Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Gifts from My Parents

I'll soon be celebrating another birthday. Another year older, and another year... wiser?  I hope so.

If I inherited even a portion of the wisdom of my parents, I will be thrilled. My mother died in 2002, at the age of 94. My father had passed away almost 8 years earlier, when he was 85.

Over the years, my parents gave me many gifts, although I may not have recognized them at the time.

My dad was born into a farm family. He loved farming, but he had dreams of becoming a pharmacist. To accomplish this goal, he would have needed to go to Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio, to study pharmacology. His parents said that they needed him on the farm, and that he should try to find a career that would enable him to stay at home. He was an obedient son. He decided to attend the local teachers' school. He did his farm chores early in the morning, then went to school, then came home and did his evening farm chores, followed by a few hours of homework. The next day, the routine repeated. And the next. And the next. He had 4 sisters and 1 brother. They all became teachers. All of them left the farm, when they married, but my dad stayed. He respected his parents and had a strong sense of duty.

My mother knew she wanted to be a teacher from the time she was a very young girl. She taught in a one room schoolhouse near her home. She had 6 brothers and 1 sister; her sister died in early childhood. My mom was the youngest in the family and her older brothers adored her. When the weather was cold, her brother, Mel, would get up at 4:00 am and go to the schoolhouse to start a fire in the woodstove, then he would come back and take my mom to the warm and toasty school. My mom loved riding to the school in the winter, because Mel would put sleighbells on the big Percheron horses, and she thought the jingling bells were the prettiest sound in the world. She loved and appreciated her family.

When my mom and dad got married, the laws required that my mom stop teaching. Married women were not allowed to teach.  Men with families were considered to be in greater need of a job.   Because my dad's parents still needed help on the farm, the newlyweds moved into the big farm house with my grandparents. By now, my dad was teaching school, and helping on the farm in every spare moment. They accepted responsibility without complaint, and instead were grateful to have a nice place to live, and to have the opportunity to help my grandparents.

As the years went by, my dad continued to farm and teach, plus he became the basketball and baseball coach at the high school. About that time, the regulations changed, and the credentials he had earned from the local teachers' school were determined to be insufficient. In order to maintain his teaching certification, my dad had to drive from Holmes County to Kent State University 4 times each week. There were no interstate highways, and the trip took approximately 2 hours each way. In his "spare time" he continued to farm. He had determination.

My parents used to talk of those days often. They agreed that it was hard, but not impossible.   They would add, “We did what had to be done, and we made it through.”  When I face tough times and challenging schedules today, I look at what my parents faced and I am encouraged. I trust that I can do, what I have to do.

My dad always said, “There will be no cross words in this house.  We are a family and families love each other, support each other and are kind to one another.”  My parents gave me the gift of a peaceful home life.

My mother always told us, “You have to have fun!  We don’t want to sit around and be gloomy all day.  Let’s laugh!”  Her humor was seldom planned.   She didn’t tell funny stories or jokes; she just naturally seemed to say things that got everyone giggling.  On the other hand, my dad loved to tell jokes and funny stories.  He was very tall, and many of his young students were a bit intimidated by him. He had a joke for every student, and even if he towered over them, they all shyly smiled and waited to see what funny thing he would tell them.   Their humor has guided me through countless difficult times.

I seldom heard my parents complain. Well... sometimes my mom complained. My dad had a tendency to volunteer for every non-paying job that came along, every committee that needed a chairperson, every cause that needed a champion. I still remember the many times he came home and announced that he was asked to lead some committee, and my mom would always say, "You surely aren't going to do that, are you?" Dad would get an embarassed smile, and answer that no one else was willing to do it, to which my mom would reply in an exasperated tone, "Well, of course, no one else was willing to do it! They knew you would!" My dad recognized the needs of others, and stepped forward to help. My mom recognized that there are times when it is necessary to say, "no."

I have tried to learn both of those lessons: to help when I can, and to say "no" when my schedule is too full. A few years ago, I was overwhelmed with volunteer responsibilities that I had accepted, and when I was discussing the difficulties of doing all the things that needed to be done with a good friend of mine, he simply said, "I could be wrong, but I think you have trouble saying 'no'." Immediately, I thought of my father's tendency to over-extend himself, and my mother's exasperation. I became a little better at saying "no."

My dad loved people, and he loved making them smile. He paid attention to people, especially those that others may not notice. I remember a young Amish boy named, Simon, who was in my class in school. He was very shy, and kept his eyes lowered most of the time. One day, my dad saw Simon and his family riding in their Amish buggy. They had one of the finest horses in the county pulling that buggy. It was a very high-spirited animal that looked like a champion race horse. My dad noticed that Simon was holding the reins. The next day, at school, dad commented that he had seen Simon driving the buggy and that he was very impressed that Simon could handle such a fine, lively horse. Simon's eyes sparkled and he couldn't stop smiling. That one remark had a huge positive effect on that shy boy. I try to remember to notice those that others may not, and to pass along an honest compliment, or a comment that lets them know, I see the talents they have.

