Mom and dad moved to Rochester from our little town, of course after the wedding and as all young couples did at the time they struck out on their own and did so with little to no help from anyone else. It was a matter of pride to them that when they married they were to be fully independent and now the masters of their combined destiny.
That generally means years of struggling and building a life through those struggles and they did so with wit, fun and grace …. like the story dad would tell at times when he was in the mood for a funny story, which was often!
Mom had been in college when they decided to get married, but left school when it was clear they could not have the wedding after she graduated due to grandpa Thure being so sick, and when they moved to start anew mom had taken a job at the local community college in preparation to finish her degree at a college locally. Dad was working as a water bottle delivery man and while they both had jobs that in the day were respectable they also were living check to check and struggling financially. Even to the point of having to decide on groceries or a Christmas tree during their first year there, but dad had been saving his pennies for months to surprise mom with a tree a week before Christmas. That holiday was a huge deal for her family and they went all out on decorating the tree with family ornaments, some Sicilian and some Swedish at my grandmothers house. Part of the wedding gifts were some of these given to my mom from her parents, but she had accepted the fact that their first tree would have to wait a year or two and as my mother was, she resigned herself to that fact and simply set the emotions aside and moved forward. That was her nature, not to dwell on things that you had no control over and to put your emotions of them in a box, close it tightly and bury it in your mind. It is a both a blessing and a curse to have inherited that ability, leaves you seemingly emotionless and cold. People see you that way, treat you that way and feel certain freedoms to act in ways towards you that they would not with others that may express emotions freely …. truth is that you still feel, it still eats at you, it still defines you, but it goes in a box rather than expressed. Makes getting thru rough times easier, but those boxes remain and they, on occasion, open up and slap you in the face with the same freshness as when the feeling first were closed up. Like I said, blessing and curse but many of the things in life that make us strong carry that.
So, dad took all those coins he had been secretly saving and went to the church parking lot where the boy scouts were selling trees, finds one he can afford … it wasn’t much of a tree and he would proudly say it was a bit on the mangled side. He loaded the tree on the roof of his old car, drove to the small apartment they lived in, parked around the corner so mom couldn’t see him, then as quietly as he could he carried up the stair and held it in front of the door. After all this to surprise her, you would know that he would just carry it in so he knocked on the door and stood behind the tree. Which must have been quite the sight as dad was a powerlifter, a big man and just the vision of him hiding behind a bare mangled tree is putting a smile on my face now!
Mom opened the door to the tree and my father giving the most joy filled “HO HO HO!!” he could muster (for dad that likely wasn’t filled with joy as it was bellowing intimidation, even in being joyful he was a man to be taken seriously) which was met almost immediately with my mother suddenly crying, which was highly unusual for her.
“Oh Terry, thank you!! How .. how did you manage this??”
Dad replied with his usual type answer to anything like this “Honey, it is christmas, our first Christmas and there is no way in hell I would let you go without … ever”
I can never express in these words how deeply my fathers honor ran, and especially in regards to taking care of his own. It is something that follows me to this day, decades after he left this earth that incredible sense of knowing that no matter what he would do right by me even if that meant kicking my ass a bit when I needed it .. and I did!
He carried the tree into the apartment and mom ran to get the small box of ornaments as dad moved furniture around with the tree leaned up against the wall. In the midst of his working that task diligently, he saw his bride suddenly looking sad. When asked she did not want to answer him, but dad being dad he pressed the issue until she did. He could see the tears, not of joy this time, forming in her eyes as she informed him that they had no tree stand for the incredible gift he had brought her, and they had no money to buy one. Knowing mom and the value she placed on the effort of the gift, rather than the gift itself, she was devastated as not having that stand was almost an insult to dad’s gift ….. it took her a second to understand why dad was suddenly holding her tight and laughing. He held her at arms length a few moments later and said “Ann, I did not even think of that! But you organize the ornaments and decide where you want the tree and I will be right back, I got this all figured out!”
Like I said, he was the only man she would be led by aside from her father and she did just as he asked. Dad had no idea how to fix it all as he walked down stairs to the car but was totally confident he would figure it out. Once he popped the trunk and started digging around, he found exactly how to make it all work out.
