THINGS MY DAD TAUGHT ME

As most of my Charleston people know, my dad died when he was 49, and I was 14. It was my 9th grade year at Thomas Jefferson Junior High School. I still miss him every day of my life.

I started thinking about his lessons late last week when some high school friends and I started trading stories about learning to drive in Charleston, which is, except for Kanawha Blvd., hills. And hairpin turns. And icy roads. And steep drop offs. It makes for great scenery, but lousy conditions for a kid with a car, no experience driving, and a stick shift on the column. Most of us learned on three-speeds.  The lesson that popped into my mind was that he told me a) if you can drive in West Virginia, you can drive anywhere, and b) if you believe in your car and your driving ability, there’s no situation you can’t get out of. I proved that more than once — getting myself out of over-the-tire-deep snow in Oklahoma.

I think he knew he was going to die early. In retrospect, he shoved a lot of information into my consciousness in those short fourteen years, and his advice still serves me well today. Also in retrospect, he knew that when he was gone, my mother’s influence would take over, and that he’d need to frontload all the positive information he could while he still had time.

So at about 2:30 this morning, when there was absolutely nothing on TV to lull me to sleep, my mind went back to my days with dad. And all he taught me. And how intelligent he was, inspite of not being well-educated. I remember people asking dad where he got his “degrees” — and it was always in the multiple. So we spent the rest of the night together, just going through all my lessons to make sure I remembered.

From the beginning, he taught me that ALL people are equal — regardless of race, religion or sex. And that I was to treat them accordingly. Each individual person would choose whether they deserved to keep that status. That was a tough lesson to stand by in Charleston, WV in the 50’s and 60’s, but much to my mother’s chagrin, he had no problem being friends with his “colored” co-workers at the post office. (I found out the year after he died that he had worked for years with Bill Wood’s dad.)

A lesson reinforced while still at Oakwood Elementary was that there are those who are your friends when it was convenient for them. If they’ll lie for you, they’ll lie about you. And that some people will stab you in the back and come back with a smile on their face.  Once that trust is breached, it’s still OK to be friendly and spend time together, but I was never to give them my heart again.

I was always to demand that a gentleman treat me with respect: open doors for me (and stand there until they did), pay for the date, and never disrespect me in public or private. He taught me to give my order at a restaurant to my date, and that he was to order for me. Do you have any idea how many men I’ve trained on that one?

Walk on the inside (in case a car splashes water in your direction), and always take the gentleman’s arm.

In a relationship, if you’re disrespected, if he goes out on you, if there’s anything that makes that little voice in your head say, “run like the wind,” do so immediately. Close the door. No do-overs. (Unfortunately, my mother’s mantra was “any man is better than no man,”  and “why would anyone like that want anything do to with someone like you,” and that took over dad died. I’ve made some very unfortunate choices in that area, but finally have learned from my mistakes.

As a continuation of the first paragraph, he also taught me that when driving at night, to always watch the white line on the right side of the road so I didn’t get blinded by the oncoming car’s headlights. I was always to watch the car in front of the car in front of me, because that was the one that was going to cause the accident. He let me sit on his lap while he drove, and let me change the gears. My brother informed me (from the back seat where he belonged) that I wasn’t driving because I couldn’t put my foot on the “incinerator.”

If you take care of your car, it will last forever. True story. I drive my cars until they chug to the side of the road and beg for a priest — usually well over 200,000 miles. My last car, yet another Chrysler Sebring convertible had 187,000 miles on it when I got my first California job. My banker refused to let me cross the country in a car with that many miles, and I conceded, buying my newest Chrysler Sebring convertible that now has 105,000 miles on it. The Chrysler is because I’ve owned five of them now, they’re easy to maintain, are roomy enough to seat four people comfortably, have a trunk that holds more than I could ever ask, and all have given me over 30 mpg. The convertible part is because life is too short to drive a hard top. That didn’t come from dad, but I’m sure he’d approve.

When choosing to befriend someone, he told me to be the best friend I could possibly be. If the other person betrayed that trust, that was their problem. My job was to take care of my end of the relationship. “In order to have a friend, you must first be one.”

He taught me to love, crave, embrace learning. “When you stop learning, you start dying.” I’ve never been able to have less than a couple of books going at a time.  Instead of music, there’s always a book on tape going in the car. When I was younger, mom would put us to bed and I’d grab a flashlight and read under the covers. I’m a self-professed history geek. But I still have problems with “who/whom” and can feel Arlene Smith over my shoulder scowling as only she could.

“Don’t lie. You’ll never have to remember what you’ve said.”

When other kids’ parents were helping me with science projects and I told him I couldn’t compete if I did mine alone, he told me to be proud that the effort was mine and mine alone and that, in most cases, the other student hadn’t learned anything. I got a lot of “C’s” on science projects, mine were always in the back room, and I was embarrassed to take him back to see mine. But he gushed over my project just like others were gushing over the ones in the main room that couldn’t have possibly been done by anyone but a structural engineer.

When buying something, don’t spend more than you can afford. HOWEVER, buy the very best you can afford because it will last longer and is less likely to go out of style. I think I’ve already talked about him walking me down to introduce me to Maxie Oberlin  — who owned Oberlin’s, and asked her to show me what to look for in construction, material, etc. The dress we bought that day, the year before he died  lasted me through college and then got passed down to my sister-in-law. God only knows how long she wore it. It cost — big money for those days — $14.00.  Consequently, I taught Abbi the same thing. Yes, we buy designer purses and watches. Because they last. The Gucci watch I bought the year Abbi was born, 32 years ago, still works like a champ.

Most important, he taught me that my mind and my name were the only things no one could take away from me. As a result, I didn’t get into drugs. I’ve only been drunk one time in my life — and that was the night I celebrated all divorces past, present, and future. I’ve never smoked. To his “mind,” and “name,” I added “voice.”  And one of the things that hurt the most due to my assault was the damage it did to my thinking ability, mental acuity, and ability to retain information. I take a lot of notes and work every day at honing those skills and bringing them back.

Those lessons were also passed on to my Princess, the Love of my Life. Do everything with integrity. With every ounce of ethics and morals possible. For that reason, her rep in Los Angeles — a tough nut to crack in the entertainment business — is spreading. She has a reputation for always being present for her events, she protects her girls, she’s easily accessible by the people running the event, she exceeds their expectations, and usually brings them in under budget.

She never got to meet her Grandfather, but they would have liked each other. I got his (as Bill called it),  “sourcastic” sense of humor. Abbi ended up with it. She’s smart — not in a memorize-books kinda way, but is wise way beyond her years. He would have liked that.

I’ve tried to make him proud of me, and know there are times I haven’t pulled that off. But I’ve never stopped trying.

Life beat up on dad. Big time. His mother kept him from leaving town with Rudy Vally and his vaudeville troop to be a hoofer. He was blind in one eye because of a snowball with a rock in it, and it broke his heart he wasn’t able to serve in World War II. He endured over 20 years with my mother.  I’ll never understand how the two of them even landed on the same planet. 

And he died way too young.

But you never would have known it. He had laugh wrinkles from smiling so much. He saw the best in everything and found joy in each day. His friends were real friends. Because he was a real friend to them. He was transparent — what you saw in Bill Hyman was what you got. I hope the same can be said for me.

His funeral, at Fidler & Frame (Dale Fidler was my mom’s cousin), was standing room only…..big-time business owners, professionals, the chief of police — Dallas…..can’t remember his last name….people whose lives he’d touched over his very short life. And I am still very proud to be his daughter.