My Dad gave lots of feedback, just not the critical kind. A while back I mused on the topic of my horrible adolescent makeup choices (tarantula-like eyelashes) and wrote:
I remember few rules from my youth. I wasn’t harangued to make my bed, come home at a certain time, do my homework, achieve better grades or get off the phone. I wasn’t told when I could start shaving my legs, or wearing makeup or start dating. I did want approval, my father’s approval in particular, and I knew what he admired without him ever saying a word. I was more interested in the brass ring of admiration than avoiding the sting of criticism or the pain of punishment.
When he moved to Sacramento in 2006, I was his driver. He had taken himself off the road in 2003, after he hit a newly installed curb and blew out a tire.
Unfailingly, when we were going from Point A to Point B, he would say something about my driving:
“I like the way you drive.”
In my impatient youth, it drove me nuts that Dad edged into the shoulder to let faster cars pass. “You’re going so slow,” I would think. Over time, I stopped thinking of this habit as disadvantaging our progress and started noticing the effect of his polite road manners.
He made room for cars trying to merge, waving them in. Seeing a pedestrian waiting on the curb on a heavily trafficked street, he stopped to let them cross. When someone politely waited for him while parallel parking or slowed slightly to let him enter a lane on the freeway, he extended his arm through the window and gave a brief salute. He was the kind of driver that made other drivers smile.
When he told me he liked the way I drove, he was acknowledging that I had internalized his road manners.
This was how he taught us: he initially explained something, then modeled the behavior, and then shut up. Except when we did something right. Then he said something complimentary.
One of his concerns about me was that I would never be physically active. With his history of heart disease, he knew that exercise could make the difference between life and death, or at least ability and disability. During my adolescent years, when my highest level of volition was moving from the couch to the dinner table, he went so far as to hand me the Canadian Air Force exercise manual, chock full of isometric exercises. I tried them a few times and quickly bored of them.
He must have been shocked to see me work out with a personal trainer in my 50s. She had me doing situps and jumping jacks, step ups and mountain climbers. She worked my tail off. (And I was paying for it.)
As I worked out on my back deck, I could see him watching me through the window from his regular seat at my kitchen table. He would pump his fist in the air, silently cheering me on.
“Atta girl,” he was saying.
When I drive, workout, and starting Thursday, return to graduate school to begin a Master’s in Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction at Bennington College, I still hear it: