Being Number Six

All my life, I have been referred to as “number six” by my father. Dad used numbers to describe me and my five older sisters whenever he spoke about us to others. Sometimes we would be at a party and he would call us over to introduce us to a friend.

Have you met Caroline? She’s my number five daughter. Caroline – come over here!

When my parents were first taking me to medical appointments to determine the cause of my disability, Dad always pulled out his wallet whenever the nurse or social worker expressed astonishment upon learning I was the youngest of six girls. Beaming with pride he would flip through the photographs in the plastic sleeves, naming us and offering a tidbit of information he felt important to share.

That’s Susan, number one. She’s pregnant with our first grandchild. And Mary Jane, number two. She’s studying to be a violin teacher.

Photo of six white women varying in age and their elderly parents. One of the women, the author, is seated in a wheelchair.

Dad always said he didn’t care what jobs we did when we grew up, as long as we we did them to the best of our abilities and helped others along the way. When he bragged about us to my orthopedic surgeon, he was as proud of Donna as he was of Sandy.

Smart girls, both of them. All of my girls went to college, and hopefully Denise will too. 

Dad had his favorite stories about each of us. When we gathered as a group for a family dinner or celebration, he would reminisce and share his memories with whoever happened to be around the table. It didn’t matter if you had heard the story many times before, you still laughed when he talked about the time he sent the “five girls” (how he always spoke about my sisters before the time I arrived) outside with a gallon of white paint so he could watch a football game in peace and quiet while they painted the fence. My mother arrived home later that afternoon to find my sisters had used an entire can of paint on just five feet of fence, but also on the grass, rocks, their hair and clothes.

You should have seen her face! She was fit to be tied. You girls were covered in paint.

I was an adult before I realized how much Dad had worried about me. As a child, I never knew he was anxious about whether I would become ill, or if my disability would shorten my life. Then last year at our annual DiNoto cookie bake, he took my hand as I was telling him about work and gave it a squeeze.

Well Niecie, I guess I don’t have to worry about you dying young anymore.

I was stunned, but tried to laughingly reassure him I was doing just fine and was now too old to be considered young if I were to die. While I squeezed his hand in return, I asked if he was still truly worried about me that much.

When you were little, they couldn’t tell us much about what to expect for you. I’m your father. I worry about not just you, but all my girls, all the time. It’s what dads do.

That was the last time I saw my father in person, the last time I held his hand, the last time he pulled me in for a hug and kiss.

Three weeks later, my phone rang as I was returning home from my early morning swim on a cold December morning. When the caller ID on my phone read “Mom and Dad” but Caroline’s voice came through the line, I knew something was wrong. Caroline’s voice cracked as she told me Dad had died. I don’t remember much of the rest of the conversation, probably because some of the other sisters were trying to call me and my phone kept beeping with incoming calls.

The day passed in a blur as I made plans to leave for a week in my hometown. I washed and packed clothes, wrapped Christmas presents and prepared cookie trays while fielding calls and texts from friends and family. Eventually I crashed in bed, exhausted from crying on and off all day. I fell asleep reviewing my mental list of what was left to pack in the morning.

I dreamed about Dad that night. He was getting ready for a fishing trip. I was a child, standing next to the pile of his gear, watching as he packed the back of his truck. When he was done, he slammed the tailgate. Turning to me, he smiled and tucked my hair behind my ear.

Don’t worry Niecie. I’ll bring back enough for all of us.

 

 

Happy Father’s Day Sam!

Once again, it is Father’s Day in the United States and some other countries. I suspect I will see many posts honoring fathers on social media today. I originally wrote this post in honor of my father, Sebastian or “Sam” as he is known to everyone, as part of my 30 Days of Thanks posts. It has been a stressful week, so I am taking the easy way out and sharing it again as most of my readers were not here for the original 30 Days series.

Happy Father’s Day to all the fathers out there, and to all who serve as father figures to others. My thoughts and prayers are with my friends and family who are facing their first Father’s Day without their father.

Thirty Days of Thanks – Sam

When I decided to do the 30 Days of Thanks challenge, I knew my mother and father would have to be mentioned. I decided to write about them separately because they each deserve their own day in this month of gratitude. People who have good relationships with their parents often credit them for shaping their own success. I never appreciated just how amazing my own parents were until I left home and realized others were not blessed with the same family love and acceptance I have known.

