It’s that time of year where we gather our families together, toss down turkey, get our backyard football on, and, if we’re lucky, slip into a tryptophan coma before Uncle Willis and Grandpa get into a heated debate over worker’s rights in the Balkans. Look, my family’s different.
It’s also the time of year we all take a moment to say what we’re thankful for. Most responses are the ones you’d expect: family, food, friends. My kids were thankful for turkey this year. I’m more of a ham guy myself, but I digress. I know my eldest is only six, and while I would never want them to suffer, I do fear that they won’t have as much of an appreciation for life and sacrifice as I do. And I’m not sure how to instill that in them.
I grew up poor. Not shoeless in back alleys poor, but somewhere around trailer park poor. Both of my parents came from broken families. My dad’s father was a violent alcoholic. He did grow up in a shoeless kind of poverty. My aunt wrote a book about her childhood: Memories Washed Clean by Teresa Cash. I learned a lot about my dad’s past reading this. So many things that he never wanted to talk about, that he wanted to protect me from.
My mom grew up away from her own mother, raised mostly by her grandmother in the backwoods of Arkansas. About the time she hit her teens, her mother showed up out of the blue and whisked her away to a military base in Germany. She spent a few years there among a family she barely knew, before they up and moved to Alabama where she met my dad.
My parents married young. Nineteen and sixteen. And, God bless them, they’re still married today. It’s sad to say that’s a rare thing these days, for such a young marriage to survive for so long.
When I came along, a somewhat unexpected but pleasant surprise, they made a promise to each other and to little baby me that I would not suffer through the things they dealt with growing up.
Before I started school, my dad worked as a sewing machine mechanic at a blue jean factory in town, and my mom worked for my grandmother in a ceramic shop, helping with the casting, painting, and selling of various ceramic decorations. To this day I can’t see a piece of ceramic and not think of those youthful days spent playing around the shop, hands covered in flaky bits of drying wet clay, fingers tracing lines in the moulds, wondering how they were made if the moulds were necessary to make the ceramics. Of course, I know how it all works now.
Money was very tight, but they managed to send me to a private school and piano lessons, always encouraging me to follow my dreams and never wanting me to miss an opportunity to grow myself simply because they couldn’t find a way to pay for this or that. It wasn’t working, though. That was a comfort level we couldn’t easily afford.
My dad decided to go back to college in his thirties. And not for just any old degree, oh no. He got a degree in pharmacy. I can’t imagine throwing myself into such a chemistry-intensive study at this stage in my life. But he wanted better for his wife and son, and my mom’s support was overwhelming. During the course of his six years of college–three at a community college and three at Auburn University–she often held three jobs at once to keep food on the table, keep me in school and music, and keep the lights on. Those weren’t easy jobs, either. Managing gas stations in bad parts of town, plucking feathers from chickens, collecting bank deposits from all over northeast Alabama, and serving as a Wal-Mart security guard were some of the various and sundry jobs she undertook to make ends meet. She quite literally took several beatings across a couple of those jobs. Look, you never want to piss my mom off.
It was a hard sacrifice. For many of those years I didn’t see my dad that much. He was just this guy who lived down in Auburn, about two hours away, who I saw on weekends–when he wasn’t working. Some of my favorite memories of that time are making that two hour ride to the university on the back of his motorcycle at night, to spend a week with him while I was out of school on some break or other, eating hamburgers and watching the old animated version of The Hobbit on his television.
He’s been a pharmacist for twenty years now at the hospital where I was born. My mom runs her own business now. I look at that and I have to say I’m very, very proud. Is it strange to be proud of your parents? I hope not.
I’m thankful they showed me what sacrifice means, why it’s worth it, and that no matter what sort of temporary hell you have to suffer through, as long as you keep your eyes on the goal you can accomplish anything you set your mind to.
This thanksgiving, I’m thankful for my parents. I love you guys, and hope you both understand that while as a teenager I may not have appreciated all you did for me, as a husband and father myself I sure as hell appreciate it all now.