Both of my parents were teachers, and they loved teaching.  I always said I would NEVER be a teacher because they spent so much time at the school and when they were home, they were always busy preparing for the next day’s lessons.  In the evenings, they would talk about some of their students, and try to figure out ways they could help those students accomplish all that they wanted to do.  My dad had a knack for working with the students who had the most challenges.  He would find an approach that would engage them, because he wanted them to succeed.  They helped countless students succeed!   My parents inspired me to find ways to help other succeed.

My dad was not just a teacher, but also,  a principal, a basketball coach, a cross-country coach, a baseball coach, a track coach, a community leader, a Sunday School teacher, a farmer and did many other duties that I can’t even count.  He would be at his school by 7 am each morning, finish by 3:30 or 4:00 in the afternoon, then he would be off to whatever sport was in season, for practice.  If there were games in the evening, he might not return home until after 9 pm, when he still had to prepare his lessons for the next day.  He often wasn’t in bed until midnight, only to wake up by 6 am.  He never complained.  He only worried that he wasn’t doing enough.  His dedication and tirelessness still inspire me.

When my dad was coaching, he always took his basketball team to Columbus to watch the state high school basketball tournament. His teams seldom played in the tournament, but they would go to the games. One year, when my dad had taken his "starting 5" players to the tournament, they had seen some especially exciting games. They were busy chatting about them as they traveled home, when suddenly, my dad failed to notice that the car in front of his car had stopped. BANG! They crashed into it. The driver of the other car got out, and he and my father examined the vehicles. Luckily, there was no damage, and they were on their way. Soon, they were again engrossed in conversation about the games. CRASH! Oh no! Only 10 miles from the last accident, my dad had hit another car. As he stepped out of his vehicle, he cringed. The driver getting out of the other car looked very familiar. You guessed it. It was the same one he had collided with less than 20 minutes earlier. Again, there was no damage, but this time, the other driver gave my dad a serious look (and a wink) and said, "You go first this time." My dad loved to tell that story. The sense of humor displayed by the other driver changed the whole situation, and reminded my dad to keep a sense of humor when things go wrong. I try to remember that, too.

My mom loved teaching, but in the winter, when it snowed, she would wake up very early waiting to see if the school superintendent would call to tell my dad that school would be cancelled for the day.  You cannot imagine her whoops of glee when that call came and they decided to close the schools for the day!   She would jump up and yell “Whoopeeeee!”  And we would spend the day sledding, or building snowmen, or making taffy, or baking cookies, or playing games.  So many wonderful memories of those days.  I am grateful for the ability to take each moment as it comes, and make the most of it.

When I was young, teachers had the summer off.  We usually took 3-4 short trips each summer.  We played travel games, ate at roadside parks, read all the Burma Shave signs, hiked through Hocking HIlls (few people even knew that place existed at that time), made an annual visit to the Logan Elm tree, which sadly succumbed to Dutch Elm disease,  visited all of the Kentucky state park resorts, and so many other places.  We traveled at our own pace.  If we saw something interesting we stopped to check it out.  How fortunate for me to be able to travel with my parents!  And,  how grateful I am that I learned that life is not about rushing, but about paying attention to unexpected attractions along the way, and not being afraid to wander off the beaten path.

One summer, my parents decided to go to Florida for 10 days. I have no idea why I decided to stay home, but I did. I think I was 17 at the time. They allowed me to stay home by myself. Being a teen in a very rural area, the top entertainment was going for a drive to see how many other people I could find that I knew. During the time that my parents were in Florida, I spent a lot of time hitting the local hangout spots to see who was there, and who they were with and what they were doing. When my parents returned home, they were happy to see that I was fine, the house was fine and the car was fine... almost. It hadn't been damaged, but when my dad looked at the odometer, he exclaimed, "Ruth! You put more miles on this car staying home, than we did driving to Florida and back!" Uh-oh! I don't remember being punished for this, but I was so embarrassed by it, that I never did anything remotely like it again. My parents were able to teach me valuable lessons without raising their voices or becoming angry. I can't say that I learned this lesson perfectly, but I have tried. They, also, continued to trust me even after that incident. I think that trust helped me resolve not to let them down again. I try to trust my children, so that they will learn to trust themselves.

