Compassionate, understanding, and very very cool

By Brian Doyle | August 2, 2013


Another reason I love my dad is because when I was 16 and got my first job—in a bakery, cleaning the huge pots and vats that were so begrimed and caked with dried dough that I had to, no kidding, climb into them and scrub furiously for hours using some awful chemical that turned my hands and arms yellow—my dad yet again did something so gentle and deft and wise that I still think about it, even now, many years later, partly because I am now a dad and wish to be half as cool a dad as my dad.

I worked for a total of three evenings in that bakery. I walked there after school, through the woods and past the train station, arriving at dusk, just as the baker was leaving. He locked up and turned out the lights and reminded me to shut the back alley door firmly after me when I was done and reminded me not to eat anything although I could take home a bag of day-old rolls. He reminded me to write down my hours and said, not politely, that the four hours it had taken me the first two nights were too many hours, and that the job ought to take only two hours per evening, and next week he would only pay me for the hours the job ought to take, and then he left, and I climbed into the first pot.

I worked as hard as thoroughly and diligently and meticulously as I could, and again it took me four hours, and I was exhausted, and my hands and arms were so doused with whatever that awful chemical was that I thought I would never get them to be pinkish brownish ever again, and I confess that I nearly wept, after writing down my hours and closing the back alley door firmly behind me and walking home in the dark. I hated the job, hated it, but this was my first job ever, and you can’t quit after three days, that’s just embarrassing, but I hated the work, and I stank all over, and the baker was a grump, and I was so tired I stumbled going up the porch steps at home.

At home my brothers and sister and mother were about their various tasks and vocations, but my dad was waiting for me at the dining room table, where my mom had left a plate of food for me. I ate wearily and he didn’t say anything for a while and then he said, “You dislike the work, don’t you?”

For a moment I tried to be cool and say cool dismissive manly things, but it didn’t work, and I blurted out that I hated it and I stank and I wanted to quit, I wanted to quit so bad I could taste the wanting-to-quit, which tasted like that awful cleaning chemical.

I thought he would be angry. I thought he would be disappointed. I thought he would maybe even sneer or say something terse using the words lazy and work ethic. But he didn’t. He said gently that he understood, and that if I quit that was fine by him, as long as I then looked diligently for other work; we all need to work, but we do not need to do work we hate, he said. There are many ways to work. You’ll see. Find a job that you like. The only thing I would ask is that you quit in person, face to face, and that you stay respectful to that man. He hired you, don’t forget, and you owe him gratitude and respect, even as you leave.

This I did, the next day, and true to form the baker didn’t take it well, and offered rude remarks, but I didn’t care, because I would never have to touch or smell that awful chemical again, or climb into a vat caked with day-old dough; and also I felt some subtle thing that I struggle to find words for, even now. I suppose I felt freed, yes, but I think I also felt something like a wriggle of pride in and respect for my dad, that he was gentle and understanding, and somehow his quiet grace had elevated me, in ways I didn’t understand. I suppose I am talking about love. When you are 16 years old, talking about how you love your dad is a muddle, because a lot of who you are is shoving away from the harbor of your dad; but when you are older, and you are a dad yourself, talking about loving your dad is among the deepest sweetest most joyous pleasures in life. As you see.

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