He walked back in with a tool bag, they placed the tree where mom wanted it and dad asked mom hold it in place. She asked “Terry, now what?” to which dad simply said “Honey, just hold the tree” at which point he knelt down and dragged the tools over to him. Now, know that most of the tools he had were from mom house, filled with grandpas carpentry tools, and on this first Christmas married and mom’s first Christmas without her father her new husband pulled out a hammer her father had swung every day of his working life and three 6 inch spike nails …. then nailed that tree straight to the floor!
And that Christmas they had their tree, haphazard, frugal, and spiked to the floor of their apartment …. they both claimed it to be the best Christmas of their lives. No gifts, no fancy dinner, nothing that either had known growing up, just this little mangled tree and their love. They turned what others would cry over and lament for years to come, into the finest holiday of their lives.
This is one of so many stories I will share with you, but in that sharing it is important to also share with you the effect it had on myself. Truly a sweet story (albeit not all will be in this book, but then again that is what life brings us in its merciless manner)
Having been told this many times during my growing up, my early responses were pretty benign and left me laughing. It is not until you too have had to live through similar in your life that the full depth of what occurred here hits you. For me it came during the time that I too was just starting out in my married life, again like theirs it was not in the least an ideal start …. and honestly not one that I had ever envisioned for myself. It too was rushed and it too was fraught with complications. What made my parents and my life story in that regard so dramatically different is that they were forced into their situation from outside circumstances but for me it was due simply to self centric choices I had made long before, during and after my marriage. Nonetheless, the struggling and the doing what was right after the cards were dealt was all that mattered. In the midst of my own struggles, I was constantly falling back on this and many other stories, history and advice my pop had shared with me, and these truly shaped the choices I made for years to come. Early on in my struggles I could have simply walked away from the situation without any consequences but that was not something I felt capable of doing …. in retrospect perhaps two people may have been able to lead lives that were more fulfilled in the end, but once you claim someone for you own, love them and that is that … you take care of your own.
I took that story during those moments and realized what it truly was, not simply some sweet story about two people in love but it was a story of love, honor, and taking care of your own at any cost. In fact, I remember the first time I realized that … was during a really bad episode where I had to make a choice to stay or leave, I chose to stay and I was angry, hurt and ready to explode with bad emotions …. then I suddenly felt total solace in KNOWING that I did the right thing. Pride, a sense of honor, and that incredible knowledge that right is right and at the end of my days those things were the only things I could claim as mine and mine alone.
Now I suppose that we can all read this and find in some retrospect that the decision to stay was not the best, but being pragmatic is certainly not always a part of doing the right thing. There were experiences that shaped myself, my former wife and most especially the children that far outweigh the fleeting moments of being happy or living different lives.
That sense of knowing you did the right thing and the effect it has on the world today is clearly missing, in this day and age the ends always justify the means ….. pragmatism has replaced honor and that is perhaps the scene in our culture that will one day destroy it.
Being pragmatic means doing what is necessary to get what you want, regardless of the consequence. It is entirely self centric and in a world where we all matter, relying on a world view that concerns only the satisfaction and sating of self does nothing but tear it all apart.
Honor on the other hand, means doing things that matter to the whole … it means not putting self first and it means standing in front of a mirror being able to say “I did this thing, it hurt, it did nothing to increase my position or my possessions but I did what was right for all concerned and I WILL carry this weight of the results with dignity and without self pity”
That is an incredible place to be when you learn to experience it in the full honesty and truth of it all.
My father could have simply neglected the tree, he knew that mom did not expect it, nor did she believe he could even afford one. He sacrificed to buy it, he showed his caring through the sacrifice, and when the gift was suddenly realized to be only half a gift due to there being no tree stand ….. he never once backed down, and in doing so he added to the gift by not showing a second of self pity. He simply handled it, and in doing so he increased the gift inadvertently to such an extent that mom never got over it.
It wasn’t just a gift from her husband, but it was a gift from beyond the grave from her father ….. that tree stood due to the dads efforts and due to the tools her father hands held for years with pride. A final gift to a daughter, and a first gift to a bride ….. and that is what I finally was able to take from it all once I was man enough to see through the ‘cute’ story.