IT’S IN THE GENES

My dad does not tolerate any bullshit. You are not allowed to have a “woe is me” attitude about anything around him. Given all that he’s been through, my dad is one of the strongest people I know. He has quirks and hefty opinions that I may not always agree with, and he watches Fox News (which I definitely don’t agree with); but given his upbringing and the deep-seeded sadness of his youth, he’s someone I admire for becoming upstanding through his pain. One thing that angers my father is when people blame their crappy childhood for their current circumstances. Saying you were raised in such-and-such an environment and that’s why you were driven to drink, do drugs, commit a crime, have a teen pregnancy, etc. doesn’t fly with my dad. His entire life is a testament to rising above difficult circumstances. He married my mom in the 70s, successfully completed his bachelor’s degree in the 80s, found a career in the mortgage loan business, raised three daughters, and is nearing retirement.

I spent the first nine years of my life in a trailer park in Orem, Utah. These were lean years for my family; but as a child, I never knew that. I give huge credit to my parents for being poor, but not letting my sisters and I know we were of little means. My dad was the one who got us ready for school in the mornings, because my mom was working full-time while my dad was going to school. He must have been completely exhausted as he crafted ponytails and made sure we had signed permission slips, before he left for his classes. He was busy earning his bachelor’s degree, and in the years prior to going back to school, he spent late nights at the Geneva Steel plant. The job required him to wear thick gloves and clothing so he wouldn’t be burned. When he returned home and showered, he would continue to sweat profusely through the night because of the heat trapped in his body from the work he was doing. I never heard him complain.

In the center of the trailer park, there was an indoor swimming pool, rows of mailboxes, and a playground. If you think this was a resort-like atmosphere, you would be incorrect. The first curse words I learned were written on the wooden clubhouse at the top of the slide. During the summers, we would sometimes spend a Saturday at the pool. When I was about four years old, I had two great fears: dented vehicles/flat tires (I know, weird) and the deep end of the pool. During one of our pool trips, my dad kept telling me over and over again, “If you jump off the diving board, I will catch you.” I was terrified, but with this generous coaxing, I ended up on the edge of the diving board. “Jump! I’ll catch you,” my dad’s voice echoed off the pool walls. The water was shimmering that day, reflecting off the sundrenched glass of the facility walls. With wobbly knees and all eyes on me, I stood perched at the end of the diving board with tears trailing down my cheeks. I was terrified. My dad was unphased and continued to beckon me, “Jump!” through gritted teeth. I probably stood on the diving board for ten minutes before I finally dared jump into my dad’s waiting arms. He was never a fan of displays of weakness. He would have waited all afternoon for me to jump.

I received my first bike as a present for my sixth birthday. It was a red and white Huffy which I loved more than any gift I’d ever received. We were not allowed to have training wheels on our bikes. My dad would trail me holding the seat for half a block, and then he would let go once balance had been achieved. I learned to ride quickly, because skinned knees and elbows on asphalt are not something you want to repeat. When I was nine years old and wanted to upgrade to a larger bike, I was required to save half the money for the purchase myself.

One of my favorite places to observe my dad in my teenage years and early 20s was at church. Mormon church meetings last three hours. You spend the first hour with the entire congregation in what is called sacrament meeting. A lot of talking happens during this meeting, and the cushions on the pews provides little relief for worn-out rear ends. The second hour, children go to their own meetings, while anyone over the age of 18 goes to a scripture-study-like class. The third hour, you break off even further with men going to their own private meeting, while women go to theirs. If someone was at the pulpit in any of the aforementioned meetings droning on and on, dad would put his head in his hands, his face would be flushed with annoyance, as he would not so gently pull at his hair. My dad has always had thick, blonde hair. It’s going white now, but he still has plenty of it to grasp when he becomes frustrated with any given situation. I’m like him in this way. If someone isn’t making a point, I find my jaw tensing and the need to tear my hair out. When my sisters and I were younger, my mom would never let us play beauty parlor with her hair, but my dad was always a willing participant. He would sit on the floor with the TV tuned to a tennis match or basketball game and let us brush it, put barrettes in, and try and try to get it to part anywhere other than on the right. (It never would.)

One of the reasons I was such a diligent student was I did not want a talking-to from my dad about grades. Thankfully, the only subject I ever needed help with was math. My dad could figure out virtually any math problem, and would sometimes spend two hours a night with me, pouring over work from Algebra and Geometry. He would lean forward in the chair, poised over the equation with deep-seeded creases in his forehead as he explained it, and the lines would grow even deeper if I didn’t understand the problem as explained to me. I would not have as much discipline as I do without my dad. My work ethic is second-to-none, because tardiness and sloppiness were not tolerated in our house. I’ve never known my dad to be late or unprepared for anything.

One thing I’ve also never known my dad to do is speak ill of other people or engage in any gossip. When I was going through my divorce in 2000, I moved to Nevada to live with my parents. I hadn’t lived at home for five years, so it was a major transition for everyone. I was extremely bitter about a lot of things in my life. My mom and I would often rant over my ex-husband’s behavior or something my ex-mother-in-law had done or said. My dad would not have it. He wanted us to put everything aside, rise above the issue, and move on with our lives.

The best way to be close to my dad is through a knowledge of sports. At a young age, my dad taught me how to score a tennis match, how to throw a softball, and who the best players were in the NBA. I distinctly recall lying on my stomach in the living room watching tennis matches between Andre Agassi and Michael Chang. I was also riveted to the TV during Michael Jordan’s best years — cheering for the Utah Jazz alongside my dad — but always knowing the Bulls would pull off another championship. When my parents first got married, my mom was in bed one night, and woke up to what she thought was my dad having a heated conversation with someone else. She eased her way to the living room, wondering who my dad could be arguing with so late at night, to find that he was debating with the TV over a referee’s call during a game. As a result of my athleticism, my sports knowledge, and my style of dress in elementary school, I was rather a tom-boy. A few weeks into my 5th grade year, I went to school wearing navy blue Converse low-top sneakers. The kid sitting behind me in class, whom I already despised leaned forward and whispered tersely, “Why are you wearing BOYS shoes?” First off, these shoes were completely unisex and could have been for girls or boys. Secondly, my dad had picked them out, so I didn’t need validation from anyone else in regard to whether or not I liked them.

My dad has softened a bit over the years. He doesn’t get riled nearly as easily. He thinks the NBA is now comprised of overpaid narcissists; so he doesn’t watch the games as frequently. His frame is extremely slender, and I worry about whether or not he’s eating enough, and if he’s going to the doctor for annual physicals. Every now and again, we hear him muttering about something he’s displeased with under his breath, and it reminds me of the times during my childhood. He and my mom have an empty nest, and the highlight of their week is dinner together on Saturday night, followed by the weekly grocery shopping. People who don’t know my dad well, but have heard him speak or make comments will tell me, “Your dad has the best sense of humor.” That is definitely true, but if you ever complain around him or try and pull the self-pity card, he still doesn’t tolerate any bullshit.

Dad at my sister's wedding a decade ago
Dad at my sister’s wedding a decade ago