Brule Lake, Summer 1974… that’s me in the basket

My Dad is a teacher. He hasn’t taught in a classroom since I was a tiny child, but that’s not that kind of teaching that I mean anyway. He’s a teacher in his soul. He can’t help it. He was home schooling, unschooling, world schooling, road schooling, whatever you want to call it, my brother and me before any of those terms had been coined, and most of the time we were in organized school too.

I learned a lot of things from my Dad:

  • How to identify most of the trees in northern forests
  • How to tie on a fish hook
  • To label every country on a blank world map
  • How to bargain, third world style
  • How to grow a really big cabbage
  • How to peel a shark and then cook his carcass in a slit in the ground
  • How to light a one match fire
  • How to paddle a canoe
  • The importance of reading aloud
  • How to goose a snowmobile at just the right moment to skim it across the thin ice at the edge of a lake and up onto the shore.
  • How to peel a log, run a chainsaw, pound a nail, build a house
  • The practical definition of perseverance
  • To plant one bean seed at each end of a certain length of stick
  • The art of spinning a yarn, telling a tale, and embroidering on the margins of the life
  • How to snorkel, sail, row, hike, road trip, explore
  • Not to stomp a bug
  • To speak softly to other creatures and form relationships with the trees and grass, flowers, deer, turkeys, skunks
  • How to tie a rope around the tail of a porcupine and drag it’s carcass up over the hill
  • Which mushrooms are safe
  • How to whistle
  • To sing in the car
  • To pick up hitchhikers
  • The importance of sharing everything we have. Everything.
  • How to cheat a euchre

These were all good things to learn, and just the tip of the iceberg, really.

These might seem like random lessons, crazy stuff my Dad knew how to do that he passed on to us, but there were deeper lessons learned in the myriad of small things taught.

In honor of my father’s 74th birthday, here are ten things, that really matter, that I’ve learned from my Dad.

Building the one room log house we would live in until I was five and summer in until I was 14.

1. Apply Strategy

My Dad is famous for providing a kid with almost enough tools to get a job done and then letting him struggle with it until he cries. I cried a lot of times over jobs that I was sure were a little too big for me, and impossible.Of course they weren’t. Dad would give us an hour, or three, then come back, supply another piece of the puzzle and let us struggle a while longer. Eventually, we’d accomplish the task, and if nothing else, we had the satisfaction of knowing that we’d conquered something that mattered.

The sound bite from these days: “Let’s apply strategy to this situation…” and then he’d proceed to show us the next part of the equation. I’ve been reminded of this as I’ve watched him teach my kids:

  • Intentionally leaving their row boat up by the house instead of down by the dock, providing three logs for rollers and letting them struggle to figure out how to roll it down to the water.
  • Wiring a piece of coat hanger in a hook to the end of a bamboo pole for Gabe to use to sound the depths of the canal where he’d stupidly dropped his machete and sheathe over board. Last summer it was his fishing pole. Both summers he worked several hours, and cried before an adult helped him find it and bring it to the surface. In the process he learned perseverance, how to hook something up, and that polarized sunglasses help a lot (at least in the bay where the water is shallow and clearer.)

The take home message: If you think about it long enough, assess the materials at hand, and apply strategy, almost any problem can be solved.

2. Keep Your Stick On The Ice

Dad ends many conversations and e-mails with this funny line. It applies to hockey. It applies to long walks on the canal in winter. It applies to trying to get from the door to the car on icy mornings. It also applies to everything else.

I suppose there are lots of ways in which a human is tempted to slip and slide through life, at the expense of a marriage, kids, the family, finances and other things I haven’t thought of yet.

  • Keep your stick on the ice
  • Stay focused
  • Pay attention
  • Plant your feet with care
  • Watch where you’re going
  • Look out for holes where you could plunge to your death
  • Don’t drop the eggs (one of my earliest memories is of collecting eggs blown off of the back of the snowmobile across the ice in a snowstorm)
  • Don’t slide around for fun too much or you’ll fall on your posterior, at best, everyone will laugh, at worst, it could hurt for a really long time.

