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A dad's lessons sometimes come in spite of himself

What we learn from our fathers amid their mistakes

Mary Schmich

June 16, 2013

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We all learn from our fathers, from their lectures and their habits, their best qualities and their mistakes.

From my father, I learned to wash the glasses before the plates and wash the plates before the pots and pans.

I learned to roll my clothes instead of fold them when I packed.

I learned how to fry an egg (spoon the melted butter over it as it cooks) and how to sand a cabinet door (until it feels like silk).

My father taught me it was vital to clean the grooves in the stove knobs (use a toothpick); the hidden inner rim of the toilet bowl (vinegar works for everything); and the edges of a baseboard (carefully, on your hands and knees).

He taught me details matter, even when you think no one will notice.

Not everything my father taught me was intentional or uplifting.

I learned, by observation, that more than three drinks at night makes you do and say things you won't be proud of in the morning.

And yet I also learned that even when the night was hard, you get up the next day, early, and you get to work.

I learned that there is no such thing as being sick, there is only "goldbricking." I've spent years unlearning that.

I learned that money doesn't always correlate to effort, but that self-respect does.

My father had no knack for making music, but from him I learned to snap my fingers. He taught me this skill while listening to Roger Miller records, and to this day, I will attest to the fact that "King of the Road" is one of the best songs ever written and is even better if you snap along.

Through words and acts, my father taught me about pride, good and bad. The pride of a job well done. The pride of family. The false pride that can lead to failure and then hang around to make failure even worse.

Some other things I learned from my father:

Line the baseboard with masking tape before you paint the wall.

Stand up straight. Speak up.

Turn the lights off when you leave a room.

Hank Aaron was the next best thing to God.

Multiplication and division. My father taught me this as we drove around on Saturdays. Twenty divided by four? Twenty divided by five? Three times three? What he may not have known is that he was teaching me more than arithmetic; he was teaching me how much a kid likes to spend some time alone with her dad.

My father also taught me how to drive, on a stick-shift Mustang. And when I failed my first driver's test I learned that I didn't know my father as well as I thought I did. I thought he would berate me for a lack of excellence. He didn't. Not that time.

I learned from my father not to smoke, but only because I saw what smoking did to him. He quit the day he got the cancer diagnosis. He wondered why it had seemed so hard to quit before.

I learned that if you get to live past 60, which he didn't, you should wake up every day and say, "Aren't I lucky?"

I learned that life may not turn out at all the way you hoped and planned.

And I learned that a man's children may not turn out exactly the way he planned either. And when they don't, if he's a good father, he'll love them anyway, which my father did.

One more thing I learned from my father, though he didn't set out to teach it: The mistakes a father makes may inspire his sons to do better. My father, through the strange chemistry of what he did right and what he did wrong, raised very good fathers.

Making this list for Father's Day, I learned a little more about my father. I bet you'll learn some things if you make a list about what you learned from yours.

mschmich@tribune.com