is for William.
William VanderWerff became my dad when I was ten years old. He married my mother following the death of my father. I called him “Dad” from the beginning, not because I was told I should, but because he was the Dad in the family.
One of our first father-son encounters involved the garage door. I was sent out to put bikes and toys into the garage. In a fit of infantile anger, I threw up the garage door causing it to stick so I could not pull it down.
“The garage door is stuck,” Mom said, implicating me as the cause with a hard-eyed stare and tight-set lips. Dad went out to un-stick it.
“How did the door get stuck?” Dad asked when he came back into the house. The ensuing discussion between us produced the (not mutual) understanding that it happened because I was mad at being asked to do something I did not want to do.
“Don’t you think you were being impudent?” he asked.
“No,” I said, having no idea what impudent means or a ten-year-old brain mature enough to think of asking.
“Impudent means being a smart aleck and not thinking about the feelings of others,” he explained. “Now, I think you need to go stand in the hall over there for fifteen minutes and consider whether or not you were impudent.”
A non-violent man, Dad did not believe in corporal punishment, unlike Mom who, with a stick, spanked first and might ask questions later. Standing in the hall became the standard of punishment, followed by a lecture of interminable duration—or so it seemed. Consigned to my post in the hall for countless infractions and facing yet another lecture, I often thought I would prefer a beating.
Not educated beyond high school and with no credentials in child development or child psychology, Dad had an innate sensibility about what was appropriate and when. The themes of his lectures were consistent which had more to do with my lack of comprehension than with his ability to make a point. Each time a theme was expressed, he tailored it to fit the situation.
“Use your initiative,” he would say. “Initiative means doing the right thing at the right time without being told.” It wasn’t only a matter of telling me to use my initiative. When Dad observed that I did something he considered a good example of initiative, he was quick to offer positive reinforcement. “You used your initiative,” he’d say. “Good for you.”
Thinking was a major theme throughout my childhood and adolescence. “You have to think about what you’re doing,” Dad said innumerable times. But it was more than simply “thinking about what you’re doing.” Identifying the possible actions, evaluating choices for action, and recognizing the consequence of each action were the critical elements of the decision making process. “Think about what you’re doing,” Dad would say, “and consider the consequence of each act.” He was patient and went through the steps of the decision making process each time he gave me the lecture. He stressed the importance of evaluating the choice of action in any situation, putting particular emphasis on accepting responsibility for the choice made. “Think!” he’d say. “Use your head for something besides a hat rack.”
“Do the work. Work makes you free” was another common theme. If you’re working, you’re not free, I thought. It didn’t make sense and I thought it sounded stupid. Freedom was always more important to me than work. It took a long time for the wisdom of Dad’s work-freedom admonishment to sink in.
Looking back on my childhood and adolescent years, Dad looms large. He was the dad I needed. His influence blessed my life.