Keep your stick on the ice, indeed.

3. Read

My earliest memories involve kerosene lantern light and my Dad’s voice reading. He’s always read to us, but I don’t remember him ever reading even one children’s book. Wait. I take that back, he did read from an anthology of children’s poetry to us quite a bit, and his favorite, consequently our favorite, was “Johnny Crow’s Garden.” We can all recite it by heart.

He didn’t teach me to read though, his mother did.

She did it at least one summer before everyone else thought it was possible, knowing her, just to show everyone up. I was three. I still have the books she wrote to teach me, with stories about my dog and my brother and me, lined with her American Legion stickers down the papers edge, my reward for each successful reading.

He read Watership Down, and selections from Josephus, and snippets from Dune. He read Three Came Home and Guerilla Wife one winter. I think my favorite was not one he read at all, but instead retold, with voices and embellishments over long, hot, buggy tropical nights as we were stranded in various places along the coasts of Mexico: Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Pap was absolutely terrifying in Dad’s version, to say nothing of Injun Joe.

I was often criticized for reading too much:

“We’re driving through the ROCKY MOUNTAINS and you’re READING!? You may never be here again!”

“You want to sit in the van and READ instead of climbing (yet another set of big, grey, boring piles of rock) these ruins?” Accompanied by my Dad’s signature head shake.

Of course he was right. I didn’t appreciate it. I wanted to read, so I did. I try to remember this when my big kids do the same thing now.

Because he read to us, we read to our kids. Tony does voices that reduce us all to tears of laughter. You should hear his “Nickabrick the dwarf,” or his long rant from Captain Ahab. Priceless. This is my father’s legacy.

My Dad still reads to us sometimes, a snippet of something he’s particularly enjoying, and he never stops handing me books. I love that.

Tunisia… with his grandchildren

4. Drive

This is where I get my wanderlust. No question.

We drove a LOT when I was a kid:

  • Back and forth to Indiana at least twice a year
  • Back and forth to Florida lots of times
  • Back and forth to Brule Lake
  • Back and forth to Mexico more than once

I joke that I was raised in the back of a van.

Actually, my favorite place to ride was between my mother’s feet in the front of the van where I could stuff kleenex in and out of the foot vent that opened with a little door and pretend I was doing laundry, or on top of the nice warm engine cap that formed a handy bench between my parents.

Josh and I would fight over who got to sit on the front half. I almost always won. Of course we did get thrown, bodily, off of that engine cap when the insulation hanging from the inside of it would catch fire, very occasionally, and my Dad would scramble to put it out.

Dad taught us, not only to drive, but how to drive:

  • Telling stories
  • Listening to books on tape
  • Reading aloud
  • Having contests (twenty five cents for the first cactus, orange tree, palm tree, etc.)
  • Counting windmills
  • Discussing big ideas

The car was his classroom.

I’ll never forget the last big drive I took with him, from Wolfe Island to Indiana where he was taking me to university. We were in the flat lands of southern Ontario, between London and Windsor and he said something that I grabbed onto with both hands:

“Just think, sister, of the threads of lives that at this very moment are being woven together as we move you south. Yours, and so many others will converge… the threads of lives that will change yours forever.”

Algeria before I was born… Dad’s on the left… with friends who picked them up, hitchhiking… and who are still part of life and family.

5. Pick Up Strays

My parents tease me that I pick up strays, but Dad is the one really responsible.

  • We adopted foreign students from the university
  • He brought home backpackers and tourists
  • He picked up strangers off of the ferry

Once, we met a couple of kids stranded with their van somewhere out west and he moved them into the camper with us for a week and into MY BED. Becky was the girl’s name… I can’t remember the guy. We made vanilla pudding and hung around a junk yard for several days while Dad helped them sort out their problems.

How many people who are dear in my life would we not know if we hadn’t picked up strays?