After my parents retired, they loved to travel to Vermont several times each year to visit my brother, Gary and his family. They loved spending time with their grandchildren and their grandchildren adored them. My nephew, Gary Michael, their grandson, will never forget the time he and his two sisters made a mud pie and brought it to my dad. "We made a pie for you, Grandpa!"

Grandpa looked very pleased. They handed him a spoon and told him to try a bite, assuming he would pretend to eat it and they would giggle. To their shock and amazement, Grandpa dug the spoon deep into the mudpie and put the yucky stuff in his mouth. "Mmmmm! That's delicious!" he told them as brown goo trickled down his chin.

"Grandpa! Don't eat that! It's mud!" I have learned that being a little silly sometimes can create wonderful, wacky memories that are never forgotten, and...  a little dirt is not a bad thing.

Christmas was a HUGE deal for my dad.  He loved having his whole family home.  It was always more important for us to be together than it was to celebrate on Christmas or Christmas Eve.  Some years we didn’t celebrate Christmas until late January.  It was just as merry.  My dad loved to decorate our basement for the family get together.  It looked like a Christmas store had exploded and covered every inch of space.  He always wanted a fire in the fireplace, because it looked so pretty.  I’m surprised we’re all still here, because most years, it took him awhile to figure out how to make the smoke go up the chimney instead of into the basement.  Of course, there was always a wonderful meal, followed by a delicious birthday cake, for my dad and my niece, Kim.  His birthday was December 27, and hers was December 26.  So much fun.  Life is a celebration!  Live it with enthusiasm!

My dad played fair.  I will never forget sitting behind the basketball team at one of their games.  A referee made a call that the crowd didn’t like.  “Boooooo!!!!!!”  I joined right in.  My dad, who was the coach, and was sitting next to his team on the bench in front of me, glanced at me, but didn’t say anything.  On the ride home, after the game, he looked at me, and calmly stated, “If you ever want to go to another basketball game, you need to remember:  The team is there to play the game.  The coach is there to coach the game.  The referees are there to officiate the game.  The fans are there to support their team.  I don’t ever want to hear you booing the referees or the other team or their coaches again.”   I have never forgotten, much to the consternation of some of my friends who can’t understand how I can possibly stay calm, when things seem so unfair in a game.  I have learned that those same rules can be applied to many situations in every day life.  I’m not there to be a complainer, but to be a positive presence.

My ability to write came from both of my parents.  They wrote constantly.   My dad always carried those yellow legal pads, and they were filled with his notes and jokes he heard, speeches he was going to give, stories he wanted to tell....   

My mom kept a journal for as long as I can remember.  Her journals are all in stenographer’s notebooks and she managed to squeeze more on one page than I can get on three, and none of it was written in shorthand.  I have quite a few of her journals, and I love reading and re-reading them.  Her sense of humor and love fill the pages.  She has recipes, many of which are incomplete, because she was copying from a TV show, and she couldn’t write fast enough.  She had quotes, jokes, notes about things she saw in nature, people who visited, gardening tips and endless travel journals.  The motels where they stayed are listed, with descriptions of the rooms, the price and a mini-review, most of which are either glowing or hilarious.  All their meals on a trip are described in detail, and the amount each meal cost.  She even included every place they stopped for gas, complete with the gas price, and what the mpg was for the trip, not to mention the words from every “Burma Shave” sign, and anything else that caught her attention, and made her laugh or think more deeply.  How very grateful I am for the gift of writing!

My parents marriage was solid.  They were partners, best friends, sweethearts.  Each was the loudest cheerleader for the other.  They were always happiest when they were together.  Even though they continuously showed me how they attained the perfect balance in their relationship, it took me awhile to really understand.  I am so fortunate to finally have a marriage like my parents.

I learned so many lessons from my parents. Patience, compassion, understanding, listening, laughing, trusting, courage, honesty and love. I could tell hundreds of stories. The lessons they shared so lovingly are truly the best gifts I have ever received. I want to give those gifts to my children. Some of them are easy to give. Others take a lot of effort. I have to have patience with myself to keep trying and learning, even though my teachers are no longer here. Fortunately, they left a legacy of memories and stories that continue to teach the lessons that I need to learn.

Maybe your parents were as wonderful as mine, and you have had the benefit of learning wonderful lessons from them. Maybe your parents were more challenging. Negative experiences can still provide positive lessons. The important thing is to look for those lessons, and to see them as gift to you. Learning what NOT to do is just as valuable, as learning the right things to do.

My parents patiently guided me and trusted me to find my way.  

I am my parents’ child. And I am grateful!


  1. Thank you for your affirmation to the "Simon" in my life :)

    1. You're welcome, Lorelei! Finding a "Simon" is a very lucky thing!