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Discussion Club Intermediate: Why I Chose my Father to be my Dad

Bettie B. Youngs
I grew up on a beautiful sprawling farm in Iowa; raise by parents who are often described as the “salt of the earth and the backbone of the community”. They were all the things we know good parents to be: loving, committed to the task of raising their children with high expectations and a positive sense of self-regard. They expected us to do morning am evening chores, get to school on time, get decent grades and be good people.
There are six children. Six children! It was never my idea that there should be so many of us, but then no one consulted me. To make matters worse, fate dropped me off in the middle of the American heart land in a most harsh and cold climate. Like all children, I thought that there had been a great universal mistake and I had been placed in the wrong family – most definitely in the wrong state. I disliked coping with the elements. The winters in Iowa are so freezing cold that you have to make rounds in the middle of the night to see that livestock aren’t stranded in a place where they would freeze to death. Newborn animals had to be taken in the barn and sometimes warmed up in order to be kept alive. Winters are that cold in Iowa!
michael-crawford-the-dad-great-for-car-home-or-office-new-yorker-cartoonMy dad, an incredibly handsome, strong, charismatic and energetic man was always in motion. My brothers and sisters and I were in awe of him. We honored him and held him in the highest esteem. Now I understand why. There were no inconsistencies in his life. He was an honorable man, highly principled. Farming, his chosen work, was his passion; he was the best. He was at home raising and caring for animals. He felt at one with the earth and took great pride in planting and harvesting the crops. He refused to hunt out of season, even though deer, pheasants, quail and other game roamed our farmlands in abundance. He refused to use soil additives or feed the animals anything other than natural grains. He taught us why he did this and we must embrace the same ideas. Today I can see how conscientious he was because this was in the mid ’50s before there was an attempt at universal commitment to earth-wide environmental preservation.
Dad was also a very impatient man, but not in the middle of the night when he was checking his animals during these late night rounds. The relationship we developed  from these times together was simply unforgettable. It made a compelling difference in my life. I learned so much about him. I often hear men and women say they spent so little time with their fathers. Indeed the heart of today’s men’s groups is about groping for a father they never really knew. I knew mine.
Back then I felt as if I was secretly his favorite child, although it’s quite possible that each of us six children felt that way. Now that was both good news and bad. The bad news was that I was the one selected by Dad to go with him for these midnight and early morning barnyard checks, and I absolutely detested getting up and leaving a warm bed to go out into the frosty air. But my dad was at his best and most lovable during those times. He was most understanding, patient, gentle and was a good listener. His voice was gentle and his smile made me understand my mother’s passion for him.
It was during these times when I was a model teacher – always focusing on the whys, the reasons for doing. He talked endlessly for the hour or hour-and-a-half that it took to make the rounds. He talked about his war experiences, the whys of the war he served in and about the region, its people, the effects of war and its aftermath. Again and again he told his story. In school I found history all the more exciting and familiar.
He talked about what he gained from his travels and why seeing the world was so important. He instilled a need and love of traveling. I had worked in or visited some 30 countries by the time I was 30 years old.
He talked about the need and love of learning and why a formal education is important, and he talked about the difference between intelligence and wisdom. He wanted so much for me to go beyond my high school degree. “You can do it”, he’d say over and over. “You’re a Burres. You are bright, you have a good mind and, remember, you’re a Burres”. There was no way I was going to let him down. I had more than enough confidence to tackle any course of study. Eventually I completed a Ph.D. and later learned a second doctorate. Though the first doctorate was for Dad and the second for me, there was definitely a sense of curiosity and quest that made both easy to attain.
He talked about standards and values, developing character and what it meant in the course of one’s life. I write and teach on a similar theme. He talked about how to make and evaluate decisions, when to cut your losses and walk away and when to stick it out, even in the face of adversity. He talked about the concept of being and becoming and not just having and getting. I still use that phrase. “Never sell out on your heart”, he said. He talked about gut instincts and hot to decipher between those and emotional sells, and how to avoid being fooled by others. He said, “Always listen to your instincts and know that all the answers you’ll ever need are within you. Take quiet time alone. Be still enough to find the answers within and then listen to them. Find something you love to do, then live a life that shows it. Your goals should stem from your values, and then your work will radiate your heart’s desire. This will divert you from all silly distractions that will only serve to waste your time – your very life is about time – how much you can grow in whatever years you are given. Care about people”, he said, “and always respect mother earth. Wherever you shall live, be sure you have full view of the trees, sky and land”.
