Since my dad has been gone, Father’s Day for me has become a day for reminiscing about his impact on my life. I’ve been thinking about my roots this Father’s Day. For those who have lost their dads, my heart is with you, especially on this day. This is the fifth Father’s Day I’m spending without him.
It is funny how life follows cycles. It’s been a little more than eighteen months since I left my corporate job to pursue the family’s small business. As a child of first-generation immigrants, I’ve come full circle.
How He Got Here
My father came to the US in 1967 as a mail-order salesman. His travels took him all over the country as he worked with his brothers for the company they opened after his elder brothers gained knowledge of the business working for their uncles in Far East Asia.
He spent a few years in St. Thomas and married my mom. They eventually settled in Florida, where I was born. When he threw in the towel on his shop there, Papa decided to try his luck somewhere else. Over the course of his travels, he—like so many others—fell in love with San Francisco. One of my favorite memories of my dad is exploring San Francisco with him: riding trolleys up and down those unbelievable hills, walking along the wharf in the sharp breeze, and enjoying delicious Chinese food.
En route to California, my parents stopped to visit family friends in Dallas. They must have been quite persuasive, because my folks ended up staying there.
A Steady Presence
Papa owned a jewelry store. For 45 minutes to an hour on either side of locking the shop doors, he would pack or unpack the safe and set up the displays in the showcases. During the day, he would perform watch repairs, like changing batteries and adjusting the length of watch bands, in between customers. These repairs paid our bills since the shop wasn’t that busy.
I spent my summers, weekends, and afternoons after school in the shop, eventually replacing the part-time help. I’d do homework in the back, or work on essays in the showroom. Papa taught me to determine discounts of 50%, 40%, and 1/3 off and how to calculate tax long, long before my peers learned those topics in class. Even his part-time high school-age employees struggled to grasp these concepts. I’ve always credited my dad for my success in math—and for my picky taste in jewelry.
Papa worked really hard at what I saw as a thankless business. An immigrant with an unfinished college degree, his opportunities for employment that would pay the bills were limited. As a small business owner without salaried employees, he didn’t often close the shop for vacations. After all, if someone came by while the shop was closed, we wouldn’t make a sale. However, he would send my mother and me on trips in the summer, primarily to India where most of her family still lives. He might join us for a week or so before heading back home. Even then, he risked break-ins and the opportunity cost of a closed shop.
Papa picked up side hustles to make sure we could always pay the bills and put aside savings. Eventually, he started taking short trips while my mom and I ran the shop to … get right back into the same work that brought him to the US, and where I now find myself supporting the family business.
A Precious Legacy
Papa always showed up for anything going on in my life. Walking me to school (long after the age where it was cool)? School play? Dance concert? Martial arts test? PTA meetings? Staying late at the shop so I could use the computer to finish typing an essay? He was always sure to be there. He prioritized my education, recognizing that I was academically gifted, and set aside money to pay for college. Even though his business efforts weren’t yielding the best results, he kept looking for new opportunities. Many times, these might have led us to move, and he eventually decided to stay put because it was in my best interest—my education’s best interest—to remain in the same (excellent) school.
His best advice to me was that I needed to be independent, able to take care of myself and my family, no matter what happened in life. On one of our last visits together, he expressed gratitude and relief that he knew he didn’t have to worry about my future … or about me. I can only hope to share that peaceful confidence when my kids are grown. Now that I am a parent, I know it’s a heavy burden to have that constant niggling concern about whether the kids are going to be okay. I’m grateful that in this one thing, I was able to ease his heart.
I wonder if he’s looking down at me with amusement as I bumble through challenges he no doubt faced when he was working in the same field. For me, getting the opportunity to follow in my father’s footsteps makes me feel closer to my roots this Father’s Day.