What my father taught me
“Humpf,” dad would have said if I asked him to describe his core values.
He’d scratch his head and shrug and respond cryptically, amazed that I would ask such a question.
“Ah, hell,” he’d have said. “Just do what’s right. You know what’s fair and just – so do it.” Some things oughtn’t need to be explained.
Dad, who once he shelved his childhood nickname of Junior was known to all as “Jake,” lived his life as though facing himself every moment.
He perfected honest, direct self-examination long before it became chic. Far from the narcissistic tendencies of today’s world, Dad’s credo was to clearly define what was right. Then get at it, doggedly, and silently.
The world was simple to Frank J. Yetter, Jr. Show up – every single day – do the work, pay attention, think before speaking, work some more, and then enjoy a bowl of chocolate ice cream with salted cocktail peanuts at night.
He was as immune to bullshit as he was the penetrating cold of Massachusetts Februaries that blew through the open window of the immense Oldsmobile Vista Cruisers he leased from Don Lorenz Motors – license plate DNL5. Dad loved fresh air as much as he loved truth, honesty, hard work and silence, and the windows of his car – like the windows of his bedroom – were open year round to allow in as much crisp air as possible.
Lord help anyone who feared cold air, hard work, or, heaven forbid, preferred talk to action.
“Ah, Jesus,” dad would say, turning away from an obfuscatory windbag with a scratch of the head and a grimace. “Too much goddamn conversation.”
Dad not only refused to suffer fools, he made an art form of dismissing them from them.
Decades ago, he and my uncle (his partner in the flower business), encountered one too many demanding mother of the bride and decided they’d no longer service weddings, even though a florist who doesn’t do weddings is like a banker who won’t lend money. Dad saw scant returns for heavy investment of time and tolerance of petty demands of bridezillas, and figured correctly he’d do perfectly fine without them.
He had a clear code of ethics and steadfastly stood by them.
One day many years ago, the crabby owner of the restaurant where my sister worked stopped in to inspect a new shipment of Hummel figurines. He wasn’t too popular in our household, as, weeks earlier, he had docked my sister’s pay when she mistakenly took an order over the phone for “five chicken dinners” instead of “a fried chicken dinner” .
While examining an expensive Hummel, Denny let it slip from his fingers and smash into pieces. Dad hurried over to assess the damage.
“I suppose you’ll want me to pay for that,” Denny grumbled. Dad was quick to counter.
“We don’t run that kind of operation.”
I wonder how he would have felt about a society where people are afraid to confront gangs of young people defacing public buildings or intimidating passersby; where old people huddle behind closed doors and choose between food and medicine, and where a shrinking world has us blaming one another for what went wrong?
The small city problems now plaguing his hometown of Greenfield, Mass. would have alarmed him, and he would find the opioid epidemic sweeping through the Pioneer Valley beyond comprehension.
“What the hell is wrong with these people?” he’d say.
I wonder what he’d say about Donald Trump? (Answer: Though a lifelong Republican, he would see Trump for the vacant, lethal suit that he is, though I’m not sure he would have been 100% supportive of a woman in the Oval Office.)
Dad expected everyone to meet him halfway. If you did, you’d be more than welcome and you’d connect with a powerful though quiet ally and make a friend for life. If you didn’t, well, there’s the door.
Though in possession of strong ideas, unless asked Dad kept his opinions to himself. Drawing upon his Germanic upbringing, he had a solid construct for life.
“Use it up, wear it out. Make it do, or do without” formed his conservative underpinning that, in later slightly eccentric years, led him to meticulously separate two-ply tissues to get more mileage out of a box of Kleenex as he watched his beloved Red Sox yet again fall short of a World Series title.
Conserving was a game to him, and we were all expected to play.
My three sisters and I grew up in a home with a party telephone line that was shared with the family business. At young ages we learned to distinguish “the business ring from the home ring” – long and short bursts – and we were reminded to keep our conversations short to avoid tying up the line. As my sisters reached the teenage years, an egg timer appeared on the phone stand, providing the world’s first two-minute warning.