My father, Sam as he is known to everyone, is one of the most influential people in my life. He is outgoing, friendly, and quick with a story if given an audience. He was the manager of the grocery store in my little hometown, Bainbridge, for more than 30 years. As such, he was the first employer of many – myself included. It seems almost everyone in town knows Sam. To this day, when we go out in town together someone always says, “Hi Sam!” He will have conversations with them all even if he is in a rush.

My brother-in-law’s family used to hold an annual bluegrass festival. For several years, my father ran the concession stand. My friends and I were eager to earn money so we would spend the weekend at the festival serving hot dogs and hamburgers. We were the recipients of his pearls of wisdom as he flipped burgers and sang along to the music. Several of those sentences continue to guide me today.

“The customer is always right – even when they’re wrong.”

“I don’t care if you have a calculator or a cash register – you have to be able to count money and make change in your head.”

“People are more likely to do what needs to be done if you tell them why.”

“It doesn’t matter what job you do or what you learn in school. The most important skill you can possess is the ability to get along with people. If you can do that, you can do anything.”

If I am faced with a problem or dilemma, I ask myself what Dad would do. Unfortunately when I talk to him about things he often says, “I can’t tell you what to do – you have to figure that out on your own.” But the conversation often helps me uncover new ideas or angles I may not have considered. He usually has a story to tell about the matter at hand.

Dad is generous with his time and talents. I learned the importance of becoming engaged in my community by watching him. Bainbridge is home to an annual canoe regatta and for many years he coordinated and managed the chicken barbecue. Dad volunteered for the church, the Knights of Columbus, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Rotary Club. In his 70’s he began helping serve “the old folks” at the senior meals; many were younger than him. A few years ago when he was hospitalized I learned he had adopted a child in South America through a church charity and wanted to make sure I would continue to support him if “something happens to me.” He purchased a subscription to the New York State Conservationist  magazine for my niece when she moved to North Carolina for a teaching job so she could help her students understand New York was more than New York City.

Photo of the author, a woman in a wheelchair, and her father in front of a large pine tree.
Dad and I in front of “our tree.”

My parents were older when I came into the family. Dad claims I was planned but I’m not sure my mother was planning for daughter number six. Last year my parents celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. Dad and I posed for a photo in front of “our tree” – the pine we planted together when I was five. As we stood there, he leaned over my shoulder and said, “I’m so glad we had you.” I choked up when I turned to kiss his cheek, grateful for the man who for so many years has served as my moral compass and a source of love. His belief in me – in all of us – and his admiration are gifts beyond measure. I honor him by doing my best in the hope I continue to make him proud.

Seven Secrets of Success from Sam

Today is Father’s Day here in the United States. I mention my country, because not all countries celebrate Dad today. For example, Australians celebrate in September. I’m sure others will be sharing stories about their Dad today. I have already seen many photos on social media. Sadly, too many friends of mine are experiencing the first Father’s Day without their dad this year.

My father, Sam, has been a father figure to many people over the years. I wrote about Dad last year as part of my 30 Days of Thankfulness. In that post I included some pearls of wisdom I’ve learned from Sam. I would like to expand on those today, in tribute to my father. Happy Father’s Day Dad. Thank you for always believing in me, and for teaching me to believe in myself. I love you, and even though I’m not with you today, hopefully one of the sisters who is there will share this with you.

Dad
Sam, barking orders at a family picnic. Photo courtesy of A. Conklin.

1. The Customer is Always Right.

Dad managed the grocery store in my small hometown for more than thirty years. He was many people’s “first boss.” As a manager, he went out of his way to make sure all his employees knew this phrase. Even when they’re wrong, the customer is always right. My first career was not in sales, but still involved customer service as I was providing speech therapy to clients every day. I realized many times the “customer” (the client or person being served) just wants to be understood, and feel validated. Making the customer feel “right” does not always mean you are “wrong.” It can also mean you have made them feel important. Dad made, and still makes, people feel important.

