I like biographies. I find it especially interesting to learn what people recall from childhood – including how their parents have shaped them. On Father’s Day, I think back on the profound impact my dad has had on my life. Many of the values I hold most dearly were taught to me by watching my dad in action.
When I evoke memories of my dad, I’m struck by how often the setting of those memories is the kitchen table in my childhood home. That’s where I acquired some of the values I’ve held dearly for the rest of my life.
1. My dad’s tomato-soup lunches taught me about gender equity
One of my early memories from around that kitchen table has to do with Campbell’s tomato soup!
My dad worked as a Presbyterian Church minister. The church was just a few blocks from our home – so he could walk back home at noon to make lunch for my sisters and me. My mom was a schoolteacher who set an important example for me by showing that she could enjoy her work and be a great mom at the same time. When mom worked at a local school, it was dad who came home to prepare lunch for us.
I happily reminisce about the way we would meander up the slope from Hillcrest Public School to come home for lunch. We’d walk into the kitchen and see my dad stirring the pot of Campbell’s tomato soup that must have been a family favourite. That may seem like a small thing. But this was the late 1960s and I’m guessing that not many dads in our community were home making lunch for their kids.
It never seemed odd to me that my dad would be the one in the kitchen. It didn’t seem odd that my mom would be at work. Overall, I know that my mom did spend more time in the kitchen than dad. But I grew up with the assumption that men and women would share tasks in the home just as both could work outside the home.
As far back as I remember, my parents taught their four daughters about gender equity by modeling it in their relationship. My sisters and I grew up knowing that we could pursue any career path that inspired us. We grew up with no doubt that men and women are equals.
2. Discussions about a local teen pregnancy taught me about unconditional love
Another well-emblazoned memory has its origins around that same kitchen table. I think this memory had more impact on me than any other moment of my youth.
As I remember the situation, we were sitting as a family in that funny little cramped kitchen around the dinner table. The conversation was about a young girl in our town who had become pregnant. I have absolutely no recollection of who the girl was – perhaps I never knew. The essence of the discussion was that the girl’s family had “disowned” her. Looking back, I’m not sure what that term implied, but one can imagine the meaning.
As vividly as if it were today, I remember what our parents said to my sisters and I that day. They did note that they hoped we wouldn’t find ourselves in the situation of teenage pregnancy. But the message that they declared with unsurpassed emphasis was this: “No matter what the future holds, there is nothing you could do in your whole life that would ever separate us from you.” In other words, we would never be “disowned”. Our parents would never stop loving us. Their commitment to us was completely without conditions attached.
If I have a measure of emotional stability in my life, I feel like that memory is a clue to how my parents helped me. There was no doubt they would love me, no matter what. That taught me to accept myself and any circumstances that would come my way, knowing that there were some relationships on which I could always depend.
3. The old kitchen telephone taught me about unselfish service
A third memory from that tiny kitchen of our childhood home involves an old telephone. The room had a built-in wooden cupboard full of all sorts of treasures and probably plenty of junk. If I’m remembering correctly, the kitchen telephone hung inside the upper part of that built-in cupboard.
When I think back to what I remember from my dad in those days, the telephone calls are one of the recurrent memories. The phone rang a lot. Most people were looking for my dad. The callers were church people or townspeople calling for advice, for discussion or for help of some kind. As a local church minister, I feel like my dad was “on call” seven days a week, 24 hours each day, almost every day of the year. I have no recollection of that being troublesome to him or to us. It was just what he did and who he was for our community. People called if someone was sick; if someone died; if someone was depressed; if their marriage was in trouble; if they were short of money; if they wanted to complain about the church; if they wanted an attentive ear. Dad would always listen. He would often need to “slip down to the church” to see someone or go make a visit at the hospital or someone’s home.
In my career as a family doctor, my community has never expected me to be as available as my father was for his. But I know for sure that I’m a better family doctor because I grew up watching how my dad responded to those demands. I don’t ever remember him being annoyed by the calls he received. I don’t ever remember him criticizing anyone for being so needy. I don’t ever remember thinking it the least bit surprising that he would drop what he was doing to help out someone in need.
My parents are the least selfish people I know. They taught me that real joy comes from serving other people. This Father’s Day, I will send my dad a message of gratitude. I will thank him for giving me values to live by: values like gender equity; unconditional love; and unselfish service. I didn’t have to go far to learn from him. He taught me all this as our family gathered around the kitchen table.