No doubt people’s responses to the holiday season run the gamut from dread to ecstatic. I fall with the latter because I love the holidays. For me, it all kicks off with Halloween marking the last day of October that opens up to the month of giving thanks, followed by the Christmas season. It’s a time of memories as well. Although many of my thoughtful reflections back to earlier holiday seasons entail missing a lot of people who are no longer here, they are nonetheless pleasant recollections. Such pleasantries are due to having been blessed with a wonderful family and good friendships growing up. Unfortunately though this is not true for everyone, I nevertheless do not apologize for such blessings. Instead I embrace them hardily and whole-heartedly. And I’m glad to have had the family, loved ones, and friends that I did indeed experience growing up. Regret is a strong word, and I use it sparingly. There are things I wish I would have done more of through the years, and one thing I wish is that I would have more deliberately taken stock of the blessings I did have. I suppose in a month of giving thanks, reflecting on those times and blessings would be a good thing to do.
Family, Work Ethic, and Nonconformity
I have come to realize that this particular blessing can be a rarity. Indeed parents who understand a work ethic and the nature of money are indeed a blessing, not that I readily embraced these values as a kid growing up. I did try to get away with as much as I could. But getting that first job so that I had my own money in my pocket hit home right away. I also remember opening my first savings account. My dad was a laborer most of his life. He used the G.I. Bill to train as a machinist after he got out the Navy, and worked in machine shops that supported the oil boom that kept East Texas alive for many decades. There were times he worked six days a week, as many as twelve hours a day. The people he worked with, though they would rather wind down the week with normal work hours, embraced the extra work though it wore them out. I was too young to realize the foundation that dad was setting from which I would benefit in later years.
My mom had been a stay-at-home mom for the first several years of my life, but when I turned twelve, she decided she wanted to go to nursing school. All her life, she had wanted to be a nurse. She had been told by her dad that only questionable women went into the field of nursing. This was a bias that stemmed from the two world wars. But when she turned thirty in 1960, she left all the doubts and conformity behind and studied for her LVN, later obtaining her bachelor’s degree and becoming a full registered nurse (RN). She worked in the field she loved for over thirty years. She passionately worked in the emergency facilities of hospitals because it was exciting, and the skills she developed there honed her competencies as a nurse. I remember when I was around seventeen, she asked me, what do you want to do with your life. The question scared the hell out of me. I learned from her to go after what I wanted, but that it would take time and hard work. It would also take shaking off the pressure to conform to what others may think about my choices. Both mom and dad had rather rebellious spirits, and thankfully, I took that over from them. Unfortunately, viewing them in traditional terms as I grew up didn’t allow me to recognize just how much they didn’t conform to their cultural contexts until I reflected upon it years later. They were anything but traditional. Hard work, understanding finances, and common sense are great tools, not for conformity, but for rebellion. I’m thankful that I got such a spirit from them.
That spirit continued, and the years that followed with all the holidays spent with relatives and friends carved out memories for me of which I’ll never let go. The value of family is one that will always resonate with me deeply. Most of the old photographs I have now depict holiday times together with mom, dad, aunts, uncles, and cousins. They are times that are gone now, their value being learned at a deeper level years later down the line. In the last twenty years of his career, dad worked for Schlitz Brewery. I don’t think most people now would remember Schlitz beer. What I do remember is dad’s loading up my car with a couple of cases of beer every time I came home for the holidays. He would just say, don’t tell your mom, which of course was a joke.
I attended the same school from the first grade till the time I graduated my senior year. Those long twelve years ensured some solid friendships that have lasted for a lifetime. Some people regret (there’s that word again) being born and growing up in a small town. There were some times that I surely question small-town life, but I have come to realize how important that fact is for my own development. Don’t get me wrong. When I moved to Dallas to get my first job, believe you me, I had a blast. I also had to relearn some of those lessons I had learned growing up. But more than anything, the friendships that I developed over the years growing up served to help me develop more good friends as I moved on, entered university life, and finally engaged the work world. Since I’m talking about giving thanks as we enter this month of November, another memory surfaces for me. Just a week ago, November 7th, commemorates the birthday of one of my best friends from school days. In fact, Jimmy and I struck up our friendship in the school year of 1959-1960, our sixth grade year. Elementary and high school friendships come and go, as most of mine have. We all drift apart after that senior year because that’s simply how life plays out. Though most of my close friends now came about during my college years, Jimmy and I stayed in contact, for the most part, through our adult years. We had one of those stereotypical school day friendships that lasted from elementary school to our adult years. We managed to navigate dating life with the girls across town, discovering that we were anything but football players in Texas, graduating the same year, and facing Viet Nam years, both of us being lucky to avoid that hellish nightmare. One particular memory consistently hangs on that occurred during our junior year in high school. We became swept up in a romantic whirlwind with two gals we fortuitously met at the local skating rink one night. Fortuitous for sure. They were older than we were. They were from Mississippi. And they entered the skating rink looking for Disc Jockey they had heard on the radio. All this transpired over a two week period during the Christmas and New Years holidays. We learned a few things from these mature women during that time. Jimmy fell head-over-heels in love with Donna while I enjoyed merely being infatuated with Sheila, who was nineteen going on twenty (or thirty) to my seventeen. Well all good things must come to an end. Sheila’s fiance entered town and swished her back home to Biloxi. Jimmy and Donna hung on for a little longer, but it too eventually faded. But it was a two-week ride about which we always liked reminiscing into adult life. I still think of Sheila now and then to this day.
