Friday, April 9, 2010
There was an envelope waiting for us when we returned from New Hampshire the other day. It had my dad’s handwriting on the front. It came as a surprise because my dad’s birthday was last week and generally I send him a card on the big day, not the other way around. I ripped it open to find a neatly typed letter, a twenty dollar bill and a fifty dollar bill.
My dad turned seventy this year. I sent out the card before I realized this fact and wished I had done something big for him. I thought about him all day on his actual birthday but didn’t get a chance to call him because after an eight hour shift at the library, we threw our bags in the car and drove to New Hampshire to visit the in-laws for Easter. There just wasn’t time.
I knew my dad would understand. That’s how we roll in my family. We might not talk on the phone every day, or even every month, but there’s always an unspoken rule that we love each other and we’re here if we’re needed. Just a phone call or plane ride away.
So when we finished our Easter visit in that other state and arrived home to find this mystery envelope in the mail it definitely surprised me. What the letter said didn’t surprise me at all.
It was a form letter, meant for me and each of my siblings, instructing us to take this money and find some fun activity to do with our families. Life is short, going by faster as each day passes, he pointed out, and there is such a brief time to make family memories. All he asked in return is that we take pictures of the adventure we found and send him a few copies. It was the only gift he wanted for this big milestone birthday.
Pictures of his kids, having fun with their kids.
My dad has gotten nostalgic in recent years. After being widowed in his early fifties, a hit that came out of the blue one weekend, he had a new perspective of how quickly life can change. He did a lot of soul searching and said more ‘I love yous’ to the people in his life than he had in decades. He read relationship books and by the time he entered into his second marriage, to my wonderful step-mom, he was an evolved man.
Oh, he still manages to drive her crazy on a regular basis, but he understands so much more about relationships after losing one he thought he’d have for a lifetime.
And in his time of life reflection he also pondered the years that included my childhood. My mom and dad were very giving people in the seventies and eighties. They were involved in many church activities, raising their own five children, and still managed to be foster parents to a revolving list of needy kids. They started by taking in teens, an age most people are scared of. But my parents helped many teens find their way and go on to lead productive lives. Of course, it came at a price.
There are only so many hours in a day and so much energy a parent has to give. My siblings and I were never neglected. We had constant food on the table, even if it was from the day old bread store and picked from our backyard garden. We always had clothes to wear, generally from stacks of hand me downs donated by generous friends from church. And we were loved. We all knew we were loved.
But as far as our family unit went, we never had time alone. Every activity we did included foster siblings. Some we knew well, those who stayed for months or years. Others we’d just met the day before and would leave our house before the week was out. But family activities included everyone. Even the newest ones.
I’ve heard my dad make comments about how he had regrets in how we natural kids were raised sometimes. I’m sure he’s like every other parent and feels like he could have done more and done it better if he had a second chance. It’s a common thought, only further complicated by his complicated family. So I understand why making family memories is an important goal to my dad. He understands what it means to kids and what it means to their parents once they’ve all moved away. It is a sacred gift in his mind.
Jeff and I thought it over, talked it over, and finally decided what we’d do with our twenty and our fifty. We added just a bit more to the pile and bought a bike rack for the minivan. We’ve always talked about taking more bike trips with the kids, and a bike rack will make that possible.
Yesterday we strapped the bikes on the back of the car and headed for New York City. In the precious rare spring sunshine we biked in Central Park. From one end to the other we pedaled and explored and made some pretty fun new memories. I took just a few hundred pictures and by the time we got home last night I felt like we’d done my dad proud.
He will love finding out how we spent ‘his’ money and he will cherish the pictures we send. Because as life sweeps you away and you suddenly have a clearer view of the woulda’s and shoulda’s from decades past, the birthday list changes.
And sometimes getting nothing in a wrapped box is exactly what you want.