One Thing I Learned from My Old Man

August 16, 2011 by  
Filed under Joe Kita Blogs

by Joe Kita

And one thing I tried to teach my kids.

My father never really liked fishing. In fact, he didn’t even like fish, except breaded flounder once in a while on Fridays during Lent. Nevertheless, he’d wake up at 4 a.m. on summer weekends when I was a boy to take me fishing. Sometimes he’d take a whole week off from work and we’d drive 12 hours to Canada, where the lunkers lived. He even bought an old john boat so we could finally reach where I was always trying to cast. For a man who never learned to swim, that must have been a titanic task.

We fished all over eastern Pennsylvania for many years but, come to think of it, I don’t remember my father ever catching much of anything. He’d sit in the back of the boat in his white T-shirt and ball cap, working the motor or the oars so I could get the best cast. He liked to drink 16-ounce cans of Budweiser because, for some unknown reason, it doesn’t make you pee as much as other brands, and that was important on a boat as small as ours. He also liked eating salami sandwiches on a soft roll with a fresh cucumber from his garden. You wouldn’t think it, but there is no better breakfast on a hot August morning.
Although we must have spent months together in that boat, I can’t remember having one noteworthy conversation about anything. You’d think that if a father weren’t fishing for fish, then maybe he’d be baiting his son. But no, he’d just sit there, his line spiraling loosely into the water, the net always within easy grasp in case I hooked the big one.

When I became a teenager, I started thinking he was stupid and uninspired. And although I loved fishing more than anything in life, I was often glad we were floating far out on a lake, where no one could see his ineptitude or my embarrassment.

My father never really enjoyed playing ball, either. In fact, as my pitching arm got stronger and curveball broke sharper, he became visibly intimidated during our games of backyard catch. Sometimes he wouldn’t even try to get in front of the pitch, opting instead to let it bore to a stop in the thick bushes behind him. Nonetheless, most nights after supper, he’d ask if I felt like throwing. He’d call imaginary balls and strikes until the twilight made it difficult for him to see, yet never once was he the first to say, “Let’s quit.” He even bought a catcher’s mitt so he could be a more realistic target. And he volunteered as an assistant coach for all my youth teams. For a man who had never played sports as a boy and knew little of the rules, that was a gutsy play.

My father came to all my games, even when I was in high school and he had to leave work early. He kept my batting average, ERA, and other stats in a notebook and updated them with an auditor’s precision. Yet when I look back now, I realize that he never truly loved the game itself. For him, there was no romance in the feel of fresh-cut infield grass, no seductive quality to the smell of Neat’s foot oil rubbed into a new glove. He didn’t have a favorite pro team, or one article of clothing with a star player’s name on the back. He preferred the stock market report to the box scores and leaving early ahead of traffic to awaiting a possible Phils’ rally in the bottom of the ninth.

It wasn’t until many years later when I had children of my own and my father was no longer around to fish or play catch with me that I finally made sense of it all. Of course he didn’t love fishing; he loved how excited and happy fishing made me. And of course he didn’t love the game; he loved me in the game. And that was enough. When you’re alone with your son in a Canadian dawn and he’s concentrating on dropping his best lure next to a promising stump, it doesn’t matter if you are, too. When you’re out back with your boy on a summer evening and he’s trying to throw nine consecutive strikes to fan an imaginary side, it doesn’t matter if you’re capable of doing that, too. In fact, it’s almost better if you’re not, because otherwise you’d miss these magic moments.

My father was indifferent about fishing and baseball and many other things he did with me. But he was smart enough to recognize that the activity connected us, and that it was a way to promote confidence, enthusiasm, and drive without ever having to lecture me on those topics. By first giving me the opportunity to sample the things I was curious about and then supporting me unconditionally while I pursued them, he helped me discover for myself the power of passion. And lest you conclude that my father was passionless, then let me volunteer this: After much consideration, I think his passion, the thing that brought him the greatest joy in life, was simply watching me be passionate. And I believe that’s true for every father.

My young son and daughter are always saying, “Watch me.” Whether they’re coloring, playing, or creating, they seem to have an innate urge to be observed. Most times, though, I don’t feel like looking. For some reason, I’m always more willing to watch for trouble than I am to look for delight. That is, until I remember my father sitting in that boat or standing in the first-base coach’s box. I realize then that I don’t have to be as enthusiastic as they are; it’s enough for me just to be there. And if I can’t find enjoyment in the activity itself, then I can most certainly derive pleasure from their doing it themselves.

It’s easy to do what I want when I’m with my kids and feel good about it afterwards. It’s much more difficult, however, to do what they want and feel equally satisfied. I believe now that my father was perhaps the greatest fisherman and ballplayer of all time, not because he was very good at either one but because he had the patience and wisdom to raise someone who was.
Excerpted from Wisdom of Our Fathers by Joe Kita. To read more about this book and order a copy, click here.


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