Another memory regarding Jimmy and I involved a movie we both saw on one of those late night old movie rerun stations on television. It was a biopic about Mark Twain. As the movie has it, he was both born and died under the passing of Hayley’s Comet. (I have no idea as to the accuracy of this depiction.) The movie was shown on a weekend night, so when all the kids got back to school on Monday, everyone was talking, not so much about the movie, but about Hayley’s Comet. Jimmy and I consulted an encyclopedia, and we calculated that the next time Hayley’s Comet appeared, we would be 39-years old. When the time came in 1986, I was living in Denton, Texas, and called Jimmy about the appearance of Hayley’s Comet. He remembered our looking at the encyclopedia and said he was thinking about getting in touch with me.
I mention this particular friendship as one of several that shaped my life growing up. It was such a simple life in a small town with a small town outlook. Many of us during our high school days had but one goal – to get out of that small town and do something with our lives. I did that in Dallas, Texas. But now I wouldn’t change that small town upbringing for anything.
Like family, deep friendships are a value that resonate strongly with me. As a convinced and convicted introvert, I can count on one hand the number of close friends I have. And that’s the way I want it. But the meaning I apply to friendship started back there in elementary school.
Faith & Change
I don’t write that much about my spiritual beliefs on this blog, nor will I at this time. But for sure, my faith has played a large part in the memories I hold regarding my family and friendships. Faith is something that has waxed and waned over the years for me. That nonconformist spirit I talked about above doesn’t allow for an easy fit for me into institutional settings or organized religion. I’ll own that for myself. But in the many changes that occurred over the decades, my faith has been one constant. The 1960’s were most definitely times of change. I wouldn’t exchange those times now for anything, as tumultuous as they may have been at moments. In my small-town setting, I remember during my high school years, 1963-1966, that people tended to part and go one way or the other – with or against the changes that the 1960’s were bringing. The 60’s have been both touted and blamed for a lot of things. I don’t believe that over-generalizations applied to a decade mean all that much, and such generalizations tend toward sloppy thinking. Those times, however, did bring a lot of questioning of traditional values on which we were brought up. For me, looking back, it’s a both-and thing. I’m glad for the values on which I was raised, and I’m glad to have experienced the changing times. They both lay a foundation for me that, again, I wouldn’t exchange for anything.
There are so many things for which I can be grateful and thankful over the years. Family and friendship are two of them. The years take their toll. Many of us lost friends and acquaintances in Viet Nam. Over the decades, accidents and diseases have claimed others. My dad died in 1999 of coronary heart disease. It was the month of February. All I remember is that he wanted to live until 2000. He let go a few months early. At the time I was living in South Dakota. I flew home for dad’s funeral. The day after the funeral, Jimmy called. It had been several years since I had talked with him. We met for lunch at Luby’s Cafeteria, a thing we did several times over the years when I would come home for the holidays. We talked, did a little reflecting, but not as much as I would have liked. I went to his house and met his new wife, and we had a very pleasant day. I moved from South Dakota to Austin in 2001. Over the next several years, I lost contact with Jimmy. Then one day I decided to Google him to see if he was still living in east Texas. I could never find any info on him. Finally, I befriended his brother’s wife on Facebook. I contacted her to get the scoop on his address, phone number, and what he had been up to. That was in 2008. She informed me that Jimmy had died in 2000 of pancreatic cancer. I never knew. We had met for that last lunch at Luby’s in 1999, so it wasn’t long after that he died. As I stated, I don’t like the word regret. I do wish I had engaged a few more conversations with him. I wish we had had one more opportunity to sit around and reminisce about the years we grew up and our other friends – even Donna and Sheila. We didn’t get to do that. I don’t consider that a loss, nor do I regret it. But it reminds me of how time passes more quickly with surprises and shocks than we can realize. Rather than regret, however, I am thankful for the mom, dad, loved ones, and friends that I’ve had along the way to help shape my worldview. They remind me of ways I continue to live in alignment with my values. And they help remind me when I fall short. I have let people down more times than I want to remember. They also remind me of the ways I’ve changed. Though I have, I maintain that precious tension between the changes I’ve gone through and the blessings I will hold onto from my growing up. Indeed there are many blessings I have experienced. These days the politically correct notion of privilege is draped over such experiences. On top of despising politicizing life, it doesn’t take much to provide what my family and friends provided in our context. It doesn’t take money, power, nor status. It takes one simple thing we all look for.
This is the season for thankfulness. Count the blessings if you believe is such things. If not, count those experiences for which you can be thankful, particularly in terms of what others have lovingly provided for and taught you that you have taken with you to carve out a meaningful life for yourself. This is a good time of year to remember such things.
John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D, LPC-S/November 14th, 2017