By Tim McGrath
“You never really know what someone’s going through. You can be kind, honey.
You can always be kind.” – Mom
My parents were tough. They had to be. These were people who survived the Great Depression, World War II, and all the chaos that came with it. It didn’t leave a lot of room for softness. With no social safety nets to count on, they had themselves and family to rely on. Resilience, perseverance, mental and physical toughness were things they learned and valued – survival strategies brought on by the challenges they faced during those years. It left scars, of course, yet neither became bitter and resentful.
“Well, what are you going to do, anyway? I hear all these guys down at the gas house crying in their beer about how bad they got it. Everybody’s got problems, Timmy. Just got to shake it off, and get on with it, figure it out. Nobody’s going to come along and just hand it to you,” Dad frequently remarked.
Looking back, it strikes me how remarkable they both were. In spite of the hardships they endured early on, both of them were people of deep faith, funny, a bit irreverent at times, tenderhearted, and always, always, always kind. Not a doormat to the world nice. Nice is something far more superficial. They were kind. It was a kind that saw someone in need and give them a hand up. Respectful of how others thought, even when they disagreed. Empathetic and compassionate.
Dad came home one day, announced he’d quit his job at Michigan Consolidated Gas Company, and had bought a blueberry farm in West Olive. We were now a full-time blueberry farming family. This was 1968. It was before mechanical harvesting came along and made life on the farm a bit less labor intensive. That meant we needed lots of people to help, especially during harvest. Oh, what a cast of characters they were. People from the deep south working alongside people from inner city Grand Rapids, and Muskegon Heights. The locals who couldn’t find other jobs drifted in and were put to work helping us get the harvest in. One, in particular, stands out.
Late one steamy hot August afternoon a scruffy looking guy shuffled into the packing shed where we were just finishing up the last of the day’s work. “Looking for some work,” he said. “Got anything?” he asked Dad. Dad turned, looked at me with the look that said, mind your own business, go find something to do, I’m talking here. As we finished up, I noticed the guy sitting at one of the picnic tables we had in the shed for eating lunch, just sort of hanging around, waiting. The other workers had finally left for the day leaving Dad, me, and this guy. “This is Rick,” Dad said. As we locked up for the night, Dad pointed at me. “Timmy, get in the back, Rick’s sitting up front.” I cleared a path of assorted tools and nameless bits of farm stuff off the hard bench where a back seat used to be, and clambered in. Not much room in the back of a ’60 Plymouth Valiant, but I was young and agile. Dad pulled out a couple Dutch Masters Coronas from his front shirt pocket, and handed one to Rick. “Go on,” he said. “Have a cigar.” They both unwrapped them, then stuffed the crinkly clear wrappers in the overflowing ashtray. Dad slid the paper ring from around his cigar. Handing it over the back of the front seat, I tenderly took it and slid it on my ring finger, admiring the artwork on the band. They lit up, and that first wispy plume of magically delicious cigar smoke drifted to the back seat. Loved that smell. Yes, they were both smoking cigars in a small car with a child inside. It was 1968. Didn’t seem to bother anyone. Even now, whenever I smell a cigar burning, I’m back in the grubby insides of that Valiant.
“Got a little detour to make, Timmy,” Dad said over his shoulder. He and Rick chatted in the front seat as we bounced along 144th, heading in the general direction of Grand Haven. Couldn’t hear much, the roaring wind blowing in the open windows drowned out most of their conversation. We didn’t go this way often, so I sat watching all the sights whizzing by. Shortly after, Dad pulled off the highway and into the parking lot of the Courtesy Motel just south of the city. He and Rick got out. Dad got out his wallet and I saw him hand Rick what looked like a couple of twenties. Rick shook Dad’s hand, and walked into the office, never to be seen again.
I hopped up in the front seat. “Who was that guy?” I asked.
“Somebody who needed a little help,” he said. “Got to do those things, Timmy. You never know when you might need some help yourself. It’s what we’re supposed to do.”
I was able to see that attitude lived out time and again from both Mom and Dad.
Let me tell you, my friends, that farm is where I got my real education. Even though I graduated from college, and went to graduate school, that farm is where I really learned early on what’s important. Hard work, of course; it came with the territory. Perseverance, obviously. Farming is a tough way to make a living. Things can go sour quickly and often. The trials farmers regularly face would make most of us bang our heads against a brick wall in frustration. Maybe more importantly, though, was how I learned about people. It didn’t take me long to realize most people want to be treated with dignity, respect, and kindness.
Dad put me, at 16, in charge of all the field workers. Before mechanized harvesting was how the crop was picked, it was all done by hand. At one point, we had well over 100 people picking in the fields. For most of them, things were hard. These were people, for whatever reason, who always seemed to be beat down by life. Money was usually short. Couldn’t hold a job. At odds with someone in the family. Couldn’t make rent, or the payments this month, you know what I mean? The list seemed endless for so many. They would drift in and out. “Got business to tend to,” was what I often heard. But I suppose that’s all any of them really wanted. Someone who would just listen, accept them as they were, show them a little kindness. Couldn’t fix their problems, but could be kind. Remarkably, in spite of all the baggage most of them carried onto that farm, the harvest, somehow, always got finished.
I guess I figured out in those long-ago summers that kindness wasn’t weakness. Neither was it a way to manipulate people to get them to do what I wanted. It wasn’t about being “nice”. I realized it was a connecting point that said, “You and I are a lot alike. I know you’ve got stuff to deal with, but you matter.” I’d like to think it’s one of the reasons the work always got finished. The people we had working with us felt valued. Pretty heady stuff for a teenage boy. Glad I figured this out as a kid, as it would be invaluable in the next big thing I did.
After high school and college, I got to be a teacher. It was a wonderful career. For 34 years I found myself in the company of charmers, pouters, politicians, rascals, geniuses, rule followers, rebels, troublemakers, diamonds in the rough. As with life on the farm years earlier, I found that the characters in those classrooms brought the best they had. I believe we were mostly successful most of the time. Not only in the academics but more importantly, the stuff undergirding all of it. Learning they were valued, and had things to offer. Learning they were capable in spite of the obstacles they faced. How to be resilient. How to be kind. Not everything was sunshine and roses, of course. There’s no place for dewy-eyed optimism in a classroom. We had our tough days, and years. There were some years when almost every day I’d walk out of the building muttering to myself, “Tomorrow’s a new day. We can do this.” And in the end, as they walked, sauntered, or slouched out the door in June, I was confident each of them knew I cared about them, that they mattered, that they were significant.
So, Mom and Dad, here’s to you. Thanks for all of it.
And to the red-faced driver of the white pickup truck giving me the finger as he barreled past me a week or so ago: Me going 62mph in a 55mph zone wasn’t fast enough for you? Shalom, my friend, shalom. (May your collection of speeding tickets forevermore increase)
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