The words my dad gave me


When I sit down to write about my dad, it’s hard to know where to start.  I could write about his wisdom, or his sense of humor, or his legendary patience (a quality which came in handy time and time again as he shepherded me through   my algebra homework in junior high).   But I think I’ll write about something else.

I’ll write about his love of well-chosen words.

For those who don’t know him, my dad is a retired electrical engineer.  But years ago, someone described him as a Renaissance Man, and that’s really the perfect description.  He’s a science guy with the soul of a poet, and those two  qualities don’t often go together.  This means that I grew up around a guy who could help me with my physics homework but who could also get excited about visiting the home of the Brontë sisters in England.  My dad has always appreciated a good turn of phrase; he is a big Lincoln fan, one who has long held the Gettysburg Address in high esteem for its pithy brilliance.  And this love of language is evident in my dad’s own words, too.

For Christmas in 1984, at the age of eleven, I asked for (and got) The Best of James Herriot.  It was during a brief phase when I thought I might want to be a veterinarian when I grew up, a plan which was inevitably thwarted by my profound lack of interest in anything remotely scientific (see “help me with my physics homework,” above).  But I still have the book, and I love it for what is written on the flyleaf, in my dad’s singular engineer script:


When you are eleven, you don’t fully understand the import of those words, I think.  But in the years to come, every time you open the book,  you see that inscription again.  As the years pass, this idea of aiming high and not setting one’s sights too low seeps into your bones, and it influences how you engage with   the world around you.  I’ve done a few crazy-esque things in my life, like leaving home to go work in a foreign country and writing books, both of which, on some level,  still sound sort of impossible to me.   But there is another, deeper level in me that has always thought, “What the heck?  Go for it, Gin!  You can do it.”

And my dad’s words over the decades, both written and spoken, are a large part of the reason why that deeper, gutsier level is even there.

Over the last few years, as my dad has savored his retirement, he’s been following a new passion: he’s been writing about science.  His book The Elusive Notion of Motion: The Genius of Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein was published two years ago.  Just recently, he’s started a blog called Reason and Reflection.   It sounds weird to say that I’m proud of my dad, but I am.  I’m really proud of how   he has blazed new paths that are so far from what he did in his professional life, of how he has named a dream and made it happen.

When his book was published, I wrote him a congratulations card.  On it, I referenced the flyleaf of the James Herriot book and the advice that Dad gave me back in 1984.

That  card touched Dad deeply.  Later, he told me why.  It’s because when he wrote that inscription in my Christmas book all those years ago, he was paraphrasing an inscription that his parents wrote to him when he was a young man.  They are words he’s always lived by … and though I was only eleven, he passed them on to me.  And — to paraphrase Robert Frost — those words have made all the difference.

Happy Father’s Day,  Dad … and thank you.

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