His dad survived the German occupation, war, and a host of other struggles. He taught him these invaluable lessons.
Who is it who inspires you the most? A Rock Star? An Olympian? A Philosopher? Who’s your hero?
My hero is my Dad. He’s a man I don’t spend time with now, but a chance remark I heard today caused me to think–as I so often do–about his roses. Those bold blooms snatch attention from any other element in the garden.
His roses remind me about the colourful splashes I can make across my life and that of others if I follow Dad’s example. I learned his story a sentence at a time, over many years.
Imagination is the source of the life you want.
In 1951, my 23-year-old future Dad left Holland’s post-war ruins. He emigrated to New Zealand’s green, under-populated hills. His skills were needed, his passage paid. Imagination painted an opportunity. He took it.
Dad had no money to return to Europe. He had to make the best of it. And he did; he built a life he wanted though it never brought him riches, medals or any name recognition.
I suspect those things weren’t on his list. I don’t recall my Dad talking about his goals, or the possibilities life could bring, except on the day I started a new school, aged eleven. He spoke while walking with me to the train.
He said a new start was just that; it meant nothing from the past would count. He might have been thinking about his voyage to New Zealand, twenty years before.
His message: life becomes what you decide it will. I could choose.
Daring does things. Wishing won’t
My Dad dared. He backed himself. Of course, he’d lived through five years of German occupation. People who survive events like that will often ‘seize the day’; in war, there’s always a chance that tomorrow will be worse. It often is.
When young, I didn’t understand those things. But I did observe my Dad developing his ideas, acting on them and persisting even when things didn’t work, determined to succeed.
At night he worked a second job–a home-based business–so he could save towards his dreams. He could have done something menial, but he used his strengths; design and engineering.
Model-making was a rarely offered service. He dared to believe he could sell it, and he did. Decades before computer techs could do it on a screen, his wood and metal industrial models revealed the form and style of things.
I watched him make some of those models. I realised you could build anything you dared to try.
Honour your ideas. Don’t merely imitate.
My Dad built his home. It took a long time because he had very big ideas and a very small purse. But that didn’t matter to me, a creative child. A building site is a wonderful place to grow in. Until I got to school, I didn’t know my family was ‘strange’.
Our home had hand-crafted copper towel rails, a soaring foyer with a bare lamp dangling, boxes of not yet laid bathroom tiles, and brick stacks in the muddy driveway overgrown with blackberry. It was on a different planet from Adam’s neat, clean house. My friend lived just a minute’s walk away.
“Leave your shoes outside the door. We’ve fitted carpet on the floor.”
We’d escape to Adam’s dust-free bedroom to play trains quietly. I didn’t have trains, not till much later when an after-school job gave me choices. But I did have wire and wood and a full-size hammer that bruised my fingers, and nails to practise building real things out of scraps.
Other people had standard houses. I grew up inside the progressive creation of one man’s dream.
Competence only comes from practice and persistence.
My Dad’s home didn’t have carpet. And other things needed buying before the parquet floor. So we had bits of felt, rough boards and bare concrete. And our shoes stayed on.
Dad, the engineer, had designed a home many architects would happily have claimed, and he’d backed himself to figure out how to build it, and how to pay for it.
He made mistakes. He wasted money. Some materials he wanted weren’t invented yet. Everything took longer and cost much more than budgeted.
He designed and built a hidden stair behind a bookcase, and doors that vanished into walls. Floor to ceiling glass let in wide-ranging views; an aluminium roof my parents had imported required special screws.
I imagined the homes I would design when I grew up. I imagined I’d employ him as my engineer.
Values matter more than most things.
My Dad’s redwood-clad extravagance represented his new life.
It was nothing like the narrow brick terrace he’d left behind in Amsterdam. It was also very different from the suburban bungalows most people built on the hillside surrounding us.
We had three bathrooms, or would have had if they’d been finished. Next door, the diplomat with the extra-large Mercedes had only one. My hero’s home was going to be the way he wanted it. No compromises.
Dad never turned to cheap materials so he could finish faster.
Years passed. As I grew like the weeds that lined the drive and hid the unused bricks completely, Dad gave weekends to his new country. He trained to be a youth leader and helped on committees. He painted signs for civil defence and led search and rescue training in our neighbourhood.
Serve others, his message shouted silently. It’s even more important than finishing your home. And never give up your principles for anything.
You can always choose to make lemonade.
One autumn day, Dad was returning from a business trip when a ferry sank beneath him.
New Zealand’s worst-ever storm also sucked a roof off a house near us and blew down walls, but, of course, my hero wouldn’t drown. He didn’t; he returned, red-cross-blanket wrapped.
Is it naive to believe you can survive anything? Of course, but it’s a good place to begin, believing that you can, regardless of what happens.
Dad spent Easter calmly helping neighbours fix their walls and fences. Three doors down the hill, a pair of wooden garage doors had been stove in, ruined. Each was ten feet square. Dad somehow got them home. Perhaps a few friends carried them to our place while no doubt hoping they’d be hidden down our drive so ‘more old bits of timber’ wouldn’t blight the area.
My Dad made a snug woodshed roof out of those doors.
The lesson here was obvious. Whatever you need you can create, from whatever you can get. It seemed to be a theme that repeated in other areas of his life. I got the message.
Believe you can make a difference.
Dad’s home has been the most memorable one I’ve lived in, although grown-up designer me would debate some of his methods and materials. We could have a drink and play some chess. Maybe I would beat him.
The way Dad lived and what he built showed me I could do and be anything I wanted. I doubt anyone will ever leave a bigger impression on my life.
My mom was extraordinary too. But that’s another story.
My Dad had survived war, storm and shipwreck. But he was not immortal. One morning in the autumn, he didn’t wake.
My mom gave me her husband’s watch and wedding ring that night. But nothing could fill the hole my hero left behind.
There was a guard of honour. I hadn’t known he’d helped so many people. The line of cars that crawled towards the cemetery stretched down the hill and up the other side.
I really hope I was half as inspirational to my children, while they were young, as my Dad had been to me. I hope they learned to imagine the impossible and stretch for it.
So far, they seem to be doing fine.
And the roses?
There’s a large bed of them behind the crematorium. My mom had them scatter his ashes there, and I always have a picture of those roses in my mind. Each one is colourful, like Dad, and shadows the wall behind.
Thank you for reading. I hope you treasure every second with your youngsters. Show them through your actions the things you care about. Those are the lessons children will remember.
Do it now. Life is short. The 12-year-old me would tell you it’s too short.
What matters most to you? What would your children say?
Photo: Flickr/ Amélien Bayle