Twice a year, as a child and a teen, I would wake up and find at least forty dollars on the kitchen counter. The man who left it there, before he went to work, used that cash to encourage his wife and children to buy shirts, underwear and other things for him on his birthday and Father’s Day. I thought that to be a selfish notion.
At least I did for a while.
The man had quite a few faults. So did his wife. So did his oldest son, middle daughter and youngest son. Unlike the rest of his family, I think he confronted those faults. In bold and honest and loving ways. That was the very real value of his life.
I have never doubted the man’s words. Or actions, for that matter. Well, maybe I did. For a while.
One time, his youngest son, who had recently become a legal driver, drove the man’s new Chevy Impala to a friend’s nearby house. The next door neighbor of that kid’s friend chose to back into the left side of that brand new Chevy. The kid was afraid to tell his dad. But the kid’s mom encouraged him to confront the man, and to be honest.
It was the very first new car the man ever bought. The news his son was about to deliver would have angered even a saint. So, he timidly approached his dad and said, “Daddy. My friend’s next door neighbor backed into the new Impala and damaged the left side.”
The man should have gone into an uncontrollable rage. Instead, he gave a simple and brief look at the kid and boldly said, “Damn! I thought I would be the first one to wreck that car.”
At some point, his youngest son was attending, as a freshman, The University Of North Carolina. The young guy was missing his home, five-hundred miles away. And the high school sweetheart he left there. The kid told the man that he was ready to come back home. The man’s reply? “Stay one full semester, and I promise you that you will never want to leave Chapel Hill.” The kid didn’t trust his advice. He thought the man was lying. But he stayed anyway. And, damn. The man was right.
I could go on and on about this man. But one sort of final thing about him is this. One day on his birthday, a day when he knew none of his young kids could provide a gift to him, he knew what to expect – a couple of disappointed children. So he did what he had to do. On that day, he bought and installed for his kids a backyard swing set. He gave his kids a gift on HIS birthday! And this may not be true, but I believe he lovingly wished the kids a happy birthday on that day. At least that’s what I believe and feel.
I will be honest with you. Until tonight, I never understood what that kitchen counter cash was all about. Now I know. If that man could leave forty dollars for his family to spend on him, then, certainly, he could afford a trip to Lebo’s Big Man Clothing store himself. Any time he wanted to. He didn’t need shirts and underwear from his wife and kids.
All he needed on those days was to show his love. He left that cash to make his wife and kids feel good about themselves and about giving to the man he knew we all loved. I am convinced of that now.
The man I am talking about is my dad.
Look, my brother’s birth year is 1945. My sister’s is 1952. Mine is 1954. And the birth year of the last of the man’s 17 children, grandchildren and greats was just five years ago. My life and those of the others are defined by that kitchen counter forty dollars. The lives of each of us began long before any of us actually reached our place on earth.
All of us were born on July 16, 1921.
So was my dad.
Happy Birthday, Joe! Thank you for giving our lives real value.