THE BLOG
09/24/2014 12:27 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2014

Lessons From Dad

Nora Bo via Getty Images

My dad always spoke in bumper sticker while I was growing up.

Time-tested, Irish Catholic-saturated maxims, like "the believer is happy, the doubter is wise," were constantly proclaimed with a sobering voice and a proud finger in the air, as though it were the antenna through which he was receiving these life lessons. Not a day would pass in our house without a proverb escaping his lips, which was something for a man who made it his childhood mission to dismiss anything uttered from a nun or monsignor. If you didn't collide with one of his sayings on your own, the universe would impel a situation so it could find you.

I would be going about my business, keeping the wind at my back and the sun on my face and the rain on my fields, or whatever, when I'd do something infernally and unforgivably criminal, like allow a friend to buy me a Slurpee. I don't know whether it was the tinkling of change from a pocket that was not mine or the sound of illicit slurping that would wind its way with the wind and into the ears of my father, but I would return home to a stern lesson about how we Donovans shall neither a borrower nor a lender be. I would usually defend myself with a string of lies, which would be rebutted with stories of old men who died at peace with nothing but their honor and a crust of soda bread.

Few of his dictums made real sense to me as I grew up, but there was a comfort nonetheless in decoding them or ignoring them altogether. I figured that all kids came up with the same dogma from their parents, considering that every other kid I knew was Irish or Catholic. Or Irish and Catholic. I also assumed they, too, ate chicken or pasta every night for dinner, unless it was a special occasion and then they ate chicken with pasta. It wasn't until I left home for college that I learned that people had been hearing -- and eating -- differently than I all along.

College first tested the wisdom I'd been imparted, especially that about hygiene and eating past 10 p.m. It also placed me squarely in a major I had no real business being in. Keeping up with the Joneses -- or, more aptly, the Chans -- of the pre-med department was a pride-swallowing siege from which my self-esteem has never truly recovered. The dean of the department, Dr. Fontaine Piper -- a name I can't help but say in a baritone when recounting stories -- called me into his office during my senior year and said, "Erin, I believe you would make a fine doctor, but you will never be a medical student."

This was a charitable way of saying, "You blew Organic Chemistry. Again."

Of course, all I could do from that chair positioned across from a man, who was busily yellow-taping the entrance to my life's path, was wonder if what he had said was some sort of parable of yesteryear. Hadn't I been honest and kind and hard-working when it came to my studies? Hadn't I been timely and courteous to my elders? Yes, I had. But I also had failed every exam that had anything to do with carbon.

When I realized this was not going to be a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps moment, I stood, extended my hand, and said, "Thank you, sir, for allowing me to be a part of your program." That was the rest of my education under my father: Point your chin ahead and put on your finest manners, no matter how ill-fitting it feels. That day was just the beginning of my reckoning with the fast-coming disappointments of life. I came to learn that not only are a lot of people not Irish or Catholic but even the ones who are didn't necessarily win just because they'd been honest and kind and bought their own gas station beverages.

Now that I'm an adult, I find the expressions of my father's still ring loud in my ears. I've caught myself regaling my own children with the everyman morality of my youth. What eluded me then has enlightened me now, shattering against the jagged rocks of middle age. I suppose the power of my father's precepts were their ability to stay with you, like a compass tarnished by the decades but unable to point anywhere but true north. My dad doesn't throw around the heady stuff as much these days. A helpless witness to the many sad scenes that have befallen his children, he keeps to a backrub and the simple, uplifting proclamation, "keep kickin', chicken."

Which I believe Paul must have said in his letter to the Ephesians.