A few summers ago, our family vacation consisted of a house swap with a cousin of mine who lives just outside Amsterdam. I learned a lot of new things on that trip, but perhaps the most surprising was how much I am like my father.
You see, everywhere we went—the cheese shop, the wine store, the bike-repair place, the Delft museum—I managed to get into a conversation with a stranger that went like this: "Hi! We're from New York! And we're doing a house swap with my cousin! She lives in Haarlem! And her family is staying at our house in New York! We've never been here before! And it's so much fun!!!" As is the case with strangers the world over, some were charming and some just wanted me to go away. But I plowed on, compelled by a genetic inheritance I didn't realize I had. After a few days of this, my oldest son pulled me aside and said, "Mom, will you please stop giving our whole story to everyone you meet?"
Now, this is a child who has spent his life being told by his mother, "You see? When you talk to people you LEARN THINGS!" In other words: Put yourself out there, kid. You never know what you're going to find. But—shocking!—on this vacation Mom was putting herself out there so much that I was both (a) an embarrassment and (b) super annoying.
I thought of that vacation earlier this year, as I sat in a crowded Utah ski lodge, listening from across the room as my father bellowed at an uninterested elderly man who could barely hear him that in just four short years he would be 80! And then he—like the confused, uninterested stranger—would get to ski for free, too! In FOUR SHORT YEARS!!! The next day, we were at another resort, and the woman working the cash register at lunch was from Venezuela! And Dad, in his spectacular almost-Spanish, explained that he was from Aruba! Which is very close to Venezuela!!! I have no idea what she said in response (and he probably didn't, either, since she spoke real Spanish). But guess what? She didn't charge him for his sandwich. (You see, some strangers just want you to go away. But some give you free food.)
Dad. He is responsible for half of our DNA and sometimes more than half of our behavior (sorry, kids). And so I read this month's Your Words column, which asks the question "What is the greatest gift your father ever gave you?" with a smile on my face and tears in my eyes. It's hard to name the greatest gift my father has given me. Decades of love? An optimistic nature? Square shoulders? Or maybe just the ability (compulsion?) to talk to strangers—and, as a bonus, embarrass my children. You never know what you might learn.
So Happy Father's Day to all the dads out there. Especially to Piet Hein van Ogtrop, who really does believe that strangers are just friends waiting to happen. And who will be 80 in four short years.