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Lessons from a little rowboat

Parents teach best by simply living and loving; children learn best by watching. And lessons taught from the heart are never forgotten. Here, writer Vanessa Sands shares a few gifts from her late father.

In a heart-shaped brass frame on my desk, my mother beams up at me. She is radiant and youthful, draped across the oars of a small wooden rowboat, hamming it up for my father. He relaxes, smiling, with feet and hands crossed. Remarkably, though, my mother was deathly afraid of water.

Her fear was not hereditary, however. I grew up on the water, relishing summers on the boat my parents always kept on Oneida Lake in central New York. In actuality, it was a yacht, but my father is an unpretentious man who would never use the word. So it’s only fitting that he taught me his most important life lessons not from the helm of a 40-foot Owens but from the bow of the 8-foot dinghy that came with it. If it were possible to return to a single place, a moment in time, I would choose any of the innumerable afternoons Dad and I spent together there — freeze it in time like another photograph I cherish, of the two of us afloat.

There’s not much about life I didn’t learn on our voyages together:

1. Don’t stand up in the boat. This, his very first lesson, was one of acceptance. Respect the water, respect the physics of the situation, accept what is. Don’t stand up in the boat if you know you can’t change the soggy results.

2. But don’t forget to rock it once in awhile. See what it can do, see what it takes to capsize it so you know its limits. And if you land in the drink, swim a little and enjoy it.

3. Know that, once in a while, something big is bound to come down the river. One enormous barge routinely came through, sucking water from the bays and marinas as it passed. The trick in preventing our little boat from heading to Sylvan Beach along with the barge was just in grabbing ahold of something stable and trusty, and hanging on until the waters stopped churning.

4. Remember that storms, like barges, pass. Sometimes, all you can do is wait. And the very best place to be then is inside with family.

5. Take a few chances, but know when to duck. Seems Dad and I would just get going and a dock would present itself right in our path. So we’d have to make a decision: Go around, or go under. We’d usually choose the latter, zooming right under the dock with glee and ducking low enough to avoid injuring ourselves or getting spiders in our hair. When the water was high, we’d lie nearly flat and hope against any unexpected waves.

6. Respect all things living. Even those spiders have their purpose, and we let them be. We’d row over to the reeds to see if the ducks had hatched their eggs or to watch silvery minnows dart just below the surface. Once in a while, we’d fish, usually landing a carp nearly as big as our little dinghy — but we’d always return the big-lipped, frightened behemoth to its watery home.

7. Give something back. Often, we’d feed the many ducks with whom we shared the lake bits of bread, crackers and corn. And the same carp we sometimes hooked enjoyed the free treat, too — no strings attached.

8. Take care of your boat. If you don’t keep it ship-shape, it’s not going to float for long.

9. Have fun. Row in circles. See how fast you can go. Go over boat wakes. Make your own waves.

10. Stop to savor a sunset. There are moments in every day that deserve our wonder and our attention. When the sun set over the bridge leading the river, we simply set an anchor and watched in the goldenness.

I learned so much more from Dad in that little boat, so much that I use in my life every day. The most valuable gift of the time he spent with me there, however, was a simple one: Comfortable silence. I learned more about — and from — my father in those peaceful hours than at any other time or in any other place. And none of that I can express sufficiently, nor should I; it is all between us, wordless and private and precious.

From all this, I know something about my mother, too; I know why she is smiling in that old photo. Her deepest fears meant far less to her than what she stood to learn of my father between the gunwhales so long ago. And someday soon, I’m going to buy a little dinghy for myself. I owe my father a few excursions (this time, I will row). Besides, I need to teach my own four children a few things.

In 2005, Vanessa and her family did indeed buy a boat, making good on a promise she made her father just before he died that year. She later found a copy of this essay carefully filed among his papers.

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