movie musicals, and grilled food.

My dad has been in sales most of his life. He is great with people. He taught me two very simple, very important lessons growing up that prepared me for life as a professional person but also for life – as a person.

The first lesson is a quote from a classic 1980’s film for men who love man movies – Road House – that turned into a mantra – a way to be in the world. “Just be nice” is a line that Patrick Swayze calmly professes just before beating up an entire room full of people. Just to be clear – my dad doesn’t beat people up. In the film it’s meant to be a moment of comic relief. In my dad’s life it’s his approach to every interaction. He’s nice, he listens to what people want and then he tries his best to meet their needs. He’s loved by everyone he meets. He’s good at what he does and he is respected by others.

The second life lesson is something he said to me when he was the manager of a men’s clothing store when I was a very small child. I had come to visit him one day. He was vacuuming the store and I was asking him why he did that if he was the boss. I was 7 years old and I still remember that conversation like it was yesterday. I remember the smells of the store and the candy that was always around but just out of reach. I remember the measuring tape, pins, and the blocks of chalk they used to mark for alterations. I remember the feel of the pants and jackets as I smooshed my way in between them and behind the racks. I remember the ugly green carpet on the floor and the round benches for people to sit, the three way mirrors with the little steps for the men to stand on while their suits were being tailored – that I thought made a perfect little stage for my budding performance career. I remember thinking it was the greatest place in the whole world.

That day when my dad grabbed the vacuum and began to clean I was curious why he needed to be doing that since he was in charge. He replied “Erin, never ask anyone to do something you aren’t willing to do yourself.” That stuck with me forever. He taught by example to treat everyone with respect – even people you don’t like or understand – there are plenty of those people in all of our lives.

When I was an angry, frustrated, self-righteous young person my father told me once that I didn’t know what people’s lives were really like and I shouldn’t be so quick to judge. He was right but this didn’t come in the form of a sit-down it happened in the car on a drive to my grandparents’ house. That’s another memory that I have of a particularly prescient moment when he said exactly what I needed to hear just because we were alone, uninterrupted and he was listening – mostly because he was a captive audience – but in that unplanned moment of conversation he seized a perfect parenting moment and I didn’t even see it coming.

I think it’s true that parents often don’t realize the instants when the things we are saying have the most impact. It’s usually not during a lecture but rather in the process of living, riding in the car having a regular conversation, talking about a movie, or in the middle of a random work day with a surprise visit from your kids. It’s those times when moms and dads are just being, or stopping to listen, that kids see the things they are going to take into their lives.

Parenting is so hard and it’s often impossible to know if you’re doing it right. So today, I felt compelled today to remind myself that the most powerful things we can do as parents is to let them see us making decisions, finding our mantras, making mistakes and listening to their take on the world. I hope that I am imparting these tiny nuggets to my kiddos through the grind of working, and playing, and eating, and bathing, and homeworking, and running around. I hope they see how much I love them and how much I want for them in their lives.  No doubt they will end up in therapy for something I did but hopefully they will have at least one story like this in them too.

Until next time,

Erin

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Erin Mahone
Erin Mahone is the Director of Cultural Arts and Jewish Education at the Weinstein JCC. She has worked for nearly a decade, throughout RVA, providing access to the arts and creative expression for people of all ages and abilities. Erin is also the creator and Chief Oversharer at It Runs in the Family, a one-woman show website containing collective story series with the mission of reducing the stigma of mental illness and highlighting the power of saying the truth out loud. Erin lives in Midlothian with her amazing husband, 3 delicious kiddos, and a fur baby named Kismet.