Sunday, June 19, 2011

Uncommon Wisdom

My Dad was, and remains, one of my most honored teachers in this life. 
I am still learning from his example. (Above: Me, age 4, with my Daddy.)

Although my Dad offered many sage words throughout the years—“Never let your health insurance lapse.” “Always buy a used car.” “Don’t put baby calves in a pen together because they’ll suck each others' ears.”—one lesson in particular stands out. 
   During the summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college I came home to work. Southwestern at Memphis, the small, liberal arts school I had chosen to attend, was expensive and I worked three jobs year-round to pay for tuition, room and board. My parents contributed all they could and I had grants and a small student loan, but even with financial aid, I had to come up with several thousand dollars—a huge amount at that time. While most of my friends vacationed at the beach, traveled abroad or attended their debutante coming-out parties, I juggled a schedule that gave me 60+ hours of work each week. One of my jobs was working for my Dad in his feed and farm supply store. 
  I worked at Uncle Jack's Feed & Farm Supply since age fourteen, when my Dad started the business. I started out writing up receipts, running the cash register, and sweeping the floors, but over the years, I learned quite a bit about feed and fertilizer and animal care. I could hoist a fifty-pound bag of sweet feed onto my shoulder and tote it out to a customer’s care “faster than a cat could lick behind it’s ear,” as my Dad liked to say. I didn't mind the work and I rather liked saving my money towards a worthy goal. I kept a sheet of paper tacked to the wall in my bedroom with the figure two-thousand dollars at that top. Each week, I filled in the amount I saved. It was gratifying to inch the ledger up, knowing I would return to that lovely campus with its classic stone buildings and slate-floored refectory in the fall.
   In mid-summer that year, I received a letter from the provost of the school. Room and board expenses were increasing by $500 a year. It might has well been five million in my mind. I didn't know how I could earn any more money. I ran the numbers again and again. Even with financial aid and my parents’ contribution, I would fall short of making the initial payment, which was due in September. 
  That afternoon I went to the feed store a little before my shift. I thought Dad was away, picking up a load of feed from the mill. Alone in the cool, dark store, I let out a frustrated scream and began to sob. 
   "What in the world happened?" shouted my Dad. Turned out, he was in the office. I neglected to see him behind the stacks of unfiled invoices, bags of Sevin dust, boxes of dog wormer and a hulking dog-tag making machine that he’d bought in an auction. (He swore would pay for itself "in no time.")
   I tried to quickly wipe my face and make up some excuse for my outburst. I knew my parents didn't have any more money to contribute to my education. They were retired, on a fixed income, and were already doing all they could to help me. I didn't want Dad to know that I was in over my head. I knew when I was accepted to this school that it would be a stretch. I told myself—and my parents—that “I would pay for it myself if I had to.” I was that determined to attend Southwestern, and yet, the reality was more stressful than I expected. But now the cat was out of the bag.
   “What’s the matter, baby girl,” he asked. I couldn't lie.
   “I...just...don’’!” I sobbed, barely getting the words out through my heaving breaths. 
   With five women in the house (I have three older sisters), Dad must have grown somewhat immune to feminine tears. He was able to deftly sidestep our hormonal tantrums, dating woes and the heartbreaks over not making cheerleader, but this problem fell directly into his court. It was financial, and he knew it was not going to be an easy fix. As I drew breath in, my hysteria was audible. I squeaked and wheezed and sniveled. 
   “Now, calm down,” Dad said, the way he might talk to a horse who had thrown a shoe. His tone pissed me off. I didn’t want to calm down! I wanted to scream and shout about how unfair it was that I had to work three jobs, one in a dusty old feed store for Chrissake, while my friends frolicked and perfected their tans at the Country Club. 
   “You don’t understand!” I shouted. “They’ve raised tuition! If I can’t find a way to make another five hundred dollars, I can’t go back to that school!” 
   A new flood of tears followed. Dad walked from the with a armload of merchandise and stood in front of me, placing cans of Shoo-Fly powder on the already crowded shelves. He took a deep breath and although my vision was obscured by the blur of my tears, I could feel his steely blue eyes on me. I had cried myself into a dither, and I was hiccupping, trying to catch my breath.
    “You... just... don’t... underst—” 
   “STOP IT!” Dad said, raising his voice. “Stop it, right now!” 
   His firm tone, not quite angry, but clearly annoyed, surprised me. My hiccups subsided, as if someone had sneaked up behind me and yelled, "Boo!"
    “Crying about it is not gonna help,” he continued. “Now cut that out! We’ll figure it out, but you’ve gotta stop that foolishness. You’re just making yourself sick, and that’s not helping anything.”
   I nodded my head and wiped my eyes. “Okay,” I said, chastened, and feeling oddly better. We hadn’t resolved anything. The same amount of money was due in about 45 days and I was short my goal, but Dad said the magic words, “We will figure it out,” and I believed him. 
   I went to the bathroom and blew my nose and splashed water on my face. On my way back through the storeroom I grabbed the push broom and got to work, sweeping out the store. Dad continued restocking the shelves with pinkeye oinment and udder balm, and we didn’t talk about my deficit again that day. "We’d figure it out," Dad said, and I knew we would.
  That fall, I moved into an off-campus apartment with a girlfriend and was able to save money on room and board by eating peanut butter sandwiches and walking four blocks to campus each day. I stayed at Southwestern for the duration and received my dipolma on schedule, without a hitch. 
   Although I learned a lot at on that college campus, for all the thousands spent on tuition and all the time spent studying Shakespeare and Chaucer, I gleaned more wisdom that day from my Dad. He taught me that when difficulties arise, we have two choices: We can scream and cry and allow irrational thought and emotion carry us down the rabbit hole and make us sick; or we shrug off set-backs, and choose to look for solutions, turning the problem over and over, like a Rubik's cube, until an answer arises. By the way, that’s Buddhist Practice. My Dad for his devotion to the Catholic Church was actually an excellent Buddhist. 
   Yes, I’m fortunate to have had a father who was wise and compassionate. And yes, on this Father's Day, and everyday, I miss him. He wasn’t perfect, but he gave me and my sisters a lot of good tools that continue to help us through this life. Among other things, he taught me how to run a business, how to file quarterly tax reports and maintain cash flow. More important, he demonstrated how, even in business transactions, one can extend loving-kindness and compassion. He treated every customer—whether he had a few scrawny chickens or a posh Quarter Horse ranch—with the same dignity and respect. Often, customers would ask Dad to extend credit for a bag of feed until their next payday. I can’t recall a single time Dad turned them away. He even if he knew he would not be repaid, he could not stand the thought of an animal going hungry. As it turned out, that old feedstore was the best classroom I ever attended. And my Dad—with his high school degree—was certainly my most learned professor.

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