Things My Father Taught Me

March 8, 2020 by

Dave Mason with Norann
Dave Mason and Norann

Whenever I see a father walking along and holding his daughter’s hand, I get a deep sense of security. I am the sixth of my dad’s eight daughters, and I held his hand as long as I could.

I held it first – little-girl-proud – as a child, any chance I got. As a teen, I’d find his hand on our evening walk out to the barn to check the animals, and be glad for the fading light so my peers wouldn’t notice. And finally, I held my father’s thin hand, its grip incongruously strong, against my parents’ faded quilt on our last evening before he died, too young, from cancer.

Since letting go of his hand that one last time, I’ve had years to ponder just what my father taught me; lessons that came sometimes in words, but mostly in deeds.

He taught me how to lean into grief, to let it motivate life. He lost his first wife (my mother) overnight to a brain aneurysm, and six years to the day later, his ten-year-old daughter to osteosarcoma. But that didn’t stop him from loving. In time, he married the most amazing step-mother a girl could ever have, and he poured countless hours into us remaining children – working at our barn and on the farm, teaching us to use machinery and tools, to love and care for animals of all shapes and sizes, reading aloud before bedtime, singing, camping.

He taught me grace when I was in the second-grade and he knelt by my bed to ask my forgiveness. (I had told him I was sick that morning before school, and he suggested I try to go to school anyways, but on arrival I vomited all over the teacher’s desk.) His sky-blue eyes brimmed with tears, and I sobbed as I gripped his hand over the wooden railing of my bed, right at the place where the woodgrain made an elegant angel pattern that looked to me like my mother’s profile.

He taught me compassion when he chided me for encouraging my entire second grade class to laugh at a boy from another school whose last name was homonymous with that of a common rodent. “You have the wonderful last name of Mason, Nora, a name that’s difficult to make fun of. It’s not Chris’ fault that his last name is Voll.” (God’s had the last laugh there – that boy is now my husband, and I took his name.)

He taught me excellent work ethic – from meticulously removing potato bugs from potato plants every day after lunch, or mucking out horse-stalls, to rising early and fixing breakfast.

He gave me independence when he taught me how to drive horses, tractors, and cars, change a tire, weld a bead, purchase and receive goods on his behalf from the local AGWAY feed store, tighten a resume, secure and hold down a job.

He taught me acceptance by embracing early on that I was not gifted in sewing or housework like some of my sisters, but rather in education, writing, and teamwork – and, yes, delivering lambs and being on-hand when our mares birthed their foals. (I’ve added piglets to that repertoire, btw, Dad: we had a bit of situation last year with one of our free-range sows…think I got fifteen out alive.)

He taught me civic duty by encouraging me to sense a void, get good people together, and step up and step in to get things done.

He taught me humility when he asked forgiveness regularly, blamed no one, and extended grace even when it wasn’t warranted.

He taught me love when he and my beloved step-mother bookended each day with a kiss and gentle embrace, and when he asked me at the end of each day what I had done to show another person kindness.

He taught me self-worth when he let me know in no uncertain terms that I was so precious to him that anyone worthy of my love would be judged by him as to whether or not they viewed my soul, heart, and mind as things of eternal worth.

He gave me confidence when he told me he was proud of my grades (it’s okay if you can’t do basic math), of my growing skills as a teacher, and that if I continued in my vocation as an educator – wherever it led me – I would positively impact many lives at their most vulnerable stage.

He taught me the importance of friendship as I watched him forge strong relationships with people not from our faith-tradition, and encouraged us children to do the same. During my high school years, he teased, “Nora, you are friends with a Muslim, some Jews, a Seventh-day Adventist, and lots of atheists, but you have yet to bring a Buddhist friend over.” You can rest easy, Dad: I found her here in Australia, and she is teaching me so much. She also lost her spouse young, just like you, and is raising her sons well. (Cutty Sark, sent regularly to my dad from his Buddhist friend, is what he chose to sip in the days before he passed.)

He taught me the importance of rest, when, after a long and hot day of haying, he would bring a cooler chest of cold beer out to the field, call us off the tractors, and sit with his kids, (three of us by then in our early twenties) and enjoy a drink and a sense of accomplishment as the sun set over the Wallkill River.

He taught me to think for myself, to lead and to follow, as need requires, to explore through study and travel and volunteering the beautiful and broken thing called our world, to choose the path that is my own, and to always, however clumsily, try to write a narrative of love, service, and kindness.

He taught me – in the people he befriended, places he went, and situations he dealt with – that often the messiness of life is where the best stuff happens; to not only accept it, but to look for it; to reject perfection and tidy endings, and to believe, always and all ways, that “time and love heals.”

He taught me that being right is much less important than being kind, because every time he had chosen right over kind he had hurt people deeply, and that his wish for me above everything else was that I would make life better, gentler, and kinder for other humans.

He was perfectly imperfect, and shared with me his stumblings, flaws, and missteps as freely as if they belonged to someone else. He seemed to know intuitively that this wouldn’t make him less in my eyes, and to take for granted that I would make all those same mistakes, and many more.

He taught me hospitality and flexibility when he and my mother made everyone welcome in our house, at any time, convenient or not.

He taught me the importance of laughter whenever I took myself too seriously (always) and that self-deprecation is an art form (preparing me unknowingly for my Australian future).

He showed me parental love when he cried on my wedding day. “Don’t worry,” he told me. “I’m so happy for you. I’m just coming to terms with the fact that another man has replaced me.”

He taught me hope and courage when I miscarried more than once, and he listened to my tears and didn’t say a thing except “I love you.”

He taught me legacy when, before he died, he wrote letters to my very young sons so they would know his voice and his wishes for them as they grew into manhood.

Norann and Chris Voll and their sons, Australia

Norann and Chris Voll and their sons, Australia

He taught me all this not because he was well-educated. My father was a dyslexic who went from eighth grade into two years of agricultural boarding school. He taught me this because – even though he was broken by grief, tired from work, at times unsure of his own ability to shoulder the load laid upon him – he chose to spend hours of his life investing in my siblings and me in the only way he knew how: love, work, rest; repeat. And those three things were all one whole.

He was not perfect, but he was present and vulnerable and safe and human. That is why, through all of my life so far, I always feel my hand securely in his.


About the author

Norann Voll portrait

Norann Voll

Norann Voll lived in New York’s Hudson Valley until moving to the Danthonia Bruderhof in New South Wales, Australia in 2002...

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