2. Learn How to Get Along with People.

I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard my father say “It doesn’t matter what job you do or what you learn in school. The most important skill you can possess is the ability to get along with people. If you can do that, you can do anything.” There have been many instances in my life where my ability to navigate a social situation was more important than the book knowledge in my head. Dad was right about this one.

3. Be Self-Sufficient.

The night before I started kindergarten, Dad sat with me on the couch and told me it was important to do well in school. I don’t remember his exact words, but his advice was something like this. “You’ll have to learn as much as you can, because when you grow up you’ll have to rely on your brains for work. Your muscles won’t allow you to do a physical job, so you’ll have to have smarts.” He also told me repeatedly as a teenager that I would have to be able to take care of myself, without relying on anyone else to support me. This was often followed by a reminder that he and Mom would not be around forever, so I shouldn’t rely on them. I don’t have to look too far to find the source of my stubborn determination and my need for independence. I am grateful Dad encouraged me to seek ways to do things on my own. I know too many women with disabilities who are trapped in unsafe co-dependent relationships because they have not found a way to live independently.

4. Laughing is Important.

Dad is a fun guy. He is quick with a story, and will laugh frequently during the telling. You find yourself laughing with him, as he reminisces. Dad is not afraid to laugh at himself either. A few years ago at our family holiday cookie bake, Dad wore an elf hat all day. Towards the end of the day, as we were packing up cookies and saying goodbye, he took the hat off and started laughing harder and harder. Unbeknownst to the rest of us, he had been growing increasingly worried about his hearing all day due to a constant ringing in his ears. He didn’t notice the tiny bell on the end of the hat until he removed it from his head. All day long, the bell had been ringing next to his ear, causing him to think something was wrong with his hearing! We laughed so hard we cried as he told us this. We still laugh each year at cookie bake when we think about the ringing in Dad’s ears.

Birthday
Photo courtesy of S. DiNoto

5. Show Your Love.

My family members are “huggers.” We greet and say farewell with hugs and kisses. We say “I love you.” As a child, I learned to demonstrate affection by watching my parents and my older sisters. Dad would come home from work, and greet Mom with a hug in the kitchen. The first year I went away for two weeks of summer camp, he sent me a card telling me how quiet it was at home without me, and how he missed me. When I was an exchange student, he sent me a Christmas card reminding me distance doesn’t change the love you feel for someone. My best friend, Steph, routinely washes and reuses Zip-lock bags. While I was visiting Mom and Dad, I found a fancy bag dryer in one of their catalogs and mentioned it would make a great gift for Steph. Two weeks later, upon my return, I found Dad had made me a bag dryer from corks and dowels, telling me to save my money and give this one to Steph. He may not always be the first to say, “I love you,” but he shows his love in little gestures all the time.

Dad & Mom
Dad pulled Mom onto his lap for a photo on her birthday.

6. Get Involved.

Growing up, I watched Dad volunteer in the community with the Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club and the church. When he retired, he helped serve “the old folks” (his words, not mine) at the senior meal site in town. Dad has always believed it is important to give back to the community, to help those who need assistance. As a teenager, I was occasionally invited to join a Rotary Club service project. The motto of Rotary International is “Service Above Self.” I can’t prove my understanding and experience with this motto in action helped in my own acceptance to the Rotary Youth Exchange Program, but I know my willingness to become active in service didn’t hurt. Dad often said, “Everyone can do something, even you.” I’m grateful he encouraged me to do for others, rather than just letting people help me without giving something in return.

7. Go Fishing.

When I tell people I have five older sisters, their response is usually, “All girls? Your poor father!” While I’m sure it wasn’t easy living with so much estrogen under one roof, the truth is when my dad needed a break, he went fishing. He would take a day, maybe invite a friend, drive out to Cayuga or Seneca Lake, and hopefully come home with dinner. I would often ask to go along, and on the rare occasion I did get to fish with Dad, I was repeatedly reminded that the fish don’t like to hear talking. I’m sure this was because Dad just wanted to sit quietly with his thoughts. I have yet to find scientific data to support the theory that quiet fishing results in increased catch rates. Maybe fishing isn’t your thing – it’s not mine. The point is, everyone needs to take a break and spend a quiet day in nature to recharge. Dad knew this.

What lessons did you learn from your dad? Share them in the comments!