My father. When I reflect on how he loved and valued his children, I’m genuinely sorry for the youth who will never know their fathers in this way or will never feel the power of character, ethics, drive and sensitivity all in one person – as I do in mine. My dad modeled what he talked. And I always knew he was serious about me. I knew he felt me worthy, and he wanted me to see that worth.
Dad’s message made sense to me because I never saw any conflict in the way he lived his life. He had thought about his life and he lived it daily. He bought and paid for several farms over time (he’s as active today as he was then). He married and has loved the same woman for a lifetime. My mother and he, now married for nearly 50 years, are still inseparable sweethearts. They are the greatest lovers I’ve known. And he loved his family so much. I thought he was overly possessive and protective of his children, but now that I’m a parent I can understand those needs and see them for what they are. Though he thought he could save us from the measles and almost did, he vehemently refused to lose us to destructive vices. I also see how determined he was that we be caring and responsible adults.
To this day five of his children live within a few miles of him, and they have chosen a version of his lifestyle. They are devoted spouses and parents, and agriculture is their chosen work. They are without a doubt, the backbone of their community. There is a twist to all this, and I suspect it’s because of his taking me on those midnight rounds. I took a different direction than did the other five children. I began a career as an educator, counselor and university professor, eventually writing several books for parents and children to share what I had learned about the importance of developing self-esteem in the childhood years. My messages to my daughter, while altered a bit, are the values that I learned from my father, tempered with my life experiences, of course. They continue to be passed on.
I should tell you a bit about my daughter. She’s a tomboy, a beautiful 5 foot 9 athlete who letters in three sports each year, frets over the difference between an A and a B, and was just named a finalist in the Miss Teen California contest. But it’s not her outward gifts and accomplishments that remind me of my parents. People always tell me that my daughter possesses a great kindness, a spirituality, a special fire deep inside that radiates outward. The essence of my parents is personified in their granddaughter.
The rewards of esteeming their children and being dedicated parents have had a most nourishing effect on the lives of my parents as well. As of this writing, my father is at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, for a battery of tests, scheduled to take from six to eight days. It is December. Because  of the harsh winter, he took a hotel room near the clinic (as an outpatient). Because of obligations at home, my mother was only able to stay with him for the first few days. So on Christmas Eve, they were apart.
That night I first called my dad in Rochester to say Merry Christmas. He sounded down and despondent. Then, I called my mother in Iowa. She was sad and morose. “This is the first time you father and I have ever spent the holidays apart”, she lamented. “It’s just not Christmas without him”.
I had 14 dinner guests arriving, all ready for a festive evening. I returned to cooking, but not being able to get my parents dilemma fully off my mind, I called my older sister. She called my brothers. We conferenced by phone. It was settled. Determined that our parents should not be without each other on Christmas Eve, my younger brother would drive the two hours to Rochester to pick up my father and bring him home without telling my mother. I called my father to tell him of the plans. “Oh, no”, he said, “it’s far too dangerous to come out on a night like this”. My brother arrived in Rochester and knocked at my father’s hotel door. He called me from dad’s room to tell me he wouldn’t go. “You have to tell him, Bobbie. You’re the only one he’ll listen to”. “Go, Dad”, I said gently.
He did. Tim and my dad started for Iowa. We kids kept track of their progress, the journey and the weather by talking with them on my brother’s car phone. By now, all my guests had arrived and all were a part of this ordeal. Whenever the phone rang, we put it on the speaker phone so we could hear the latest! It was just past 9:00 when the phone rang and it was Dad on the car phone, “Bobbie, how can I possibly go home without a gift for your mom? It would be the first time in nearly 50 years I didn’t get her perfume for Christmas!” By now my entire dinner party was engineering this plan. We called my sister to get the names of nearby open shopping centers so they could stop for the only gift my dad would consider giving Mom – the same brand of perfume he has given her every year at Christmas.
