Saturday, November 10, 2007

Family business

Mandy asks:
I would like to know what influences your family has had on you to bring you to where you are today. You have shared some in the past about growing up, etc. but what do you bring to the table now from interactions with parents, siblings and others.
Your question gives me a great excuse to write about my dad. Thanks.

I'm the only daughter out of three children, and from the beginning, I gather, I was daddy's girl. Some of my most cherished memories are fall Saturdays in my preteen years, when I hopped in the truck with Dad and drove the thirty miles out of town to our farm property. Sometimes all three of us kids went, but sometimes it was just me. We'd care for our dwarf fruit trees, pick blackberries, drag hay out of the barn for the cows, and listen to Tennessee football on the portable radio. And on the way back, I could usually persuade Dad to stop for an Icee at the drive-thru Golden Gallon, a convenience store concept that still fascinates me (there was no store per se, just two large coolers intersected by a six-foot hallway; the attendant slid back the door, you told her what you wanted, and she handed it out to you).

My dad always told me that I could do whatever I wanted to do, and I never thought to question that assertion. When I think of "supportive" parents, I picture clapping and cheering on the sidelines, or serious discussions about life options. With my dad, it wasn't any particular demonstration -- it was just an easygoing confidence that sent the unmistakable message that everything would work out (another of his favorite maxims). When my dad was proud of me -- which he would say with a chuckle, as if it were a joke that he even had to say it out loud -- I was on top of the world.

He also gave me the curiosity about the world that led me into academia and continues to motivate me every day. Dad liked to show me how things work, but he also wasn't afraid to wonder about what he didn't know. After all of us kids graduated college, he turned over the family business to one of his long-time employees and became a high school history teacher. Even though he only got to do that for a few years before retirement, it was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. It's a striking occurrence that all three of his children went into education -- two college professors, and the founder/headmaster of a private school.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to ask Dad some questions about his young adulthood. I learned for the first time that he had no desire to go into the business that his father had started, a brokerage that bought fruits and vegetables from agribusiness and sold them to Chattanooga grocery stories. His two younger brothers, however, weren't bound for the business, either, and my grandfather made a deal with Dad -- if he took a job in the Wayne L. Bowman company to learn the ropes, he'd get support setting up housekeeping with my mom. Dad agreed, majored in accounting, became a CPA, and dutifully went back to Chattanooga to take his place as the heir apparent.

I was stunned by Dad's frankness about this detour in his life. It occurred to me that my success rested on advantages I'd been given in my upbringing that were directly tied to this compromise in my father's dreams. He made a very good living, and none of us ever set foot in public schools. We went to the exclusive prep schools that paved our way to college scholarships and graduate school. I never thought of us as rich -- that label was reserved for my classmates with doctor or lawyer fathers, the ones who lived in exclusive neighborhoods on Lookout or Signal Mountains -- but we were well enough off to give us kids everything we needed to jumpstart our dreams. And remember, Dad always said we could do whatever we wanted, so those dreams were absolutely unlimited.

I believe I've taken with me throughout my life that unconditional support, that essential optimism, and that confidence that comes from always having someone who understands. Even when my dad and I disagree, and we certainly do disagree on a great deal, I know he agrees that I have to figure it out for myself, and that he respects my efforts. As the years go by and students come and go from my classroom, I see very few who have that kind of relationship with their parents, and I am ever more grateful for the way my dad has made my life possible.

Thanks so much for the question, Mandy. Who's got another?

1 comment:

Chelsea said...

I lost my dad to lung cancer nearly three years ago. My relationship with my father had much in common with yours. He was always so proud of me. Children see themselves reflected in their parents' eyes; whatever positive feelings I have about myself grew from what I saw in his.

(here via the NaBloPoMo thread at Ravelry)