6. If All Else Fails, Buy A Boat

Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala

My Dad has a serious addiction. Boats. We’ve always had them and I don’t remember ever having only one. They littered our fence row for a few years, until he cleared that out for Mom’s birthday.

He’s been known to place an advert for free canoes when he thought the grandkids needed more than the one he already had, and end up with a fleet of them.

He’s driven to Florida and back over a week to pick up a motor cruiser.

I’ve lost count of the sailboats we’ve had. Josh sailed one, Lorcha, around the world for fun. The current, Skoro, was procured for the grandchildren, and they love it.

He’s built a few too. The first one I remember was a glass bottomed sailboat that he built in the upstairs of our house under construction. It almost didn’t fit down the stairs and out the front door. He threw that on a trailer and we dragged it to the coast of the Yucatan where we sailed and looked through the glass bottom until we threw up. It was my job to stand on the very front and watch for coral.

Some of our best childhood memories involve boats, and for my brother, it opened the door to his whole life.

Douz, Tunisia. Christmas Day.

7. Time Carries Us Away From All Things

Dad says this a lot too. It was often in reference to some stupid thing I’d done that had a consequence I didn’t like. But he’s used it to teach lots of lessons.

  • Nothing lasts forever
  • Pain fades
  • Glory dies
  • Hard things pass
  • Good times are fleeting too
  • Just keep breathing

The older I get the more I plumb the depths of this lesson, and I suspect I’m nowhere near the bottom.

8. Dream Big Dreams

I don’t have any memory a time in which my Dad was not actively engaged with a dream. Perhaps it was plans for a new boat, or maps laid out all over the dining room table in trip planning mode, or maybe a new house we were building or a project he was knee deep in.

He’s always dreaming something big, and he’s accomplished more than a couple things that others might say are impossible.

The sound track to these projects? Him whistling from the garage the theme song of the musical Don Quixote: “To Dream The Impossible Dream.

If I ever need help working on a dream, my Dad is eager to give his two cents worth. He usually has a book, or knows someone interesting who’s done something similar to refer us too. I don’t remember him ever saying that any dream was out of reach, or silly. He’s one of my biggest cheerleaders

Dream Big Dreams: this might be the biggest lesson of them all, the one fewest parents seem to pass on.

9. Live Long Term

B.C. Canada. He drove across the continent to fish with the kids. Really.

“If you were going to build your house on the property, where would you build it?” My Mom asked one afternoon as we were walking the acreage.

“Probably up there on the little rise, where we can see the river, up above your house.”

“Yeah, that’s a good spot,” she mused, “Your Dad planted those trees like that thinking you might want to build there.”

Pause. Process.

My Dad planted those trees, with Josh and I helping, the summers that I was five and six years old. He figured I’d want to put my house there. Nearly forty years ago.

Daddy has managed to craft a unique blend of live for the moment, do the thing you dream of and keep one eye trained on the next generation that I really hope to be able to replicate with the next generation.

10. Do It Your Way

Perhaps my favourite picture of my Dad

My Dad has never been one to be told what he can, or cannot do, and by anyone’s measure he’s crafted his own life, his own way.

He hasn’t shown the least bit of surprise or preference in any of the things we’ve done or the ways we’ve chosen to live our lives: from houses in suburbia, to ridiculous remodeling projects, to cycling across continents with tiny kids like crazy people, to living in third world places for long periods of time. He just comes and visits, and enjoys watching us do it our way, while he does it his way. Admittedly, there’s a lot of overlap!

Perhaps the greatest gift he’s given Josh and me is the freedom to do it our way, with no guilt, or coercion of any sort. The only thing he’s ever insisted on was that we finish our educations.

Dad, if you’re reading this… Happy Birthday I didn’t send a card because there just wasn’t one that fit, and I hate cheesy cards. Instead, we’re throwing you a little surprise party this weekend… everyone is coming… and I do mean everyone… I hope you enjoy it thoroughly and rejoice in your life’s work. Thanks for doing everything just right.

Jenn Sutherland-Miller

Written by

Contagious wanderlust. Writes to breathe. Dreamer of big dreams.

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