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  • Jim Ferraro

Doing Your Best as a Family Trait

My dad was extremely tough on his children, yet he was also very protective of us, too.

His industrious nature was admirable, but for a young boy it was frustrating, because he’d make me spend my entire weekends doing chores around the house and yard instead of playing with my friends. He had me raking leaves, washing the car, and doing anything else he could think of to keep me busy.

Whenever I finished a given task, I would look at him with great pride.

I was happy to be done with it and always believed that I did a pretty good job.< But he rarely agreed.

“Go back and do it over,” he’d say.

My mother was the calming force in our family who helped me keep my sanity and avoid any type of meltdown whenever I felt frustrated by this.

My dad wasn’t the kind of man to dole out accolades—ever. His father didn’t give praise easily, and therefore neither did mine.

“Good job” or “Atta boy” weren’t part of his vernacular.

At Greenwich High School, in Connecticut, I was the second-leading tackler on the football team.

We were undefeated—one of three teams in the one-hundred-plus year history of the school to accomplish that feat.

While my dad would attend all my games, he was never able to utter, “Great game, son,” afterward. He just expected me to excel—to get out there and always do my best.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but his high expectations helped me focus on becoming the best I could be at anything I took on.

This lack of praise was actually a gift I would learn to appreciate later in life. Ironically, I would discover years later that this man who rarely gave me compliments directly had plenty to say about me to everyone else. Over time, I would hear story after story from friends and even mere acquaintances about how well my dad thought I was doing on the football field, in school, with charities, in my career, as a father, and so on and so forth. It was clear to them that he was as proud as a father could be.

By the time I was in my teens, I worked during summers and holidays for my grandfather as his assistant landscaper. I can’t remember a summer when I didn’t have a job. My father put all the money I earned in the bank and wouldn’t let me touch it.

I didn’t understand his logic then, but I certainly do now.

My dad’s parents divorced when he was only 10 years old. My grandmother took my dad’s 9-year-old sister and my grandfather took my dad. They split the children as though they were nothing more than property. Sadly, my father didn’t see his mother again for forty years. From the time Dad was 10 years old through high school, his four aunts took on the role of “mother,” each of them feeding him dinner on different days of the week. They were very nice ladies, but they also had their own children, and my dad naturally felt like a bit of an outcast or a burden to them.

• • •

Because of his childhood, my dad was very protective of his family and insisted on always knowing where his kids were at all times and doing whatever he could to shield us from harm. As a matter of practice, he kept all of us close, sometimes to the point of being downright ­stifling—especially as I entered my teenage years.

As a teen, I’d sometimes sneak away at night and go to parties or do whatever I could to break free of the boundaries and rules he set up—rules that I was expected to strictly abide by. After I graduated from high school in 1975, I moved to Santa Barbara, California, without any warning to or discussion with my family. I wanted to be with my girlfriend, who had relocated there with her mother. I lived with them and got a job caddying at a local country club. I was madly in love, or so I thought.

Hell, I was 18 years old. What did I know about love?

Three weeks later, after stressing out about my future, I found myself back home. I realized that if I didn’t start college in the fall, I’d never get a degree. My father had always promised he’d pay for my education, but said many times over the years that everything else was on me. By the time I started school, I had nearly $10,000 saved, all because of my dad’s forethought and planning. That was a lot of money back in the mid-1970s. Though my dad didn’t give me access to the money, I always knew it was there for a rainy day.

By the time I was ready to attend to college, only one thought was driving my decision as to where I should go: “The farther away, the better!” My dad wanted me to stay close to home and attend a school that was in or near New England, such as Bucknell.

That wasn’t where I saw myself at all. So I went south. I started at the University of Miami in the fall of 1975. For a brief time I thought about applying to the Air Force Academy. I loved flying, and though I hadn’t ever sat in a pilot’s seat before, I was certain it would be thrilling. Miami seemed like it would be a lot more fun, however. I didn’t even visit the campus. Nope—I applied based solely on the beautiful brochure. The pictures made the school look as though it were located directly on the ocean, which I would soon discover wasn’t the case. What appeared to be the sea was actually a lake.

I still fondly recall the many vacations my family took to Miami when I was a young boy. Sometimes we’d go by train from Connecticut. It would take twenty-four hours to navigate along the Eastern Seaboard. Other times, we flew or drove. One thing I remembered from those family excursions was how nice the weather was all the time. When I weighed New England against Miami, the warmer climate won hands down. Miami was definitely the place to be.

In my next post, I continue sharing a bit about my background – this time my college years, before I learned the virtue of actually applying myself.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you: how did your parents’ behavior affect your choices in life? Thank you for sharing.


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