Paul Thomas Ryan
My father was never much for gifts. Every time his birthday, or Christmas, or Father’s Day rolled around, when I’d ask what he wanted, his answer was always the same — “Well-behaved children.” He wasn’t much for giving gifts either, not the tangible kind anyway.
No, our mother was the one who noticed what our eyes lingered on in the department store window. She was the one who sat the five of us Ryan children down each year with the Sears Wishbook to make our Christmas lists. By the time I stopped believing in Santa Claus, I knew she was also the one who bought us the items on those lists that she deemed appropriate and affordable. Mom was the parent who cared about wish gratification, and Dad—well, Dad was the Grinch who, while he grudgingly financed the purchasing, believed that gift-giving was unnecessary, even irksome.
Dad was an engineer by trade and a practical man by nature. It would be more efficient, I heard him say to Mom, to write us each a check so we could buy our own presents, or, better yet, to not give us anything since we already had so much. (We were comfortably middle class, while he had grown up quite poor.) This idea was one my mother, thankfully, didn’t buy. She gave me many memorable gifts over the years – stuffed animals I loved, a scarf set I’d been wanting, a Barbie kitchen that was a dream come true. It took becoming a grownup myself to realize that my dad, too, had given me an abundance of gifts. They just weren’t, with one exception, the kind you could wrap up and slip under a Christmas tree.
From him, I received the gift of perseverance, and the knowledge that I could make amends for my mistakes. When, inspired by the sparkling crystals inside the geodes my seventh grade teacher showed us, I inadvertently damaged his best wood chisel busting open rock after rock in hopes of finding a geode of my own, he had me spend what felt like an entire Saturday morning sharpening it. How could there be so many grades of sandpaper, from coarse to fine? But after the final step—oil on his whetstone—he declared the chisel good as new.
My dad gave me the gift of knowing I could take care of myself. He wouldn’t let me get my driver’s license until I demonstrated, lug nut by lug nut, that I could change a tire.
He gave me the gift of noticing me. Once, when I was in high school, after a stormy morning with my mother, I’d left home for the afternoon, wanting more than anything to run away from home. When I walked in the door, his first words were “Welcome home.” How had he known?
He sent me my own post card every time he went on a business trip. This may sound like a small thing, but it wasn’t. Since I had four siblings, getting a card addressed just to me was special, no matter what was pictured. I teased him for years about the card he sent of a prison, with a note on the back pointing out the rust beneath each barred window. His tactic of trying to scare me into being a law-abiding citizen was too transparent, I said.
But the truth is that, along with the gift of letting me know he was thinking of me, he was also teaching me the value of paying attention. Would I have become a writer without my dad’s influence? I’m not so sure. When, in a creative writing class, I encountered poet Miller Williams’s advice, “Notice everything,” he wasn’t telling me anything new. The smallest of details didn’t escape my father; he was fascinated by the way life worked, down to the effect rain has on iron.
It’s because of my father that I, at age ten, inspired by some fascinating bit of information (I think it was that glass is actually not a solid but a slow liquid) blurted out, “When I grow up, I’m going to learn everything about everything.” My no-nonsense father had to straighten me out. I could, he told me, learn a little about a lot of things or a lot about a few things. But no one could learn everything about everything.
That didn’t mean, however, that one couldn’t keep learning and growing. This, my father taught me by example. Just after his eightieth birthday, he announced that he was going to have knee surgery. It was elective, he said, but he but he figured he might as well go ahead with it while he was “still young and spry.” Shortly before this, after caring for my mother through several long years of the debilitating illness that took her life, he began taking voice lessons, singing in his church choir, and donating his time and extraordinary handyman’s skills to a home for unwed mothers. He became so proficient at computer skills that he volunteered through a free program to help “the elderly” with their taxes. He never gave up his habit of reading until the wee hours of the morning.
I lost my father on January 2, 2009, this quiet, humble man with a Great Depression mentality who tracked every nickel he spent. We know this, because we found the ledger books in his office, dating back to his Coast Guard Academy days. Yet, just days before he died, my sister told me, he asked her to help him write and mail his annual checks to a number of charities he supported generously. I’d had no idea that, in addition to his other causes, he sponsored a child who lived in a third world country. My dad believed in giving. He just didn’t believe in gifts. Which is why, the Christmas I was sixteen, it was as much a shock as it was a surprise to find a small package under the tree with a gift tag that read “to Maureen from Dad.”
Inside was the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach, a parable about a sea gull determined to rise higher than any gull ever had. I have always treasured it as the only tangible gift I remember my father giving me. But, I see now, it wasn’t so different from all the intangible gifts he gave me over the years. It whispered to me that he wanted me to reach for my dreams, shouted to me that he believed I could fly. His faith in me has been a source of strength for every dream I’ve taken on, from being a mother to having my books published to starting my own business. His example will see me through life without him, will keep me growing and learning as my own years tick by. What my dad really wrapped inside Christmas paper my sixteenth year was something he gave me over and over again—the gift of wings.
An award-winning poetry and nonfiction writer, Maureen has also been a commentator on Public Radio Station WFAE 90.7. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Texas Review, The Charlotte Observer, St.Anthony Messenger (Ohio), Potato Eyes (Maine), Kalliope (Florida), Chelsea (New York), Cincinnati Poetry Review, Catfish Stew (South Carolina), Catalyst (Georgia), and Calyx (Oregon). She is the author of Spinning Words into Gold, a Hands-On Guide to the Craft of Writing, a grief workbook entitled How Do I Say Goodbye?, and two collections of poetry, This Scatter of Blossoms and When the Leaves Are in the Water. Her essay “Waiting for My Real Life to Begin” appears in Marlo Thomas’s The Right Words at the Right Time, Volume 2 (Atria Books, 2006) and her poem “Such Foolishness” is included in Thirteen (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2003).
Read Justin Hunt’s story about his father here.