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Susan Milstrey Wells

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The Widsom of My Father

legs-692305_960_720My father would have celebrated his 88th birthday this week. While cleaning out my purse after vacation, I pulled a piece of paper from amid the credit card receipts, candy wrappers, and expired coupons. I opened it to reveal the words I spoke at my father’s funeral 10 years ago. I’ve carried these words with me ever since. Not the same piece of paper—inevitably it becomes tattered and torn, so I reprint it occasionally. But I’m never without these sentiments, and every time I read them, I realize Dad was pretty smart! Here, in honor of my father—and of fathers and mentors everywhere—is an annotated list of what Dad taught me about life, love, and work.

  • I learned to always be prepared.  You should never wait until the last minute to write your term paper, because you never know what might happen that will keep you from finishing it.

Ditto on the big assignment your boss has just handed you. Inevitably, if you wait until the deadline is near, your child will get the flu, you will have to take the dog to the vet, or a last-minute job will need to come first. Fathers and Scout leaders taught us to “Be prepared.”

  • If I did wait until the last minute and something came up, I learned “not to worry,” because somehow everything would work out OK.

This reminds me of the saying, whose attribution may be lost to history, “I’m an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.” Indeed, how often do we worry about something—typically the very thing over which we have little or no control—only to discover that we have wasted our energy?   

  • I learned to keep up with world affairs, but never to discuss religion or politics in public.

Today, social media is the public sphere, and I see so many contentious debates online that I strictly observe this prohibition.

  • I learned to be on time, or to call if I was going to be late.

This is less about rules for the sake of rules, and more about respecting other people’s time. As I taught my son, if you’re expected at 5 p.m., you have to know before 4:59 p.m. that you are not going to make it!

  • I learned to be thoughtful and to think about how others would react to something I said or did.

This one is so easy to ignore in a world where we text and tweet our every thought, but we know that words can hurt, and our actions speak even louder. It takes only a moment to stop and think before we speak or act.

  • I learned to love the written word and to use it to tell a story.

My father is the reason I became a writer. He was a sports editor for a daily newspaper and an ad man, before “Mad Men” made that popular. I typed my first term paper on a manual typewriter, which Dad used until finally forced to join the computer age. He hated having to change his password so often!

  • I learned that I could always trust my Dad to be there for me, no matter what.  No questions asked.  Well, maybe just a few questions.

Who else will leave their 4th of July picnic to console you over a bad breakup?

  • I learned to love unconditionally, the way my Dad loved me.

I hope my son will be able to say the same about me.

  • Most of all, I learned to laugh.  I learned to laugh at myself and to laugh with, but not at, others.  I learned that we might as well laugh because if not, we just might cry.  And laughing is so much more fun.

Mark Twain said, “Comedy keeps the heart sweet.” I try to remember to laugh every day.

I miss my father and think of him often. Was he perfect? No, he was human. We had our struggles, and perhaps I look back with rose-colored glasses. But, too often I think we do the opposite—focus on the negative and not the positive. I carry this list not only because it keeps my father close to my heart, but because these life lessons are the very ones I need to be reminded of, over and over again. Happy birthday, Dad.

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