Dad’s Little Black Book


Do you ever wonder where or how our parents obtained their wisdom? Who taught our parents all that they needed to know to navigate this fallen world and to raise their children to be healthy, responsible adults? As someone who became a parent quite some time ago, I relied on what I heard my parents say when I was young and what they did in similar situations to guide me through my “child raising” years.

When at the end of my rope with a demanding teenager, who would not accept all the reasons that she couldn’t do whatever it was that she was demanding to do, my “fall back position” was one that I heard from my parents: “Because I said so!” with all the authority in my voice that I could muster. I knew, of course, that my voice didn’t have the authority that I once heard from my parents – it never could. As my growing up teenager walked away grumbling and sighing, she couldn’t believe that her mom could be so old fashioned and so hard hearted. 

There were times when my mom voiced her final “fall back position” to me: “Wait till your father gets home!” That was enough to bring tears to my eyes or a trembling to my voice. Dad was the final authority, unless you asked him first before you asked mom. If I asked dad first and he responded to my question, “ask your mom” what he really meant was “no”. Somehow my parents had worked that one out without my knowing.

There were other little sayings which I heard from my parents, especially my father, sayings that many children have heard. Many times there were some responses or directions that were unique to our dad. Dad’s little sayings were often so appropriate to the situation that I accused him of having a little black book where all the odd sayings were written down. I wanted a copy of that little book, but it wasn’t forthcoming, and I couldn’t find the book after he passed away. 

Mom and Dad

When asked once by a friend why dad needed ketchup during dinner, dad said: “if it tastes good, it tastes better with ketchup”. The list of appropriate foods included eggs cooked anyway you liked them, macaroni and cheese casserole, steak, bacon, hamburgers, and the reliable childhood favorite, fried bologna sandwiches. Mind you now, ketchup is always spelled with a “k”. Dad would only eat Heinz ketchup. 

When dad worked as a cameraman for KDKA television in Pittsburgh, early in his professional career, he operated the camera for a television program about the Heinz factory in Pittsburgh. Dad was so impressed with the cleanliness of the factory that he would eat no other kind of ketchup. Dad said of his experience: “you could eat off the floor at Heinz. That is how clean it is.” So have I ever eaten any other kind of ketchup or catsup? Not if I could help it, as it would be almost heresy in my dad’s eyes.

Do you ever save some special dessert to eat later? That is not a good idea according to my dad. He would say: “he who saves, saves for the cat.” I am guessing those words of wisdom came from his own mother who had responded thusly to a complaint from one of her six children. If dad saved some morsel of food or a piece of cake for later, it was likely that he wouldn’t find it when he wanted it. One of dad’s two brothers or three sisters would have found the treat and enjoyed it before he did.

Who among us has heard the words of wisdom:, “don’t burn your bridges behind you”? How often in our lives have we wanted to tell someone what we truly think, to let it all out, to tell the offensive person that he or she is permanently out of our lives? I have wanted to voice that many times out of anger, hurt or frustration. Usually when tempted in that way, I hear my dad softly whisper “remember, don’t burn your bridges.” Those simple words are great advice, as our heightened emotions will calm down after a time and rationality will return eventually.

During my teenage years as I was earning a little money from odd jobs like babysitting, I was so tempted to spend all my cash. I wanted things as every teenager does, things my parents couldn’t afford or wouldn’t buy for me. Dad had a prescription for handling money that served him well over his own lifetime. “Save first, then spend. A good rule of thumb is saving 20% of what you have earned and then you can spend the rest.” Once I began to work regularly for businesses that reported my earnings to the government, dad was in charge of preparing my tax return. His first question was “how much have you saved?” And he wanted to see the statement from the bank! Woe to any of dad’s children who didn’t have a reasonable amount tucked away in their savings account. His scowl would frighten anyone.

So often as I was growing up, I would leave a light switch on, because I knew I would shortly return to where I had been. Or I would leave a door open to the outdoors, because I was coming right back. Those two things were “no no’s” in our home, and if dad or mom noticed, I would be met with the question: “were you born in a barn?”. I hear those words in my head even now and rarely exit a room without turning off any lights which I had turned on. 


