By Gina Barreca
The Hartford Courant.
The most important thing my father ever said to me was, “You can always take the next bus home.”
He said it in reply to the panic on my face as he dropped me off for my first year of college. Other girls looked like Grace Kelly: On a good day in 1975, I looked like Janis Joplin. They had BMWs with ski racks on the roof; we had a 1967 Skylark with a muffler on the ground.
He knew I wanted him to turn around and get us out of town.
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But what he said was, “You don’t like it? You can always take the next bus home.”
My father gave me permission to take risks by offering a safety net.
“Go ahead, doll; even if you fail, you’re one of mine and I love you.”
He’d always been a man of few words, my father, but he used them wisely. My mother died when I was in high school and I was alone a lot. I started dating an older guy my father didn’t like. He told me he didn’t want this boy picking me up at school every day. I rolled my eyes and said “Dad, NOTHING is going on.” My father looked me in the eye and said, “I don’t care if you’re sleeping with the guy. Sex isn’t gonna kill you. I just don’t want you falling in love with this moron.”
I broke up with the kid about a week later.
There are as many kinds of paternal advice as there are fathers and father figures. I asked around and some of it surprised me, and I’m not easily surprised.
The blue ribbon for straightforward advice from a dad goes to Carly, whose parent told her: “Make him use a condom. He won’t like it, but he’ll like it good enough.”
Pamela S’s father, who was an electronic technician, put it in different terms: “Males have plugs, females have outlets. You have to be careful of corroded wires; never forget a surge protector.”
Even if most fathers mean well, their advice needs a context.
Jay Heinrichs, author of “Thank You For Arguing,” told me his dad warned him, “Never go to France. I’ve been there and the people are terrible.”
Jay explained, “My dad had been to France once, landing in Normandy in WWII. I went and told him they had improved, somewhat.”
In contrast, Roger’s father offered a lesson more direct, if not tougher, than one learned on June 6: “My father taught by example. By the time I was 12, I knew everything that a father could do wrong and knew that I never wanted to be like him.”
Many men, of different ages, told similar tales. Some fathers are unforgivably hard on sons.
Although daughters were disappointed by fathers who told them to get “Mrs.” degrees, or to learn to type because they’d never have a better skill, or to avoid “getting as fat as your mother,” many take the best of what they’ve heard to heart.
Anne Barreca, my niece and director of the Battery Park City Library in New York, was instructed to “never trust a man who’s rude to the waiter.” I hear my father’s voice in my brother’s advice.
My pal Kate’s father insisted that his daughters always have a 20-dollar bill stashed somewhere hidden so they could get a cab and get themselves out of a bad date or party. “The message was clear: Get home safely, then we can sort out what happened,” she says.
A startling amount of advice to daughters focused on vehicles. Eileen’s dad wanted her to change tires and check oil. Helen’s father said, “If you don’t like how things are going, take your foot off the gas,” which is smart thinking on all occasions.
One friend’s lesson, while superficially different from the one offered by my dad, carries essentially the same message. As Pam W’s dad dropped his daughter off for her first day of college, he yelled out the window, “Enjoy not knowing where anything is!” Pam says, “Now with every new, scary, brave change, I sink into the joy of not knowing.”
Here’s to the men who helped make their sons and daughters brave, smart and independent.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant