My sandy-haired, gap-toothed daughter has written “I love Daddy” in green chalk on the driveway, and of course it’s gratifying to get this endorsement, but a father is never sure if he’s doing the right thing or not. I am an indulgent parent who wants to make her happy, but instead of taking her to swim class, I wonder if I shouldn’t send her to hoeing school. I learned to hoe when I was her age and soon thereafter to pick potatoes. How will she find happiness if she doesn’t learn about work?
There is a photograph of my grandpa Keillor standing in his farmyard in Ramsey Township, Minn., cap pulled down over his ears, denim jacket buttoned, coveralls, barn boots, pitchfork, on a bitterly cold day, chores to do, and he looks truly happy. Work is a blessing. There is enough passivity and mediocrity in the world without us adding to it. Work, for the night is coming; pull your weight, do your job.
The good people I come from were graduates of the College of the Crash, class of 1929. They valued hard work and persistence. They enjoyed their coffee breaks, not the $3.50 kind with froth and a shot of caramel, which would be sort of spendy for them, but the kind where the waitress brings around the glass carafe and says, “Let me warm that up for you.” It was the work around the break that gave the break its sweetness, not the coffee.
Of course one rebelled against this. You saw your dad collapse in his chair after supper and fall asleep reading the paper, and be awakened by your mother to go to bed, and you said to yourself, “My life will be different. I will think, I will read books.”
We rebelled on the basis of poor information. We considered our people to be “vanilla,” as we used to say, meaning bland, but we were ignorant of vanilla. The vanilla bean itself is not bland or simple, nor is vanilla extract; it’s as rich and complicated as chocolate. If the only vanilla you know is what McDonald’s sells, then yes, vanilla means emptiness. But the emptiness is in you, my dear, not in your people.
So you read books and thought big thoughts and sought a different life, and you achieved it, if you did, by virtue of the very qualities you rebelled against that your dad instilled in you. He may not have hugged you or encouraged your fantasy life, but he taught you to buckle down and attend to business and to thrive on it. It was this persistence that enabled you to become the self-absorbed romantic you are today. And now here you are in your pre-geriatric years, drinking $3.50 coffee and worrying about how to bring up your children.
Solomon said, “The thing that has been is the thing that shall be; and the thing that is done is that which shall be done: there is nothing new under the sun.” But he never went to Wal-Mart. I miss the old times when there was a downtown, a center, a cluster of tall buildings seen from afar as you rode the bus or streetcar to a Xanadu of a department store redolent of perfume and fabric, and later to the Woolworth’s lunch counter for the grilled cheese and chicken soup, and everybody seemed to be more or less in the same boat.
We all went to public schools and we knew certain songs by heart, the one about the E-ri-e is a-rising and the gin is getting low and Dinah in the kitchen and the spacious skies of course and praise God from whom all blessings flow. But then the schools started encouraging creativity and kids wrote their own songs, which were crappy, but teachers pretended they were wonderful so as not to stunt the children’s imagination, and the old songs, which truly were wonderful, got lost, which was symptomatic of a general loss of standards carried out by romantic narcissists my age, some of them friends of mine.
Nonetheless, I am loved in green capital letters by a girl who yells “Daddy! Daddy!” and comes running from a long way off and puts her arms around my neck and kisses me, the prodigal father, and this gives me some hope, though I understand that this level of affection may change when the daughter gets to be 13 or so. But I am trying not to think about that.
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(Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)
© 2006 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.