Saturday, March 17, 2012

Our First Teachers

During the summer of 2006, which somehow has become a whole six years ago, I was fortunate to travel to Botswana for a Habitat for Humanity build. It was a vacation of a lifetime for me, and while I could not, even if I tried really, really hard, begin to list the ways in which it changed me, I did have several epiphanies there which have become more meaningful over time.

Recently, perhaps because I will be turning 50 next week, or perhaps because my infrequent telephone conversations with my faraway parents are often about health and aging, or perhaps because I have had to draw on those Botswana revelations in my work, I find myself going back more and more often to what I learned from my first teachers, my mother and my father. My recognition of the qualities I've acquired from them crystallized in Africa six years ago, where I had to apply them in isolation and in earnest. They are, of course, a deep part of me, but when they surface, they do so out of need, I believe, and I must once again recognize and honor them.

My mother gave me the gift of service. Mom was the consummate volunteer. When I was a child, I hated to go to events my mom organized or helped with. She was the first to arrive, the last to leave, and always, always, engaged in whatever activities were taking place. Which meant  I was, too. I didn't know what it was like to go to an event at its start time; I'd already been there for an hour. And I yearned to leave an event when it concluded, not after all the visitors had been chatted up, the chairs had been folded, the tables wiped down, the kitchen cleaned, the supplies put away, the floor swept and mopped, and the extra materials packed up and re-packed into the car. What I didn't appreciate then, and so appreciate now, is my mother's dedication to others and the enjoyment she derives from her service. She is the reason I am often the first to arrive at school and sometimes the last to leave. She is the reason I engage in so many extra-curricular activities, especially those that serve my colleagues. And she is the reason I will someday go back to Botswana or some other country on another Habi build.

My father taught me perseverance. Some of my favorite memories of him are of working up in the woods behind our house, cutting wood and hauling it back with the red Gravely tractor (on which he also taught me how to back up with a trailer when I was ten years old). Or of him working on the practically homemade pump and filter systems for the practically homemade pool that took up most of our backyard. Or of him under a car, or in his cellar workshop, some contraption in the vice, the coffee can of loose screws, bolts, and nuts spread out across the workbench as he searched for the right doohickey. In all these memories, Dad is focused, his face serious, his forehead frowning in concentration, his nose often running. When he asked me to work alongside him, if I didn't screw up, I loved to watch him work. He just stuck with the task at hand. No stopping because it was too cold or too hot. No time for fooling around. No giving up. I've had to draw on my own ability to persevere these past few weeks. And I know I will, because my dad taught me how to.

My parents could also relax like nobody's business. And as I head into a week of celebration for my fiftieth, I'm going to practice that, too. Or at least, I'm going to try to.

Cheers to our first teachers.

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