Everything I needed to know in life I learned from my father — at the dinner table.
My father kept order in our household with a few simple, but unbreakable rules, most of which were learned — and enforced — at our nightly dinners together.
Thoreau once wrote, “Most men live lives of quiet desperation.”
Not my father, nor the other fathers I grew up watching. These were men who lived lives of quiet determination. They never sought the limelight. They never boasted of their accomplishments. They never looked for their names in newspapers. They were men who dedicated their lives to the service of their country, their community and their family.
And they raised us to do the same. And it all began at the dinner table.
Rule #1 – “If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.”
My father did not tolerate idle gossip. He kept his thoughts to himself, and often stopped us at the table when we began sharing gossip about our classmates with a simple admonition. “If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.”
Many times I have thought about my father’s warning and many times, though he was hundreds of miles away, he kept me out of trouble with that simple reminder.
Rule #2 – “You do not wear a hat at the dinner table.”
As a young boy who grew up idolizing sports stars such as Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and Whitey Ford, men who were never seen without their baseball caps, I could never quite understand why it was so important to my father that we remove our hats while we ate. Years later, after fruitless arguments, it came to me.
It had nothing to do with the cap, nothing to do with what team we were pulling for, nothing to do with our hair.
It was a sign of respect.
Respect for our mother and for the work she had done to prepare each meal for us.
As much as my father loved each of us, he adored my mother. If they ever had an argument, it was long after we had gone to bed or trudged off to school. And now I know why.
It was out of respect for her and everything she did for him, for us, for their church, and for their community.
It isn’t a word you hear very much anymore. But as my father knew and, as I suspect, your fathers knew, we can have respect for our partner in life, for that person who sees us at our worst, during our moments of weakness, yet who shares those moments with no one else. For that person in our lives who every day does something for us, something that makes our life easier, and makes our life more fulfilling.
That is the person we should respect.
Rule #3 – “Take care of your tools.”
My father was not a professional woodworker, nor was he a brick mason, an electrician, a plumber or a carpenter. He did not have a workshop full of expensive tools. He had only what he needed, and he took care of what he had.
And he expected us to do the same.
We each have tools of every shape, style, size and purpose. And while my father may not have thought much about what he was teaching me, when he made me go back and clean and oil the spade I had been using to hunt for buried treasure in the back yard, I learned it had more to do with just cleaning a spade.
We each have tools, important tools. In addition to our shovels and hammers and saws, we have another set of tools: compassion, communication, sincerity, responsibility. These are the tools we use — or should use — each and every day of our lives.
And if we don’t take care of those tools, they grow rusty, they deteriorate, and then they break when we do finally reach for them.
Rule #4 – “If you’re going to do something, do it right.”
At the time, my father was talking about the poor job I had done mowing the yard one Saturday morning in May, as my friends were all waiting for me to finish so that we could play baseball in McGaughy’s back lot.
After we had finished washing and drying the dinner dishes, I was sent back outside to mow the patches I had skipped in my rush to join my friends. I was mad at the time, but long after I had forgotten who had won that particular game, his words have remained with me, often as I have been tempted to rush a project to completion.
“If you’re going to do something, do it right.”
Words to work by, words to live by.
Until next Monday,
Its never too late to learn, or to teach.