A few weeks ago I attended the Eastern New York Association of College & Research Libraries conference, and the vendors there were many. Perhaps you know the deal: you walk up and pretend to be interested in their product, and they shower you with swag. I am very uncomfortable with these exchanges, so I avoid them as a rule–even though Thomson-Reuters had a really neat canvas tote that I kept glancing at with a certain amount of desire. But no tote is worth what to me feels demeaning to both myself and the sales reps.
However, in my travels to and from the various talks and poster presentations, I kept passing a white-haired gentleman who looked like he wanted to be somewhere else, and my heart felt a tug whenever I passed. I smiled and said hello to him each time, and once he gave me one of the coveted bonus raffle tickets. Toward the end of the day I finally went over to speak with him, not because I was interested in his product or wanted swag, but because he looked so out of place and I know that feeling very well.
So we talked for a while about books, and we both agreed that hard-copy books are superior to electronic books. Then he started talking about his thirteen-year-old daughter and her smartphone. He said she has it with her constantly, that it is an addiction. When he was that age, he said, he was fishing, scouting, camping. Now all kids ever do is stay indoors with their electronic gadgets. I said yes, I had very much the same kind of childhood–Girl Scouts, camping, and even fishing. The man brightened and said, you went fishing? So I had to qualify and say, My dad used to be an avid fisherman and took me with him often. We talked for a bit longer about the sad state of childhood these days, and when I made my move to go he told me to wait a moment. He walked across the aisle to another display, grabbed a book and some literature, and came back to sit down. He opened the book and signed and dated it, then gave it to me. The Life and Legend of Sheridan R. Jones: America’s Pioneering Outdoor Writer and His Search for the Perfect Fishing Lure. Sure enough, when I opened it and started leafing through, there was a picture of this man, younger, with his little daughter holding two great big fish.
Since this conversation I have thought a lot about my father and the gifts he gave me while I was growing up. We disagree on many things, and sometimes drive each other crazy, but my dad gave me some priceless gifts that have allowed me to weather even the deadliest storms in my life.
Nature. I’ll list this one first because it is the greatest, most life-sustaining gift ever given to me, by anyone. Throughout my childhood, until I was 15 or so, vacation meant camping. And not just camping but traveling to different places, to see America and Canada. I’ll admit that many of these trips involved a great deal of fishing, which I did not particularly
enjoy, but camping was the best. My brothers and I got a new place to roam around in and explore, new kids to meet (sometimes), and to sleep in our own tents. My dad did things like carving out steps in the dirt using his camp shovel so that we could get into the camper easily. I loved stuff like that–it made me feel that his imagination was strong, and mine was, too. But it wasn’t just camping–during my formative years, from 6 to 14, we lived in places where I had easy access to nature and the freedom to go out in it anytime, for as long as I liked. In Houston, Texas, I rode my bike until it was a part of my being and it would never throw me off no matter how dangerous the stunt. I caught chameleons and watched them change color. I caught snakes and wrapped them around my neck to scare my mom. I dug clay in the front yard and made pots to bake in the sun. Later, in New York, while I endured a daily onslaught of bullying at school for three and a half years, a rock by a babbling brook in the woods was my safe place. I sat there for hours, while the nature around me planted ideas of fairy kingdoms that blossomed in my mind and enabled me to save one small spark of soul life for another time, in a future I could not imagine, away from the torment. And as an adult nature continues to nourish my spirit, continues to save me. I know that as long as I can behold the beauty of trees, sky, water, I will be OK.
Music. In 1974, when I was six years old, my father was moved temporarily to Chicago for his job. My parents took this opportunity to drive around the country, seeing sites such as the Mammoth Caves in Kentucky and the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, visiting my mom’s college friends in Delaware and Boston, and camping everywhere before finally arriving at our destination. The radio was on the whole time we were in the car, probably to keep their sanity up front from the bickering that came from the back. But since we were on the move, they had to keep searching for radio stations, and I got to hear all of the music FM and AM had to offer. Which, in 1974, was pretty damned good. Music became a big part of my life and continues to be–and it has saved my life/sanity many times.
Connection with strangers. With all the traveling around we did, I got to see how my father interacted with people we didn’t know. My father would talk with anyone. He started up conversations, and he never shied away from a conversation started by another person. This drove my mother crazy, but I liked it. I liked my dad, the guy who smiled and chatted and felt good talking with people he didn’t know. When we broke down once and had to go to a garage to get the station wagon fixed, he climbed under the car with the mechanic to help out. That was my dad, and I was proud of him. It took me a long time to come out of my shell after my disastrous teen years, but slowly I, too, have learned the joys of talking with strangers. We humans exchange love in many ways, and this is one of them. I am grateful to appreciate that.
It is difficult to say what a parent gives to his or her child, but because I took the time to talk with a stranger at that library conference in May, it became clear to me that these three gifts, for sure, my dad gave to me. Big, beautiful gifts. Thank you Dad. I love you.