Happy Independence Day 2020!

I’ve thought about my ancestors a lot lately, as this holiday approached, but especially my father. I wish I could discuss what’s going on in the world with him now, and get his perspective and counsel. Where’s Dad when you need him? Even more so because of the worldwide pandemic and so much civil unrest here in the States.

My grandparents immigrated from Lebanon. My Irish mother was nursing at a hospital in England when she met my father. Dad served in the Army Air Corps during World War II and was stationed there. Mom immigrated from Ireland to be married, and became a naturalized citizen three years after her arrival in the States.

My father was born in this country in 1910. He lived 88 years, and throughout his entire life, he considered it a privilege to be an American. He taught us that “Uncle Sam” had been good to us, and that the United States was the true “land of opportunity.”

My father worked long hours on our ranch to take advantage of those opportunities and succeed in life: 7 am – 7 pm, six days a week. For years. My eight brothers worked alongside him. We three girls helped our mother–cleaning, cooking, baking, gardening, and doing mountains of dishes and kettles every single night. Take-out food wasn’t invented yet. Sundays we had off, and on that day we all piled into the station wagon for church. After church, Dad made a huge breakfast for us all, bacon, sausage, eggs, toast—the works. Sometimes we’d take a Sunday drive to Mt. St. Helens, or some other beautiful Pacific Northwest spot. In inclement weather, we stayed home and played pinochle or rummy. I recall many wonderful Sundays.

My parents made huge sacrifices in order to college educate all eleven of their children, an education that neither of them enjoyed, and yet, as we all grew up, this became their big goal in life. A dream they, and we, fulfilled. They wanted to broaden our world, and give us more choices than they had in our life vocations.

Somebody asked me recently what they did with all their kids when they went on vacation. I said they didn’t take vacations. They went to an annual New Year’s Eve party at my Uncle George and Aunt Maxine’s house, and went out to dinner alone one night every year: the day they sold their herd of cattle, and deposited their once-a-year paycheck. Those were their two vacation days, and they never felt put upon for not having more. They chose their life, and enjoyed it.

I think my upbringing was similar to many hardworking families across the nation. In my small town, businesses were built from the ground up by resourceful citizens, farms were worked, fishing and logging operations were big employers. I thought our local women could do anything. These phenomenally talented gals were everywhere, hosting smorgasbords, working logging shows, directing plays, acting in melodramas, putting on festivals, and entering their awesome wares in the county fair.

Our community, and communities across the land, all shared a common goal: to be the best they could be. These were places where people helped one another, and volunteering and being civic-minded was a given, a hometown duty. From oldest to youngest, we all participated in the life of our city. These experiences enriched us all.

Our household, crazy and busy as it was, did not lack in love or discipline. But the one thing Dad did not tolerate was whining. He would start by saying, “If you don’t like it, do something constructive about it. Make it better.” If we persisted in our complaint, he would blow off our grumbling with: “Cry me a river,” or, “Go get a crying towel.” We grew in maturity every time we heard him say those phrases, even if they weren’t directed at us. Nobody in our family wanted to be the weak link.

If we were justified in our grievance, he might sympathize for a minute or two, then say, “Life is hard. No doubt about it. But you’re far better off in this country, the land of the free, then anywhere else in the world. Here, at least you have the chance to make something of yourself.”

Once, I was dragging my feet on accepting a leadership role at school, and he said, “If you don’t step up and do it, who will?” Dad was a master in instilling responsibility in us for our life and actions, and was adamantly opposed to any of us trying to escape those responsibilities. Living under one roof, if we didn’t each do our part, our home and ranch would soon have been in chaos.

I can’t say I was always so patient with my own kids. My son, about twelve at the time, was moaning about his performance after a baseball game that he played in and lost. I said, “How hard can it be? Just step up to the plate and hit the damn ball.” He’s 30 now and still reminds me that I said that, and for an adolescent, perhaps it was harsh, but he got the point. There are very few excuses to be made for ourselves, and none for bad behavior. To succeed in life, you have to work hard, steadily, and with some driving goal or purpose, a vision for your life. That was the consistent message that my parents imparted and lived. Like everybody else, they had their ups and downs, and with such a large family, some struggles as well. Teen years, anybody?

My dad had a lesson for my son, too. We were all outside in his driveway one summer day. I was hanging a flower basket for Mom, while Dad was watching my little boy as he crouched down observing some ants. One started to crawl on him, and he shook it off and raised his hand to crush it, until Dad intervened, poking him with his cane. “Leave it alone! Why do you want to destroy that ant? What did he do to you?” “Nothing,” my son replied, and stood up. “Don’t disturb him them,” Dad said. “He was just going about his business. Now you go about yours.” Dad could be a little gruff in his older years, and intimidating to a young child, but my son responded to his rebuke with an apology. “I’m sorry, Grandpa.” Even a five-year-old can distinguish right from wrong.

People just want to live in freedom and peace, without destruction of property and businesses that they spent long hours and years of labor earning and building. Maybe this 4th of July, we can resolve to do better—to remember, consider, respect, and honor the efforts of the people who came before us, our current families, and those who will come after us.

Happy 4th, and God Bless America!

Until next time,

Helen