Meet my Dad. He’ll be 80 this year. He’s a strong, quiet man, not much for novelty or fads, and yet very interested in what’s happening in the world. Retired for 10 years. A devoted gardener, exerciser, and reader. Amazing cook.
My dad was born in India and arrived here in his early 20s with only a college admission slip and the clothes he was wearing (the airline lost his suitcase on the flight over). He jokes that he was on “Pan-Am scholarship,” as the money they paid to reimburse him for his luggage paid for that year’s tuition.
I’m an only child, so growing up it was just my parents and me. My dad didn’t have much time to talk or play; he was out the door to work before 7am each morning, and back at dinnertime. Ours has always been a relationship of few words but many shared experiences. Sitting on the couch together watching football, trailing after him doing menial gardening labor, leaning against the fridge watching him work his magic in the kitchen.
Now, we take long walks in the neighborhood where I grew up. We talk more now (perhaps because we’re both adults and there’s more in common), and I’m hearing bits and pieces of his life at various stages. I have to connect the dots, as he’s not going to do it for me. But I do, and we laugh, and then we walk silently again.
My dad did not fit the picture of today’s ideal, engaged parent. His world and mine were separate in many ways. What I never doubted, though, not for a second, was his unwavering love and support. That came through without words, without flourish. I can see now that our “quality time” was spent in the back yard weeding, or in the driveway washing the car, or at the dinner table. There were no big vacations or father-daughter “special times” that had to be carved out. The mortar of our relationship was the mundane, everyday stuff of our middle-class, suburban life.
My dad only knows how to be himself. The idea of affecting the persona of “good parent” simply makes no sense to him. He’s not perfect. He has a temper, he tends to procrastinate, and he had limited tolerance for emotional displays when I was a kid. (His stern response to whatever momentary trauma I was dealing with was “Stop crying.”) And none of that matters. In fact, I am grateful that I know him, not some manufactured version of what the culture of the day told him he should be.
The lessons I learned (and continue to learn) from my dad come from a place of absolute authenticity. The most important thing I learned is that quality time with our kids is within reach every day, in the simplest of activities. The secret lies in letting our kids know — and love — us for who we are, not who we think we should be.
Asha Dornfest is the co-author of Minimalist Parenting: Enjoy Modern Family Life More By Doing Less and the publisher of Parent Hacks, a site crammed with tips for making family life easier.