One of the reasons we flew through the southwest was to make it to Oklahoma City by October 6th. Why would we want to visit the thriving metropolis of OKC so badly, you ask? Well, we had a flight back to the DC area to attend my Dad’s retirement party. The expeditious driving and flight home with two rambunctious kids was worth it. Having fun exploring the country is great, but seeing my father in action at his very last annual conference, receiving numerous accolades from his staff and peers, was an experience not to be missed.
Growing up in the 80’s and early 90’s, my father made a conscious decision to slow down his career so as not to miss the childhood of my brother and me. In exchange for passing up career opportunities such as promotions or fast paced jobs in other markets, my Dad was our soccer coach, attended all our sporting events, and was home most every day in time for dinner. While it was fantastic to have my Dad at games and as coach (the ’88 Derwood Goalbusters were a force not to be reckoned with), it was his insistence on holding family meals every night, where I owe him a debt of gratitude.
Where it was my mom who did all the cooking (the meals were great Mom!), it was my Dad who was the Moderator/Professor/Fuhrer for the evening. I can’t say my parents were strict or authoritative, but when it came to dinner, there were rules to be followed. Dad would get home every night at 5:30pm setting off a military level deployment of actions. Nick, my brother, and I would snap to attention, “Hi Dad, welcome home,” then our He-Man and Star Wars figurines were tossed aside and we were off to clear the table (no toys or books allowed during dinner). Napkins and utensils were placed according to proper table setting guidelines (fork on left on top of napkin and knife and spoon to the right). Whoever wasn’t setting the table, would fill up glasses of milk. Always milk, no juice. After dinner was served and our seats taken (Dad always at the head of the table), there were a couple of additional rules that were ALWAYS to be followed; no elbows on the table, napkins to be placed in our laps and we were never ever EVER to chew with our mouths open. Dinner wasn’t over until our plates were cleared and we were excused by Dad. Failure to follow these rules would result in punishment straight out of Hammurabi’s Code. Dad wouldn’t (usually) use force to punish us, but he was a master at psychological warfare. Whenever my brother or I would refuse to eat some peas or defy his authority by putting our elbows on the table, Dad would roll his tongue around his mouth and glare at you, similar to Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns [come to think about it my Dad loves those movies and he definitely stole the move from Clint]. Nine times out of 10, this is all Dad had to do and his Professor X mind control would have you moving those elbows into your lap quicker than he could whip out his Smith & Wesson and fill you with lead.
While dinner wasn’t a place to play, it was my first training ground for the “real world.” It was here that I learned how to converse with adults, my parents. My brother and I would have to field questions such as, “what did you learn in school today or what do you think about the latest current event?” Easy answers like, “I didn’t learn anything” or “I don’t know,” weren’t allowed. Opinions and stories were always encouraged and no one was ever belittled for not agreeing with the parents. Throughout childhood, I dreaded dinner time and the stories and annoying questions that I knew were coming. When you’re 8 years old, hearing your Dad talk about Civil Rights in the 60’s or having to offer an opinion on Beethoven’s Ode to Joy is not going to get you excited for fish and vegetables at 5:30. With that said, while 13 years of public school helped prepare me for college, it was dinner time with my brother, Mom and Dad that helped prepare me for the real world.
While attending my Dad’s retirement party, it became obvious the people he worked with and managed not only liked him, but loved him. So much so, that after a couple of days of hearing over the top praise, it became slightly nauseating (just kidding Dad, sorta). While I’m impressed at the accolades and success that my father experienced at the association he managed for nearly 20 years, I am most impressed by the career sacrifices he made to always be there for my brother and I while we were growing up. My Dad could have easily taken on more responsibility and growth early within his own career in the name of providing more money or security for his family. Choosing the less glamorous route, he chose to put work on hold at 5, so he could conduct dinnertime teachings to two punk kids and coach a bunch of rambunctious 5 – 10 year olds twice a week and on the weekends. Growing up, I don’t think I ever gave my father the credit he deserved for taking this path and being such an influential figure in my life. Only now, with two kids of my own can I see the real value in what he was doing.
As I continue to transition onto the next phase of my career and evaluate new business opportunities, I find myself frequently asking, “will this opportunity allow me to be home for dinner every night?” If the answer is no, I quickly discard the idea. With that said, my children will probably grow sick of seeing me over the coming years. They’ll probably despise the dinnertime rules, motivational speeches, dad jokes, and other parenting decisions. They may even go through long periods of time of not being able to stand me. If I’m lucky, maybe one day they’ll attend my retirement party and thank me.
Enjoy retirement Dad, just remember to keep your mouth closed when you eat.