What I Learned from My Father
April 18, 2012
There were some awful things I learned from my father - how angry one can get, what gambling and drinking does to a family, how to walk on eggshells.
There were wonderful things I learned from my father too and one I learned that today makes me so happy was to ride a bike. It was 63 years ago on my birthday, April 23, 1948. As I remember, it was a dazzling day much like today – warm, breezy, mild, dry. My present was a beautiful bicycle. I had been wanting one forever and never expected to get one. But here it was, waiting out front of our two-story grey shingled rented house on Johnson Street, outside our chain link fence, standing there in all its glory, a shiny bicycle proudly standing upright on the sidewalk.
My father had somehow heard my longing (and probably oft repeated begging) for a bicycle and he had gone to a police auction and rescued an abandoned or stolen bicycle. He had shined it up, repainted the chips and scrapes, oiled up the sprockets and the chain, and even finished it off with a straw basket and a red gift bow.
A bicycle represented freedom to any kid. To ride in the wind, to go where you wanted to without having to wait for someone to take you, to save the nickel carfare. However, there was another matter, that of learning to ride the bike. Though my heart rose at the sight of the birthday bike, it sank at the same time. I didn’t know how to ride – or who would teach me. I couldn’t imagine my mother on a bicycle – and indeed, I don’t think she ever did ride one. And I also couldn’t imagine my father teaching me – he was not that sort of father or so I thought.
But that gorgeous spring day, he WAS that kind of father! “Up you go,” he said and he helped me up to the seat, grabbed it from behind to steady me and showed me how to put my feet on the pedals. “Now pedal, push. Hang onto the handle bars and keep your balance.” Running along the sidewalk beside me – he encouraged me and never said one disparaging word. Leaving my little sister hanging over the fence green with jealousy and who knows what my mother was thinking. What a shock. All those commands, and yet I was able to follow all of them without trouble. Within a couple of turns around the block, I could ride my bicycle alone! I could pedal, push, use the coaster brakes to stop the bike, get off at the street corner and back on again and start pedaling, hang onto the handle bars, and keep my balance all at once! I suppose I was stunned into compliance – and astonishingly, I found myself loving my handsome, difficult father. Mostly, I hated him.
That day of learning from my father was a revelation – never to be repeated. He tried to teach me to ice skate – I was abysmal and could never learn to stand up in my shoe skates. He and my sister took off skating smoothly around the frozen pond and I was so jealous, but I didn’t learn to skate in one lesson or five before we both gave up. He tried to teach me to play tennis. Again, I was totally inept, unable to catch my breath and progress beyond the simplest beginner’s level, even with lessons and more lessons from instructors at the park district courts.
Now bicycling – that was something I could do. And still can. Today, riding in the breeze on a glorious spring day I am transported back to my nine-year old self –for once accomplished, competent, and free. That’s how my father related to me – as a teacher of sports. I still love him for that.