Author Michael Leannah shares his words of wisdom as an author, teacher, and dad of five. Read along as he explains the seasons of fatherhood and the lessons he’s learned along the way.
I am the dad in a family of five. The kids are now grown, and Gina and I are alone in the proverbial empty nest. The kids—Josh, Lyla, and Max—were separated by several years, so my time as a dad of dependent children spanned twenty-five years.
That’s twenty-five winters, twenty-five springs, twenty-five summers, and twenty-five falls. Year after year, season after season, the kids and I played together, worked together, and grew together. They observed my ways and imitated my words and actions.
As the seasons repeated themselves, so did the lessons each season provided. It was almost as if the cycle of the seasons had been designed for the purposes of parenthood. Here, I zero in on four particular lessons, learned over and over, again and again, with the coming (and going) of each new season.
Dad in Winter
In winter, they learned the value of following someone’s lead.
Here in Wisconsin, the winters are cold and snowy. But being dog owners (we were actually a family of six), daily excursions into the swirling snowflakes and biting winds were a part of winter life. Sometimes I roughed it alone out there, but often we all went out.
Being the dad and the one with the biggest boots, I was the one to tramp the path across the field of deep, soft snow. The family followed. Of course, no firm rule said the kids had to use my footprints. If something attracted them, they felt free to explore left or right. But following my tracks made their steps easier and freer of trouble, so most of the time that’s what they did.
Later in life, there were many times when I hoped they’d follow my example and advice, and very often they did. But if they saw things differently and went their own way, I thought back to those glorious days in the snow and held my tongue. More often than not, they did alright for themselves.
To have kept them from making their own decisions would have set a wrong example for when they themselves became parents. Right?
Dad in Spring
In spring, they learned the value of planning ahead.
Every March, the kids saw my eyes light up when the package of seeds arrived in the mail. Tomatoes, cucumbers, collards, peppers. We got the planting trays, the bag of soil, and the grow light from the basement. Together, we carefully planted the seeds and labeled the compartments, so we’d later know which seedlings were which.
When the shoots emerged from the soil, we put the planters under the grow light. On many a cold winter night, we’d gaze at those tiny lives before us with visions of bushel baskets of vegetables dancing in our heads. In May, when the forecast said the coast was clear—that the freezing nights were behind us—we transferred the seedlings to the soil in the garden.
Old photos of our backyard show that the garden space was once just grass. At first, the garden was small, but each year we expanded the borders. We weren’t satisfied with that. Along the fence, we planted asparagus. In a far corner of the yard, we tried raspberries. Soon, every year, with very little help from us, asparagus spears poked their way up to offer themselves for our dinner table. And every July we had raspberries. Buckets of them. Enough to give to friends.
From the seeds and plants, the kids learned patience. They learned the joy of watching things grow. They learned the feeling of gathering now, thanks to the efforts of long ago.
“What about rhubarb?” Lyla once asked. “Why don’t we grow rhubarb?”
“That’s something you can do with your own family, in your own yard someday,” I told her. “Plan on it.”
Dad in Summer
In summer, they learned the value of family togetherness.
Gina and I were schoolteachers, so all the family vacation days were the same. Every summer we took one long trip away from home. Sometimes we’d fly (for trips to Ireland and Hawaii there was no other way), but most often we went by car, to places we’d wondered about but had never seen. Maine, Arkansas, North Carolina . . .
We planned our trips to be full of stops, visiting friends and relatives when possible and taking in historical sites or areas of personal interest. The year Max was so wild about Daniel Boone that he wore a coonskin cap to bed every night, we just had to stop at the Cumberland Gap on our way to Wilmington. We were in no big hurry to get to the coast. We knew that some of the best memories of our trip would come from the stops we made along the way.
On those summer trips, we truly lived in the present. Close. Together. In faraway places, exploring things that were new to us. The journals I kept included the good and bad—the car troubles, getting hopelessly lost, the rain soaking our tent and all our belongings. We consulted those journals when planning the trip for the next summer. We’d read aloud and reminisce, laugh . . . and groan.
I think there were more laughs than groans, because no one ever said, “Let’s not do it again.”
Dad in Autumn
In autumn, the kids learned the value of helping others.
Every year they assisted me as I prepared the bird feeding stations outside the living room window. We had one main feeder surrounded by assorted smaller ones. A heated birdbath—much appreciated by the birds in the dead of winter—stood off to the right.
Our autumn efforts were rewarded on cold winter mornings when the kids watched me making my way through the hip-deep snow, filling the feeders with seeds and nuts. Minutes later I was back in the house with them, cold hands and all. Then, together, we waited for the show to begin.
The lesson was clear: When we sacrifice a little to make life better for others (animal friends included), rewards come to us in return. If your spirits need a lift on a snowy Wisconsin morning, the comings and goings of cardinals, nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, and chickadees might be just what the doctor ordered.
If any of the lessons were forgotten, each new season provided a refresher course. New lessons arose as well, such as when we realized one winter afternoon that Josh’s footprints in the snow were now larger than mine. So he led the way that day.
We were never bothered by the winter’s cold and snow. We were together, and we knew there’d be a fire later at home, and the blankets there were extra warm when we ourselves were extra cold. Supper was sure to include vegetables from the freezer, grown in our garden last summer from seeds we planted last spring.
Such good lessons, ’round and ’round, over and over again.
In my book Goodnight Whispers, a father whispers encouraging words to his daughter. She grows to be a confident, competent young woman, whispering positive words to her father as he sleeps, and to her own baby son. Round and round, again.
People ask if Goodnight Whispers is based on real people in my own family, and I tell them . . . How could it not be?