Dad placed a premium on efficiency and speed in the course of a day’s work. Brevity – of conversations and visits – was his preferred mode. Silence was perfectly fine with him, and he could sit endlessly in a room full of people, watching and listening, speaking only when he had something worthwhile to say.
He and my mother were once asked by an old friend to participate in an on-air cable TV interview entitled “How I Helped Win the War” that examined the roles men and women played during World War II. Dad was a glider pilot who happily never saw battle action but spent his days playing bridge, waiting for a light to flash to call him to his engineless plane to take troops into battle. Mom stayed at home and helped keep the family business alive while the boys were at war.
The light never flashed, and Dad, a gifted bridge player, made enough dough off his chums for a down payment on the first family home when he returned from the war. Other than antics he and his flying buddies pulled from time to time, his war memories were limited to behind the scenes downtime, mostly waiting for something to happen.
As the interview began, Mom had a ton to say.
Dad scratched his head and instantly started looking at his watch.
Since talking wasn’t his strong suit, Dad didn’t teach. He demonstrated. And if actions speak louder than words, he was the bullhorn for instructing his adoring son.
I learned the importance of taking action by watching him bound up the cellar stairs two at a time at the family business. I learned the importance of hard work by watching him labor nights and weekends, and I learned the value of saving when, as a child, he directed half my pay into a bank account.
I listened to him explain why his dear, alcoholic friend was coming to stay with us “until he got his feet on the ground” after a drunk driving accident that killed his father, then watched as dad firmly sent Bill on his way when he violated the “no alcohol” rule dad had imposed.
I watched as Dad and Mom welcomed my high school buddy into our home when Harold –for practical purposes an orphan – ran out of money and was evicted from the room he rented over a dress shop in downtown Greenfield.
I recall feelings of jealousy when my dad sat with Harold, helping him through his algebra homework so he could graduate from high school. Dad gave of himself – in time, effort and money – to people who needed help. Harold needed it; I apparently didn’t.
The day Harold and I graduated, my father was the happiest man in the crowd. I suspect he gave himself an extra helping of peanuts on his ice cream that night.
I miss the conversations we had as life tipped the balance of productivity, action and decision from one generation to the next. Our talks became longer in length as our time together grew shorter. I often called him from the road and hotel rooms around the country, sharing business challenges and benefiting from his clear-headed thinking and advice. The business of work was his second language, and he was fluent.
After he died, I carried his photo in my briefcase as I traveled the country for work, often pulling it from its safety in a hotel room at night to draw inspiration about a difficult business negotiation, a personnel matter, or a struggle to determine the right thing to do.
He always had a way of helping me find my way, even when my mind wasn’t the most open to his suggestions.
One Sunday afternoon in his later years, we were washing dishes together at our family cabin in western Massachusetts. I asked him what he would do if he had to live his life over, expecting a quizzical stare accompanied by his legendary twitching right eyelid, a sure sign of consternation.
He didn’t pause.
“I’d travel the country and visit people, stopping off in towns along the way and helping out where I was needed,” he said quietly.
Then he turned back to the sink.
The glasses needed washing.
It was a significant lesson that remained and helped shape my chosen life path.
On Father’s Day, I will pause to remember my dad, to thank him for all he gave me, all he did for me, all the valuable lessons he taught me. Among them:
Do what’s right, not what others do.
Easy isn’t always the best choice; often, it’s the worst.
Listen to your heart.
Use your brain, then your mouth. And if you can keep your mouth shut, all the better. (I am still working on this one.)
Work hard, play hard, and you’ll sleep well, preferably with the window open.
Give freely and often, but don’t look for rewards just because you’ve shared your good fortune.
Do these things well and you won’t need a pat on the back; life’ll do it for you.
And if you feel you deserve a reward at the end of a day well lived, give yourself a bowl of chocolate ice cream – with plenty of salted peanuts.