The holiday season is here. But let’s be honest, it is certainly not in full swing. Neighbors have strung lights, and inflatable snowmen dance in the windy Portland nights. But we are not getting ready for holiday parties or big family gatherings. While some traditions remain, it is inevitable that this year’s festivities will be different. My wife and I, grasping for some sense of familiar ritual, will continue our tradition of family photos in front of the Pioneer Square tree. As we process the reality of a more isolated holiday season, many of us find ourselves reflecting on the memories and traditions of past holidays.
The obvious winter holiday memories come to mind first. Scenes of last-minute shoppers scrambling for gifts at the mall or children sledding down the hills of the local golf courses (consequently those hills also invoke not so pleasant memories of sliced tee shots!). However, the thing we all miss the most this year is making those memories in person. Over time, the things that matter most begin to shift. No longer concerned with material items or gifts under the tree, it is the annual family fish fry the night before Christmas I will be longing for. The meal was traditionally supplied by the summer fishing trips my grandfather Fox and I would take and emotionally sustained by the same old jokes and stories told on repeat year after year.
This year has robbed us all of something. Employment, sense of security, time, traditions, and family. Instead of continuing to focus on what has been taken, I want to share some wisdom passed on from my grandparents. These are the tools that helped me get through a difficult year, and I am hopeful it can do the same for you as we bring 2020 to a close. These are the stories that make up my family’s greatest source of wealth, and I wish that it helps you remember your own family’s as well.
“They can’t tax what’s up here!”
As children, my brother and I would take the bus to my grandparent’s house after school. Both educators, my grandparents valued learning above all else, and would sit us down at the table to complete our homework before having the chance to go out and play. A lot of life lessons were passed, whether directly or indirectly, at that table.
One of my grandfather’s favorite sayings was “they can’t tax what’s up here” as he would point a callused finger to my forehead. Being a young child, the obvious analogy of the IRS and taxation, was missed on my part. As I got older, it became clear that what my grandfather was speaking about had little to nothing to do with taxes. He was referring to the power of your mind, and its role as our greatest asset.
He grew up in rural Illinois, far from the glamour of Chicago, in a small county from an even smaller town. Dreams of leaving that town and going to college where just that, dreams. But my grandfather believed that no matter our place in this world, we are all gifted with the power to think. No matter our circumstances, we all can learn and that is the greatest tool we have at our disposal to advance in both life and happiness.
“Don’t read the same book about dogs ten times, read ten books about dogs.”
A lot of after-school projects were tackled at my grandparents’ house, none more ominous than the dreaded book report. I am a numbers person at heart, but my grandparents knew how important it was to be a well-rounded student and they were there to support me in the subjects I struggled with, namely English & Literature. While I never actually did write a report on dogs, it was the line my grandfather used often, and like his other lines if took a while for me to understand what he was really trying to instill.
The real meaning behind his wisdom was to broaden my horizons. By focusing on one source and repeatedly visiting the same well, I would become an expert of only one opinion and one text. By keeping such a narrow focus, he cautioned that I would merely regurgitate the same information from a single source. His worry was this would leave me unable to construct my own opinions or develop the skills to dialogue with those who have opinions that vary from my own. As our world continues to become more and more divided, we all could use a few more books on dogs these days.
“Take the time to say thank you.”
Not all my lessons are related to school. While I think we have all experienced this lesson in our lives, it is arguably the most important. This lesson was driven home by my grandmother Katie. While smaller in stature than my former Marine Corps grandfather, she was by far the more intimidating of the two. After the holidays, when all the ornaments were boxed up, the last of the sugar cookies eaten, and our relatives had returned to their various abodes, my grandmother would sit my brother and I down to write thank you letters for all the gifts we received, no matter how big or small.
At 7 and 5 years old respectively, my brother and I were not yet tempted to send emails or generic Facebook posts thanking our aunts and uncles. The experience of crafting a hand-written thank you card stays with us today. Even as technology promises to bring us closer together, it seems as though it is giving us more and more excuses to avoid one another. While we are in the midst of a pandemic that prevents us from hugging relatives, we often take the easier route and send an email or a text instead of picking up the phone or writing a letter.
Reflecting on the values my family instilled in me was a way to remind me that while we may not be able to be together physically, a part of them will always be with me. My family’s greatest wealth cannot be measured in dollars and cents, tracked on a spreadsheet, or passed on in a trust. It is the fond memories of family, and the valuable lessons learned that you cannot put a price on. Even though we miss our loved ones this year, I do hope that me sharing my family’s stories will inspire you to appreciate your own family’s true wealth.
To help you get into the spirit of the holidays, I will leave you with one last quote from my grandfather Fox, “You two kids cut it out back there and fight nice!”.
Happy Holidays to you and yours!
Phil Sherman, and the Deschutes Team