If I was writing “Five Tips for Being a Great Dad,” I’m not completely sure my father, Malcolm Dennison McLean – always called Mac – would even know what I was talking about.
By today’s standards, my dad was just barely an adult when he sired my older brother. Scott was born when dad was a little over 25 and a month shy of being married one year. My mother and dad got married in Portland in August, went to the Bahamas for a honeymoon and then left from the pier in New York City for their new life in the forestry service in Mercer, Wisc. We kids were all born in Bessemer, Mich., because that was the closest hospital.
Dad was not much on telling other people what to do, and if he had five tips to share, they would be steeped in common sense.
Tip 1: Be the kind of father you want your kids to have.
Somehow, my dad managed to fill us kids with the desire to do what he asked, and please him. He rarely yelled and almost never whacked us. He had an innate calmness, probably inherited from his pipe-smoking, dry-witted father.
Tip 2: Work with your kids.
We moved from Wisconsin back to The County when we were little, and grew up picking potatoes. Dad would come over from his office (he was field supervisor for a paper company) at lunch to help us fill our barrels, each worth a quarter. In the winter, he would take me out to see his loggers, who often spoke French, and lived for the season in small cabins heated by the giant workhorses housed on the other side of the partition. I’d stand on the lone kitchen chair and feed carrots to the horses over the wall while my dad talked logging. In the summer, we’d work together in the gardens, growing corn and tomatoes and cucumbers, and eating pilot crackers in milk for dinner on hot nights. He never asked me to do something without showing me how.
Tip 3: Play with your kids.
I’m not sure “play” was very high on the agenda in the typical ‘60s family. We did some camping, and Dad pulled us on skis behind the snowmobile in winter and behind the boat in summer. He took the boys hunting and trapping, and all of us target shooting. Mostly, for fun, we watched “Jeopardy” and “M*A*S*H” together.
Tip 4: Ask them to do their best.
My dad just wanted us to do our best, put forth our best effort. We knew we’d get that question, whether it was a C on a report card, a disappointing finish in a ski race or failure in a driving test: “Did you do your best?” You were kind of ashamed if you ever had to admit that you hadn’t worked very hard toward the goal. He didn’t expect us always to win, but he did expect us always to try our hardest.
Tip 5: Be a loving supporter of their Mom.
My parents did not have a match made in heaven. It led to a family saying among us kids, “If you don’t like the woods, don’t marry a forester.” But despite a less than perfect marriage (to my young eyes), I never heard my dad say one bad thing about my mother. He reinforced her rules and made us all toe the line. He admired her brains and energy.
When my dad died, it was standing-room-only at his funeral. Rumor had it that he was funnier outside the house than in, and he had a duel reputation for telling great stories and being a genuinely nice and helpful person. He wanted to share the things he enjoyed, from cooking and barbershop singing to sailing and storytelling. He had many sayings, but one of my favorites is: “It ain’t bragging if you can do it.”
There’s not much evidence that he thought of himself as a great dad, but he didn’t have to. That is my job.
Deborah McLean is principal of Maine Senior Guide.com, a web resource site that showcases products, services and information for Maine seniors and their families. Reach her at dMcLean@maineseniorguide.com.
Malcolm Dennison McLean, in about 1969, running the baked bean suppers at the Universalist Church in Rumford, at left. At right, in about 1996, as a member of the Hillsmen Chorus, a barbershop chorus based in South Paris that is still performing. They came and sang at his funeral.
Dad makes the beans