When my parents entered their eighties they found Christmas shopping for seventeen great-grandchildren, ten grandchildren and their spouses, four daughters and their spouses and other assorted relatives and friends, a burden in terms of time, money, and energy. They reluctantly made the decision that family traditions must change. The decision was a difficult one for them and it led to much discussion in our family about Christmas gifts and traditions. I was surprised to realize that I could remember no more than two or three special Christmas gifts. None of these gifts have had any major impact on my life. It was then that I realized that the best gifts my parents ever gave me were never wrapped or put under the tree.
My parents gave me stability. They celebrated more than 60 years of marriage. My friends as I grew up, were the children of their childhood friends. My teachers had been their teachers. The children I went to first grade with were the ones with whom I finished high school. We lived in the same house for most of my life. Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas all had their traditions and they were repeated every year – year after year. Dull maybe, but reassuring to a child.
My parents gave me a childhood. I was not allowed to grow up too soon or too fast. I didn’t have the latest curfew, they always expected to know where I was and who I was with, and I wasn’t the first in my neighborhood to get high heels. My parents took responsibility for the decisions I had neither the maturity nor judgment to make like bedtimes, diet, and expected behaviors. At the same time, they firmly held me accountable for appropriate responsibilities like homework, household chores, and keeping track of my mittens. Excuses like “I’m too little” or “Everybody else does” didn’t cut much ice with them.
My parents taught me how to be independent and self-sufficient. My father built the house we lived in. My mother made all the clothes we wore. She would take a few scraps of this and that and make me a dress that was the envy of my friends. When I was nine, my mother helped me sew a skirt; when my daughters married I was able to make their wedding gowns. Because I was a girl, my father never really set out to teach me carpentry, but I watched while he worked and I think my toy shelves turn out quite nicely.
My parents made music a part of my life. Some of my earliest memories are of my father singing to me. Even when it was a financial hardship, my mother saw that I took piano lessons and grimly insisted that I practice half an hour every day. Band, chorus and the church choir were important activities as I was growing up. I am not a virtuoso but music provides me with relief from stress in my life and I can make enough music to write a song to teach children about shapes or entertain my grandchildren.
My parents gave me a respect for learning and a love of reading. My mother never missed a parent-teacher conference. My parents read to me, but even more importantly they read in front of me. My father would get so engrossed in his books that the world could shatter around him and he was oblivious. Little wonder that I grew up thinking of reading and learning as enjoyable, rewarding, and admirable pursuits. As an adult, I read for knowledge and I read for pleasure. No matter how rushed I am – no matter how tough the problems are, give me a book, and like my father I can “clock out” of the world for just a little while, and return to my responsibilities with new solutions and renewed energy.
The list could go on and on, a love of laughter and the ability to see the humor in a difficult situation, high expectations for moral behavior and the internal controls to choose right over wrong, a strong sense of family and tradition, and many others.
Just in case you are thinking, “Yeah, right!” Let me assure you that it is only in looking backwards in time, that I appreciate my parents’ gifts to me. As I was growing up I thought they were the meanest parents on the block – old fogies who didn’t understand. I dawdled at my homework and stuffed my dirty socks under the bed. I sulked and cried and tried to sneak out to an unapproved slumber party. There were times, I’m sure, when they shook their heads and wondered if they were doing anything right and if I would ever amount to anything. The best gift is that they stuck to their guns and kept on loving me and insisting that I measure up. In the end our adult relationship is better than the fanciest battery-powered Barbie car ever manufactured.