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Thoughts about Fathers. Well, Specifically About Mine

I grew up in the 70s and 80s in Montana. I was the middle of three children. I spent the better part of my life being compared to my father, who was a radio personality until I was about 15, and then a politician for 20 years.

My dad did the farm and ranch reports on radio and TV. If you grow up in a state where agriculture is a big part of the economy, that stuff is important. The guy who comes on to let you know about Ag news in the morning on the radio and the noon news TV broadcast is a really important guy. And it's generally the same guy every day for years. My dad started a network, called the Northern Ag Network, that carried agriculture related news to television and radio stations across Montana and Wyoming. It started in a wee office in Billings and grew. I didn't realize at the time that it was a big deal. I just knew that my dad's office was at a stockyards, where we could play in the sale ring area, play with the telephone/intercom system at the office, listen to ourselves talk into the DJ style headphones and watch how our voices spoken into a radio microphone made the needle bounce on the sound meters.

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It's about the other stuff my dad did. My dad was old school. And I mean Old School. No hats allowed in the house. No jeans worn to school or church. Brush your hair, sit up straight and children are to be seen and not heard. He was the kind of guy who grew up doing chores on a farm, so why the hell should he pay us an allowance to do the chores that just needed to be done and were our job to do anyway?

He traveled a lot. Radio was a 4:30 am to 6 or 7 pm kind of job. Mix into that things like Rotary, Toastmasters, and a golf club membership and genuine love for the game of golf, and we didn't see him much. My mom had the usual "wait until your father gets home" when we would get into trouble. And my dad was certainly scary enough when we were in trouble.

My dad was born in 1935. That means he lived through WWII as a child. He grew up on a ranch where he had hard chores. Much harder than the "load the dishwasher and vacuum on Saturdays" chores I had. He was in 4H and FFA and the Marine Corps (Semper Fi!). He lived at a time when you could hitchhike, and when you could pick up hitchhikers relatively safely. He lived at a time when racism was rampant, as was sexism. He grew up in the best and worst time in our history, much like today. His own father literally bridged the gap from horse and carriage to men walking on the moon. A lot of things changed over my dad's lifetime. He worked hard, had success, had failures, had more successes and more failures and in there somewhere had a family.

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Despite those expectations, which were born of his time and his rearing by his own parents, he never once denied me my dreams. If I wanted to be a dancer, he'd have been okay with that. If I wanted to be a race car driver, that, too, would have been fine. When I decided I wanted to be a teacher, like my mother, he endorsed that with enthusiasm. When that plan changed and I decided to be a doctor, he put me in touch with his other doctor friends, so that they could encourage me and help me in that path. He never, not once that I can recall, told me that no, I couldn't. He never told me that math was for boys (no, that was my high school Algebra 2 teacher who did that). He bought me a toolkit. He taught me how to change a tire and change my own oil. He expected me to know those things, as well as how to find a stud in a wall, how to put in a wall anchor, how to hook up a sound system, how to prime the well if it needed to be done.

He never once told me that once I had children I would have to stop working. On the contrary, his only disappointment in me seemed to be that I hadn't joined rotary, the local golf club or other networking societies in order to grow my practice and be more successful as a physician and local member of the business community. Instead of telling me that I couldn't, he expected me to do it and do it well with everything that I had.

But that was the dichotomy of my dad and his generation: he grew up in a time of defined roles for women and men, ones based on a traditional patriarchy. Even so, he respected individuals, not groups. He expected and demanded excellence (he wouldn't pay me to mow the lawn, since that was expected, but he would pay me $1 for every A I brought home on a report card). He expected me to be good at what I chose to do, be it a housewife and mother or a doctor.

He grew up in a time of turmoil and change and confusion, but he was very steady in his hopes for his family: that we would succeed, find a place to create our own families and carve out our own niche in the world.

He's more or less gotten over the fact that I never took Home Economics, maybe because I knit and crochet and cook anyway. He seems to have become less irritated at my lack of ability to keep a perfectly neat and clean house, because he recognizes it as my home. My home. My family.

When I was 14, he ran for county commissioner. It was mostly over a fight to get our road plowed. And for him to be able to control and affect a few things in our county. He was pretty good at it. Given his popularity as a radio personality, particularly with the ag folks in Montana (which is a lot of folks), he was then approached about and agreed to run for the U.S. Senate in 1988, which he won and then served for 18 years. This piece isn't about that. It's not about his career.

He will always and ever be a part of me, a part of the reason that I understand that sometimes 80 year old men say racist or sexist things, but may not be racist or sexist in their intentions and day to day interactions. He will always be the guy who gave me my freckles, my red hair, and my occasionally explosive temper. But he also gave me a love of reading, a thirst for knowledge, a sense of obligation to my community and my sense of humor. He showed me that you could work hard, laugh hard and you could succeed. He went from a kid on a ranch to U.S. Senator, almost by sheer force of his own will. Well that, plus a whole lot of hard work.

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I watched him be tough and remote and demanding. I watched him spend hours and hours away from home, but then later realized that it was to build his business to provide for us in a way his parents couldn't. I have since watched him play with my daughter with such gentleness, but also such great expectations for her to do amazing things. I've watched him make my mother so frustrated and angry that I was sure they were going to split up, but then be so gentle and loving and grateful to her that it breaks my heart how much they've taught me about marriage. I've watched him discipline his children with sternness, but love.

The first time I saw my father cry, it was in an emergency room when I was 13. His gurney was next to mine, and he was holding my hand, silently crying. I didn't know it until a bit later, but my sister had died and we would spend the weekend in the hospital with carbon monoxide poisoning. That same week, he was stern and unflinching at her funeral, directing us to not wear black, to hold it together. Not because he wasn't grieving, but because that was the expectation for his generation: men are strong for their families. They don't cry.

It as the era of "Real Men Don't Eat Quiche" and "Real Women Don't Pump Gas". He taught me to pump my own gas anyway. By no means was he a perfect guy or a perfect father. Don't get me wrong.

I've watched him absorb my anger, the anger of a 20 year old questioning her faith, her family and her identity, and love me through it anyway. And never have I seen anything more lovely than the joy and sheer love on his face when he first held my daughter on her first day of life, and told me he was proud of me: as a daughter, as a mother, as a doctor, as me. Whatever it was I was choosing to be (at the time it was a single working mother), he was proud of me and he loved me and my daughter and, yes, eventually my husband as well, whom he accepted into our family like on of his own. Yes, he has expectations for all of us, including my husband, but he loves us.

Mom and Dad at the White House Christmas party 2006

I've watched him go from the strong, healthy, active man I grew up with to a man challenged by a stroke 5 years ago that left him weak and feeling vulnerable. I've watched his frustration grow at his poorly functioning left side. I've watched him swallow his pride and ask for help. But in that time, I've also seen his resolve: to not quit, to continue to work, to find a way to adapt and still function. I've watched him admire my mother in a way that I've never seen. It's encouraged me and made me realize what marriage really means: for better or worse, in sickness and in health. It doesn't mean 'so we'll always be happy and perfect.' They've demonstrated it so well without even meaning to do so. I recall an interview at the end of his Senate career, one reporter asked him what he was most proud of after his time in Washington. His answer? "I'm coming home with the same wife I started with."

I used to be annoyed that people would ask me, "Are you Conrad's daughter?" as I saw it as a denial of my own identity as a woman in favor of one that was only the extension of a man's identity (someone's wife or someone's daughter). I used to say, "well, yes, but I have my own personality, you know." Now, if someone asks, I proudly say, "Yes, I am. I am his daughter. That's my dad."

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