Seeking Connection: We become what our fathers teach us

Published 4:30 pm Sunday, June 18, 2017

“I  believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren’t trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.” — Umbto Eco

I’d love to tell you I’m a decent human due to my natural intelligence, because of my creative, interior world, since I meditate every day. Those only tell a small part of the story. I’m me because of the amazing male mentors who helped guide me on my journey. Like a cairn, I sit atop the stones of my fathers, balanced there against the elements by the lessons I’ve learned from the patriarchs of my life.

One of my very earliest memories is of fishing off a Guatemalan dock with my paternal grandfather Butler and my dad Rankin. We’d gone not to lie in the sun, but to build orphanages and offer free dental work to those who didn’t have access to dental care. I’ve heard it said that infants see themselves as the center of the universe; they cannot discern where their body ends and their parents’ begins. My father did not orbit me. Rankin wanted me to know I was treasured, but that others ultimately mattered more. He held me accountable in being a decent human being. You know how some 1970’s era dads would say, “Clean your plate. There are starving children in South America”? My dad would actually take me to meet those children, figure out how to bridge the language gap to create connection and form teams for street kickball. It is from this man that I inherited my gypsy soul, an insatiable need to see and understand the world at large.

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He is the most vibrant 73-year old I know. In his 60s, he started taking yoga. Learned to do a headstand. Took Spanish lessons until he could dream in another language. Built a yoga studio for his favorite daughter. Moved to South America and started a whole new life as a full-time volunteer. He’ll tell you that if you stop learning, you may as well just dig yourself a grave and take a dirt nap. Surviving is for the uninterested, but the thriving is in the going, the growing.

While my father is always in motion, my father-in-law Jim is gentle, quiet, and calm. My husband has inherited his knack for pondering. At the family beach week each year, the two will sit beside each other on the porch for hours, just rocking and starting out at the ocean. Not talking, not reading. Just being. I often wonder how many times he bit his tongue in the earliest years of knowing me. Even now, we disagree on politics and most social issues. I’m certain my 20-something liberal, immature, know-it-all attitude was grating. He must have worried that his son was marrying a self-absorbed idiot. But he always listened with his full attention, patient and loving with me until I became more patient and loving as well. When we married, he advised us to always put the needs of the other above our own. This gentle, quiet man has led by example, that truth evident in his quiet integrity.

Jim handed down that integrity to his son. David and I were reluctant parents. I had been on birth control for many years when we found ourselves unexpectedly expecting. It was clearly destined to be, as my husband is a wonderful father, present and generous with affection. He writes Izzie and I love notes every day, short texts or notes stuck on a mirror to remind us that we are his heart. He shares equally with me the responsibilities of parenting and household chores and cooks every meal in our house. There are no delineated gender roles around here; he is secure in his manhood and is teaching our daughter that men fold laundry and women run a business. He is patient and kind, taking time to explain things to Izzie instead of simply saying, “because I said so”. He leaves work at work, unless it’s to share a blessing with us, how Ms. Brown walked all the way down the hall today and Mr. Scott got to go home and his family was so grateful. He’s as gentle with his elderly patients as he is with his daughter, demonstrating that the elderly have incredible lessons to teach us yet, if we’ll simply pay attention. His best attribute as a father is that he is a wonderful husband, showing that if marriage is his why, the how of parenting is easy.

I know how blessed I am. Perhaps Father’s Day is a painful reminder to you of all that you have lost, or never had. It may be that you had an absentee father. One who drank too much or was emotionally absent. Maybe your dad has died, leaving a giant hole in your heart where his laughter used to live. Whatever your circumstance, take this weekend to write your father a letter, telling him what your heart needs to say. Be it thank you or how could you; take the opportunity to speak your truth, as each of us are shaped by our dads. It’s never to late to put into words the things you wish to share.

Erin Smith is the owner of the OM place in Winchester, the author of “Sensible Wellness for Women” and the online host of a yoga and mindfulness channel for Eppic Films. Send her a shout out at or play along at