Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Father's Legacy

On Father’s Day, I am struck, yet again, by how lucky my sister, Lee, and I are. Growing up, we had 3 great Dads, our Father and two older brothers, Don and Tom. Each had a unique style and unique skills. Together with my Mom, they did a whole lot of things right.

I learned so many valuable lifelong lessons from my 3 Dads. From them, I learned to believe I had the ability and the courage to take on any challenge I chose to face and I learned the paramount importance of both family and friends. From my Dads I learned that encouragement and positive feedback are immensely more motivating than criticism and punishment. They taught me how to tell a great tale and how to find the funny in almost any situation and they shared with me their deep appreciation of our Irish heritage.

All of these lessons have served me well in life, although at the risk of being haunted tonight by the spirits of my Dad and brother Tom I will admit I seem to have gotten along just fine without ever having learned to love a pint of Guinness or take a position in the Jameson v. Bushmills Irish Whiskey Wars. (I never could down a glass of either without gagging.)

While all, (okay most), of what they taught me growing up served as a foundation for much of the life I built for myself as an adult, one particular life lesson I learned from my 3 Dads became the building block for a fundamental part of the person I strive to be. My Dads taught me that not only can each of us make a difference in the world, we are morally obligated to do so.

When my Father passed away, my Step-Mom Noriko, generously shared with my siblings and I many of the treasures she and my Father had collected. While I love all of the beautiful Japanese pieces that now decorate my home, my two favorite treasures are the marbles my Dad won on the playground in Ballston Lake, NY that my Aunt Kathleen rescued from my Grandmother’s attic and his statue of Don Quixote, a literary knight who refuses to surrender his sense of right and wrong even when those around him see him as a lunatic tilting at windmills. (Okay, I know in the story he does in fact tilt at actual windmills, but that’s beside the point.)

I was 11 when my Dad got his first bachelor pad. True to the stereotype, the furniture was sparse, but he did have a state of the art sound system – a quadraphonic stereo complete with an 8 Track Tape Player. His favorite 8 Track, and for a looooooong time seemingly his only 8 Track, was the soundtrack to The Man of LaMancha, the musical version of Don Quixote’s story. While I’m fairly certain that, on a conscious level at least, my 11 year old self failed to recognize the profound moral insights my Dad heard when he listened to the tape, I understand now why my father was so drawn to this character. ( Although it’s true that at 11 I didn’t really “get” my Dad’s love for this soundtrack, it did provide lots of opportunities for good natured teasing that live on in my heart as fond memories of Dad’s Cincinnati bachelor pad days.)

My Dad didn’t encourage any of us to actually tilt at windmills/lost causes nor did he himself do so. What he did do and what he hoped my brothers and sister and I would do, was refuse to surrender his own sense of right and wrong, even, like Don Quixote, if those around us think we are lunatics. 

What my sister and I saw all 3 of our Dads do, was to consistently stand up for what they believed to be right. We watched and learned as they spoke up against injustice and for causes they believed to be just and as they put themselves on the line and risked rejection and reprisal in order to strive to make the world a better place. Our Father did add one very wise caveat, a reminder that it was also crucial for your cause that you live to fight another day, which means there may be times when you have to choose to walk away.

Every family has stories. Every family has stories it tells at holidays and Sunday dinners and family reunions and weddings and funerals. One of my family’s stories is about my brother Don who, while in grade school, (maybe first grade?), led a boycott of the milk served in his Catholic School lunch room. I can’t remember what was wrong with the milk. Frankly, I’m not sure anyone can anymore. Now I have no doubt the nuns and priests were less than amused by this uprising and in many families, his behavior would have been punished. Given that my Uncle was a Priest, it may seem reasonable to assume angering an entire school of nuns and priests would have been frowned upon at our house. But, my parents were impressed with Don’s willingness to risk punishment in order to stand up for what he believed was right and praised him for it. (Well at least all these years later that’s how the family story goes. I suppose it’s possible that, true to our family’s Irish heritage, the story could have been a bit, shall we say romanticized, over the years, but I prefer to believe that it happened just as it’s been told to me countless times.)

Some years later when the next brother in line, Tom, asked our Dad for a raise in his allowance and was turned down, so family legend goes, Tommy walked up and down in front of our house with a sign that read “Management Unfair.” Fast forward another 8 years or so and you would have found Tommy babysitting me one day when I was about 7, telling me we were going on a really cool adventure. He took me to the Mt Washington Kroger’s to picket on behalf of migrant farm workers. The picket signs were taller than I was and he was right, it was indeed a really cool adventure.

Given those family stories, you will understand why, when the first time I heard someone say “You can’t fight City Hall” my reaction was something along the lines of “Say what now?”

I was raised to believe that not only can you fight City Hall, if your cause was just, you should fight City Hall.

In my family, striving to make the world a better place often includes, but is in no way limited to, being active in political and social causes. But, by no means do I see politics as the be all and end all of each of us as individuals making a difference. There are in fact a limitless array of ways to live up to one’s moral obligation to make a difference in this world. Actions as simple as being patient with the obviously new and painfully slow cashier or bringing the trash cans out to the curb for the older adult down the street have a ripple effect that keeps on giving far beyond your gesture of kindness.

Teach your children to speak up when they see someone being bullied and to not just refrain from talking or typing hurtful things about other kids but also to voice their disapproval if their friends do it.

At work, whether you’re the boss or low person on the totem pole, strive to make your work place a healthy place to be. Many of the “battles” I watched my Father wage were about work. He worked for the same company, Equitable Life Assurance, from the time he came home from World War II until the day he retired. He was fiercely loyal to the company and to the people he referred to as his Equitable family. He wanted The Equitable to not only provide outstanding services and products to its customer and great financial rewards to it’s stock holders, he wanted it to be a great place to work. And like Don Quixote, he had a strong sense of what was right and what was wrong and he fought strategically for his cause. He consistently went out on a metaphorical limb to make that piece of the world a better plac and all the while, my brothers and sister and I watched and learned.

Now I watch with awe the next generation of Mooneys and their incredible dedication to making the world a better place and in my mind I can hear my Dad’s 8 Track Tape playing “I am I, Don Quixote, The Lord of La Mancha”.