Today I listen to my students and marvel that they could be so naïve about life. And then I remember . . .
Yesterday when I was young, I didn’t know about bills. I never had to pay them. Mama and Daddy complained about and agonized over them on occasion, especially the unforeseen ones like car repairs or gas going up to $.30 per gallon. Those bills had nothing to do with me personally; my $.25 allowance came regularly in spite of them. Today I know. Lights, phones, insurance, groceries, medical care and even trash bills have to be paid regularly and punctually or else. When the universal joint wears out and the car’s front-end falls on the road, I have to figure out where to find the $1000 for repairs and tow bills. When the furnace breaks down in the dead of winter, I fret and worry. How will I pay? There could be bills higher than Mount Everest if we run our finances the way our government does. We Baby Boomers grew up with the buy-now, pay-later philosophy. I didn’t know then. I assure you that I know all too well now.
Back in my childhood, my primary concern was another good book to read—Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, or the Hardy Boys. It never occurred to me to wonder where the money to pay for those books came from. They arrived at my front door in neatly boxed packages from Sears and Roebuck, not Amazon. Every birthday and Christmas brought new ones, but invariably I ran out. Running out was no disaster though since my father and I ambled off to the city library every Saturday morning anyway to select a new supply for the coming week. My major annoyances were the library’s three-book limit, schoolwork, and the few household chores assigned to me. I complained about being the eternal dishwasher and took for granted that school came easily for me, that good food sat on the table every meal, that my closet held more than enough warm clothes in winter, that I had a room of my own that I hated to clean, and that a solid roof covered my head.
Even later on as I drove my used car up Highway 15 toward Athens and UGA on Sunday afternoons, it never occurred to me to wonder what Daddy sacrificed to buy me that $250 car or to hand me those twenty dollar bills, which could buy four tanks of gas. I never once felt bad over the hours Mama spent washing and ironing other people’s clothes to earn the money to buy mine. When her hands reddened and roughened from hours in the cold wash waters of a wringer-type washing machine and from hanging the wash on the line in freezing weather, I hardly noticed or wondered why she constantly rubbed lotion into them. It never occurred to me that she was making a physical sacrifice for me. That’s just what parents do. Then the page turned, and I became a provider for a family. Now I know. Believe me, I know.
Yesterday I didn’t realize that people you love better than life itself may not last forever, that the grey-green eyes of a handsome young son might not always be there to look at you with love. He could be gone in a flash on some rainy morning or even on a sunny afternoon. He could disappear on some Christmas Eve, which the family had planned to celebrate. I now know too that his departure leaves great gaping holes in the heart—holes that never heal no matter how much time passes. Even when a grandson named for him sits on your lap and grins up at you with the same impishness in his beautiful eyes, the pain eases only for a minute. Sometimes at 3:00 a.m. it rushes back full force when you least expect it. Now I know so much more than I ever wanted to learn.
C’est la vie, the French say. That’s life and life’s lessons come hard and unbidden. Learning them makes us the people we are, builds character. None of us know what tomorrow holds; we learn our lessons day by day. Some of us harden in life’s fiery trials; some melt. These students have so much to learn as they leave school. Their education is just beginning.