At 9:52 that evening, my brother and my dad left a little shopping mall in Minessora for the trip home. At 11:50 they drove into the farmstead. My father, acting like a giggling school boy, stepped around the corner of the house and stood out of sight.
“Mom, I visited Dad today and he said to bring you his laundry”, my brother said as he handed my mom the suitcases.
“Oh”, she said softly and sadly, “I miss him so much, I might as well do these now”.
Said my father coming out from his hiding, “You won’t have time to do them tonight”.
After my brother called me to relay this touching scene between our parents – these two friends and lovers – I phoned my mother. “Merry Christmas, Mother!”
“Oh, you kids…”, she said in a crackling voice choking back tears. She was unable to continue. My guests cheered.
Though it was 2,000 miles away from them, it was one of the most special Christmases I’ve shared with my parents. And, of course, to date my parents have not been apart on Christmas Eve. That’s the strength of children who love and honor their parents and, of course, the committed and marvelous marriage my parents share.
“Good parents”, Jonas Salk once told me, “give their children roots and wings. Roots to know where home is, wings to fly away and exercise what’s been taught them”. If gaining the skills to lead one’s life purposefully and having a safe nest and being welcomed back to it is the legacy of parents, then I believe I chose my parents well. It was this past Christmas that I most fully understood why it was necessary that these two people be my parents. Though wings have taken me around the globe, eventually to nest in lovely California, the roots my parents gave me will be an indelible foundation forever.
Notes on the text:
charismatic – able to attract and influence other people because of a powerful personal quality you have.
quail – a small bird like a partridge.
grope – to try to find something that you cannot see by feeling with your hands.
aftermath – the period of time after something such as a war, storm or accident where people are still dealing with the results.
a tomboy – a girl who likes playing the same games as boys.
indelible – permanent.
I. Explain to your fellow students the meaning of the word combinations given below:
to be the backbone of the community
to be committed to something
to be dropped off by the fate in…
to hold smb in the highest esteem
to feel at one with something
to embrace the same ideas
to grope for something
to be a model teacher
to instill a need and love of something
to stick it out in the face of adversity
to have gut instincts
goals should stem from values
to have drive
II. Characterize Mr. Burres. For this purpose consult a dictionary for adjectives to label him.
III. Express your personal attitude to Mr. Burres.
IV. Enlarge on the following statements:
  1. “Good parents give their children roots and wings. Roots to know where home is, wings to fly away and exercise what’s been taught them”. – Jonas Salk.
  2. The reward of esteeming their children and being dedicated parents has a most nourishing effect on the lives of parents as well.
  3. We can only feel sorry for the youth who will never love and respect, feel the power of character, ethics, drive and sensitivity all in one person.
  4. Your goals should stem from your values, and then your work will radiate your heart’s desire.
  5. We should first think of being and becoming and not just having and getting.
V. Answer the following questions:
1. What is the idea of the text?
2. What questions does the author raise and provide answers for?
3. What ways of child-rearing are mentioned in the text?
4. What makes children hold their parents in the highest esteem?
5. What qualities make a good parent?
6. Should we always listen to our instincts as well as the answers we’ll ever need are within us?
7. Should parents always be serious about their children?
8. Why did Dad’s message make sense to the author of the story?
9. Was there any way Bobby could let his Dad down?
VI. Find three paragraphs in the story beginning with “He talked about…” How can you account for the use of this stylistic device?
VII. Recommended vocabulary list:
words: charismatic, inconsistency, aftermath, to instill, to decipher, spouse;
word combinations: to be the backbone; the task of raising children with high expectations and a positive sense of self-regard; to be in awe of smb; to hold smb in the highest esteem; to be highly principled; to feel at one with smb; to embrace the same ideas; the course of one’s life; develop character; emotional sells; live a life that shows it.