My dad was someone who didn’t talk about his feelings, except to mom, of course, to whom dad often spoke special words of love. I never heard words of love directed to me from dad – not that I remember anyway. Mom said those love words often, but I guess, being a mom, that was her job. So one New Year’s day I made a resolution to ask my dad if he truly loved me, as I was his oldest daughter. It was the only New Year’s resolution that I ever kept. Forget all the promises to lose weight – those usually went by the wayside the day I made the resolution. All the leftover Christmas treats were too much of a temptation to ignore. 

I spoke often to my parents, every day if possible, especially after I left home and was on my own. So one particular New Year’s day I called to wish mom and dad “happy New Year’s”. Mom answered the phone as was usual and after exchanging greetings, mom said that my dad had something to say to me but wouldn’t tell her what it was. I blurted out without thinking (a frequent occurrence unfortunately), “maybe he wants to tell me that he loves me”. My mom repeated my statement to dad, because that was who she was, and then dad took up the phone. “Of course, I love  you”, dad said. When I questioned why he had never spoken those words to me, dad added that he believed that “words are cheap; it is only one’s actions which count”. 

I have to admit that dad showed his love with actions all the time when I was growing up from always being available to help with math homework when I was younger, to checking the oil in my car, or changing a tire or coming after me if I was out and stuck somewhere before I was married. As I grew older and had a family of my own, dad would make special things for me if I asked  – an easel for a painting class, a folding screen, because I wanted to try to paint one, an earring tree, because I thought it would be nice to have. Dad was always ready to talk and to give advice if I asked him, even though I didn’t always follow his advice, much to my regret.

Dad had a couple of funny sayings which he spoke occasionally over the years. Some are quite common – things like: “fish and visitors smell after three days” or “doesn’t do anything for me”. We hear those sayings everywhere now or see t-shirts or plaques made with those words on them. But there were several wise sayings that were unique to my dad that I have never heard or seen anywhere else, though I have been alive quite a long time.

Don’t cry with a loaf of bread under your arm.” You can imagine what that had to do with – dad and mom’s children moaning and complaining that something we wanted that we couldn’t have, when all that we needed was already ours or ours for the asking. Dad worked hard for his family; mom stayed at home and took care of the children. We didn’t have a lot as we were growing up, but there was always food on the table and a roof over our heads and people around us who loved us. Now I can say with certitude, “What more was necessary?”

Family picnic in North Park

Always defend your family – family comes first!” Dad grew up in an immigrant area of Pittsburgh. During the 1920’and 1930’s Sicilians and other immigrants were often targeted by other Americans who had been in the country longer with prejudice, racial slurs and even violence. Dad would say to his daughters, “when the chips are down, you can’t depend on your friends”. Those words came from dad’s experience; he and his brothers often had to stand up together and fight either for themselves or to protect their sisters. So dad never forgot his family; he was always there to help if a brother or sister or his parents had a need that they couldn’t fill on their own. And dad’s family was always there for him as well.

When speaking to a younger sister who was complaining about something she wanted or needed to buy, dad said “ if they don’t sell it at Walmart, you don’t need it.” Walmart does seem to sell everything necessary, although those words didn’t please my sister.

Mom and Dad’s wedding

Let me close with what is the most important wise saying my dad taught me and lived throughout his whole life. “Always keep your promises”. It may be the only thing others will remember about you when you are gone, because keeping that promise shows the love and respect you had for others and reflects who you truly are. When mom and dad married, dad made a promise to mom to take her to visit her family in South Carolina every year, no matter where they might live. Dad kept that promise for 60 years. Dad passed into the Lord’s arms in mom and dad’s 61st year of marriage. 

While we may voice complicated theories about life or read well researched books about how the world works or the proper way to act, the really important lessons which help us in our day to day lives are in the pithy, short sayings we hear from our parents and relatives. The real wisdom and knowledge of this world usually comes in small “love wrapped” words. May we always remember those words and the people who spoke them.

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