The first gift was that he taught me to split firewood. This he was good at, and he taught me well enough to split much of the wood we used for heat during the winters. As I went off to college, I had no money, for I was one of 13 children and my family was poor. As part of my college fees, I was granted a 24-hour-a-week work-ship, and I was assigned to the grounds crew on campus. On my first day on the job, I was asked to split up large sections of a beech tree that had been cut down for firewood. The grounds supervisor gave me a maul and wedge to do the job, and in my youthful arrogance, I told him that where I grew up we used just an axe to split wood. He bet me a Coke that I couldn't split it with just an axe. I proceeded to do so, and he was amazed that some air-headed college kid could do that. I continued to work on the grounds crew for most of college and maintained a respectful relationship with the supervisor.
This relationship was particularly meaningful in my sophomore year, when I was unfairly accused by the dean of engaging in a destructive campus prank. He called a meeting of the disciplinary committee with the intent of dismissing me from school, which really scared me. I later learned that the only reason I wasn't kicked out was that the grounds supervisor, who was well-respected and whose word carried a lot of weight on my small campus, intervened and defended me. The gift of splitting firewood averted my dismissal and allowed me to be the first person in my family to complete college.
The second gift my father gave me was an awareness of the mystical powers of nature. I don't remember him ever going to church, but I was keenly aware of his sense of awe and mystery about the natural world. He believed, I think, in the regenerative power of growing things, and he loved the incense of the earth. Throughout my adulthood, in times of crisis and transition, I have sought out the grounding and healing nurture of nature. I have also been immensely moved by the budding of spring; the power of thunderstorms; the rich, dying smell of autumn; the beauty of a full moon, and the whispering of the wind. Had my father read Thoreau, he would have quoted him saying, "In wildness is the preservation of the world." This gift from my father has often been an anchor for the preservation of my soul through some troubled places.
Curiosity is difficult to teach, but intriguing when it is modeled. The third gift my father gave me was to model a curiosity about the world beyond our rural existence. For a man with only a sixth-grade education who was raised in an extremely backwoods environment, he would ask some interesting questions about politics, human nature and the larger world. Even though we were desperately poor, he maintained a subscription to the Virginian-Pilot (a big, by our standards, city newspaper) and the Reader's Digest, and he avidly read both of them. It was not uncommon for him to read about increasing your "word power" and then try to use the words in casual conversation, like referring to us once as his "irascible children" (at which we laughed behind his back).
His curiosity encouraged me to read widely about the world of opinions "out there" and honed my interest in larger questions. This gift made me want to see what was beyond our small town and generated a hunger in me for new experiences that has, in some ways, crafted who I am today.
So even though he died many years ago, I thank him for these three wonderful gifts. And I hope that my daughter and son will someday learn to forgive me for mistakes I have made as I struggled to be a better parent, and will come to acknowledge the three gifts I may have given to each of them. S
George Nixon is a licensed professional counselor who lives in Richmond.
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