I Like Being Like My Dad: The Plagiarism of Inheritance

Read also “Riding the Rails with my Dad”
“Blue Bellies and Personality Plus: A Tribute to My Mom”
Take care of your actions because they will become habits.
Take care of your habits because they will form your character.
Take care of your character because it will form your destiny.
—The Dalai Lama
Isn’t it about becoming one’s parents, about taking
on their very habits, whether you want to or not?
— Lydia Davis, “How Shall I Mourn Them”?
Because you are, I am.
—South African Maxim
It is said that people do not appreciate the fullness of their parents’ love until they have children of their own. That is certainly true in my case. In my teenage and early adult years, I rebelled against my parents. I developed my liberal views quite early, and I became a student leader against the Vietnam War at Oregon State University.

My Parents Voted for Wallace!

My father was a staunch Democrat most of his adult life, but the dramatic changes of the 1960s were deeply unsettling for him, just as they were for many in his generation. My mother worked on the Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964, but my dad still voted for LBJ. I was in a state of shock when they both voted for George Wallace in 1968.

Instead of trying to understand my parents, I wrote nasty letter after nasty letter chastising them for what I perceived to be their political ignorance. No matter how strong my criticisms, however, my parents always expressed their love for me. It seemed that the more I rebelled, the more they accepted me. That didn’t make any sense. I felt that I didn’t deserve their love. I certainly did not want to be like them.

Much Like My Father After All

Over the years I gradually reconciled with my parents, especially after I married and had a child of my own. I’ve now made the same discovery that Harvard Professor James Wood did: I am actually more like my dad than I ever thought. In an essay in The Atlantic (1/16/13) entitled “Becoming Them: Our Parents, Our Selves,” Wood was surprised to find that he had fallen into some of the same habits as his father.

Sober and serious just like my dad, I now enjoy my evenings sitting in my easy chair reading newspapers, journals, and magazines. The reading material is of course different: his was Field and Stream, Guns and Ammo, and U.S. News and World Report; mine is The Economist, The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, The Nation, and The New Republic.

The Gier Diet and Metabolism

My dad had oatmeal, fruit, toast and jam every morning, and so do I. He had meat slices, cheese, and fruit for lunch, and I have tofurkey instead. His standard dinner was meat, potatoes, and veggies, and mine is the same except fish as my only meat. My daughter has reverted to her grandfather’s meat diet, and perpetuates the Gier metabolism: three square meals, and if they are late, the Giers gets crabby. James Wood calls this the “plagiarism of inheritance.”

The Well Dressed Radical (at least for a while)

By karma and imitation, much of our lives are written for us. Even in my rebellion I was much like dad, who was always well dressed. As a war protester I always wore a sport jacket and tie. There he was: Nick Gier, Jr., the Well Dressed Radical. After I had applied for a job at Yale Divinity School, my dad’s first comment was: “Now you will have to wear a suit, son.” After growing a beard and wearing my hair long, that is when I stopped being like him. Sorry, Dad.

We Could Not Tell a Joke

My dad could not tell a joke, and I inherited that disability from him. He wouldn’t even try, but I always embarrass myself when I fumble one. (I once had a friend coach me, but it didn’t help.) The only joke that seems to work for me is when I tell people that I’m funny about twice a month and that is usually by accident.

I once made a ham and cheese sandwich for a lovely meat-eating lady who insisted that I call her Mom#2. I didn’t tell her that it was tofu ham and non-diary cheese, and she said it was the best sandwich she had ever eaten. When I told her what it was, she never trusted me about food again. My father would never have played a practical joke like this. He would have been afraid of hurting someone’s feelings.

Beat Him Up, Daddy!

Our live-in maternal grandmother had apartments, and my father helped her when her tenants didn’t pay their rent. I’ll never forget one summer evening in the 1950s when my dad came back to the car empty-handed and frustrated about a deadbeat tenant. From the backseat my brother and I offered our advice in unison: “Why don’t you go beat him up?”

We were devastated by his response: “Sons, I could not beat my way out of wet paper bag.” Little did I know that in the depths of my initial disappointment the seeds planted by this humane and sensitive man would come to fruition. A little more than a decade later I would be chanting “Make Love not War,” would be studying Asian religions, would be senior fellow at my university’s peace institute, would become a Buddhist, and would write a book on Gandhi.

Gier Boys Run from their Father

When my brother and I were born, my dad was a train master on the Union Pacific. He would be out on assignment for a week at a time. When he came home, we would run away from him. We did not know who this strange man was. This broke his heart, and he decided to give up a very good job and an even better pension for his sons.

My parents sold everything that they could not pack in a 1947 Mercury Coupe and moved to Eagle Point, Oregon, where my father bought a dairy farm. Just our luck, milk prices tanked and within a year and half we moved to Medford, where my brother and I received excellent educations and my father made a good living selling cars.

The Man Who Couldn’t Spank

My mother was a strict disciplinarian and the refrigerator calendar was covered with daily demerit marks. She warned us that if we ever reached a certain number of those black marks, our dad would give us a whipping. My mother often raised her voice, but she never raised her hand against us.

One day our demerits had increased so much that, when our father came home that evening, my mom told him that his sons had to be punished. I can still remember my dad standing over us with his belt: he simply couldn’t do it, and it certainly didn’t help that my brother and I were laughing at him. He was still not credible as a “real” man.

My Father: A Truly Good Man

At my father’s memorial, my daughter began with the declaration “my grandfather was a truly good man.” There is a direct line of goodness from grandfather to granddaughter. This could not be said of me because there is too much of my mother in me. Not evil, mind you, but a feisty streak that often got both of us in trouble.

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