“Whatever is in memory is also in soul.” ~Saint Augustine, Confessions
Memories of my father are etched deeply in me—not for what he accomplished as a surgeon, a pilot, and an outdoorsman, but for what he was about, a truly gentle and generous man. Ironically, one of the most important lessons I learned from and about him came from a stranger.
I was alone in my family’s large Victorian-style house in the heart of the Midwest on a muggy Saturday afternoon. My mother had taken my siblings to a summer reading program at the public library, and my dad had been called to the emergency room of the local hospital. But I was not alone for long.
While watching The Game of the Week with Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese, I heard a thunderous noise at the front door. The power and volume of repeated pounding frightened me. I scampered to the front entry way but was too afraid to show my face from behind the beveled glass panels of the door.
But I managed to peek outside and saw a giant of a man, dressed in mud-stained overalls, a sweaty blue long-sleeved work shirt, and a beat-up old hat—the kind that train engineers once wore. He was now wiping his hands and neck with a wadded-up red bandana, as though taking a time out before assaulting the front door again.
I froze in place, for surely this monster-man was a stranger to me. His rough features and seeming impatience made me wonder if I should answer the door at all. But soon, garnering what courage I could as a shy ten-year-old boy, I slowly pulled the heavy walnut door open just a crack, and nearly whispered, “Yes, can I help you?”
Without pause, the man bellowed with an unmistakable country drawl, “Hey, boy! Is the Docta home? I got somethin’ for him.”
Still wondering who he was or what he wanted, I meagerly replied, “No, and my mom isn’t here either.” I realized in a flash that I had violated my parents’ warning to never let anyone in the house when no one else was home. Now it was just me, a man that might be some kind of deranged mental case, and an open door between us.
“Well, son. I bet your dad is out fishin’ or somethin’. It’s a Saturday and hope he’s not workin’ cause he does too much as it is. Two months ago, my missus had to drive me to the ‘horspital’ on a Sunday because my appendix was killing me. Oh, Lord did it hurt!
“Your dad come down there in his work clothes. Before I know’d it, I was wakin’ up in a horspital room. And there was your dad standin’ at the foot of my bed tellin’ me I was gonna be fine.
“I come to his office a couple of weeks later to get a checkup. I told him I wanted to pay my bill, but things were a little thin, as the flood had ruined the corn crop that spring.
“Well, sir. He just told me not to worry about the bill at all—that he knew all about floods and droughts, and what it was like to grow up on a farm, especially in bad times. I’m tellin’ you son, that dad of yours is somethin’ special. I’ll never forget it.
“Well … now I got somethin’ here—you give it to your mom, but you tell your dad that Ole Jim from Wever dropped by. My place is down by Highway 61 near the Skunk River. He’ll know—he likes to duck hunt there in the fall.”
Before I could say a word, he bent over and slid a huge bushel basket through the front door to my feet. It was brimming with ears of Iowa sweet corn, clusters of ripe tomatoes, bunches of carrots and beets with their green tops, several large cantaloupe melons, a head of cabbage, and a large bag of green beans. And a small sunflower was tucked in the middle of this cornucopia—a perfect touch that no doubt came from Ole Jim’s wife.
Without another word, he swiveled and quickly made it to his rusted GM pickup truck and backed it down the driveway and set course out of our private lane. With the grinding of gears and belches of exhaust from the tailpipe of his pickup, he was gone. But he waved goodbye to me, as only farmers can do, with the subtle lift of his right index finger in my direction, his eyes staring straight ahead.
I was relieved he was gone and felt embarrassed by how out of place I felt with him, as our home was expensive and sat across the lane from the country club. I could tell he didn’t have much money and from the location of his farm, I knew it was “bottomland,” which was sandy soil in a flood plain—not worth all that much. But I could tell he was a proud man and had enormous respect for my dad.
Over the years I have replayed this moment with Ole Jim many times, and I’ve come to realize how much the generosity of my dad and the old farmer down by the Skunk River have affected me.
Bartering goods for services was an accepted way of doing business in an era gone by. But in today’s world of corporate medicine and mandatory co-pays, it is difficult to imagine how millions in our country get medical treatment without cash or a credit card, let alone have a costly treatment given as a gift, simply because it was the right thing to do.
I was blessed to live on my grandparents’ farm during summers, and many times I watched simple acts of kindness and home-grown goods exchanged with neighbors and townspeople. This struck me then simply as their way of life; but now I see more clearly these exchanges were also transactions of the heart. But you would never know it, as generosity was given without fanfare or notice—simply bestowed as subtly as a single index figure raised to say hello or goodbye.
My dad was like that. He never lectured me about the responsibility to treat others equally, and with respect and dignity. Nor did he draw attention to his many gestures of charity or a quiet helping hand to friends, patients, and complete strangers. But I caught him in the act many times, and often heard stories about his generosity and gentle way in dealing with others.
He simply acted with kindness and good faith to everyone he met. I am sure he was that way because it was how he was raised, not formally taught how to be his best self, but modeled in that way by my grandparents: humble, charitable, and understated—old school.
Maybe that’s the only way we can learn about what is most important in life—by example, not by books or lectures. The ineffable qualities of goodness and kindness may stream to us from our ancestors if we are lucky to have had such men and women come before us. We are doubly lucky when those qualities quietly stream through us to our children.
I am a psychotherapist and I have a set fee policy on my website. But when I can tell that a prospective client cannot pay $150/hour, I make it clear I am not in the therapy business just to make a buck. I often let the client set the fee they can afford, even if they cannot pay a dime, and then quickly move on to the work. No fuss.
In those moments, I can feel their gratitude, as well as their surprise. I often flash back to Ole Jim’s best way to express his gratitude and pay what he could afford. As for my dad, he never talked of such things, even though every now and then, a string of fish would be sitting in an old ice-chest on the back porch, or a gift certificate to the downtown rod and gun store would arrive in the mail without a name.
Such memories and lessons speak to my soul. I see more clearly today that these simple acts of kindness and generosity—so badly needed in today’s world—were indeed acts of grace. Pure, simple, and subtle, like the farmer’s wave. Old school.