A grateful heart: Lessons from my father

My father was a little boy when the stock market crashed in 1929. By the time he was ten, he knew he needed to make a contribution to the family. He secured a job weeding for the local grocer at 10 cents an hour, and he weeded his heart out. When he finally sat down to calculate how many hours he had worked, he realized he had earned close to $30. Instead of requesting full remuneration, he asked the grocer for a quarter to join his friends at the movie theater. He never anticipated the response. “Son, all the money you’ve earned has gone toward your mother’s grocery bill. I do not have a quarter to give you.” The refusal stunned him like a blow to the jaw. My father still remembers the screen door slamming behind him and his decision never to return to the store. Crestfallen and angry, he recounted the incident to his mother, who dissolved into tears.

He was 13 years old when my grandfather secured a job that would bring them just enough money to build a bathroom inside the house. For a teenage boy, the outhouse and the washbasin proved increasingly inadequate. One day at school the PE teacher asked all the boys in gym class to sit on the bleachers and take off their shoes and socks for an athlete’s foot check. My father’s cheeks burned as he slowly removed his socks to reveal his dirty unwashed feet. The laughter and taunts were immediate -- “Hey Blackfoot,” one boy jeered. He hung his head in shame. He was branded for the remainder of his middle school experience. The indoor bathroom with hot running water and an opportunity to shower was the hope he desperately held onto. When his father returned from work announcing the loss of his job and the impossibility of construction at home, my father’s hopes were shattered.

As my 88 year old Dad shared these stories with me recently, I was left both disheartened and amazed. I always knew my father had it tough growing up. In fact, to this day one of his favorite meals is an omelet. He remembers the night his father earned enough money to bring home a dozen eggs. My grandmother whipped up a great omelet for her hungry family, and it was a dinner he would never forget. I knew about the outhouse, but I didn’t know about Blackfoot. I knew my grandparents had it rough, but I didn’t know about the weeding incident.

Some combination of variables conspired to give my father an extraordinarily grateful heart. Perhaps it is a charism of the greatest generation. Perhaps it was my grandparents’ resilience and fortitude, not to mention their generosity -- welcoming destitute friends and relatives into their home -- when they had nothing material to share.

He never disclosed anger or resentment to us about his childhood. The stories he shared with us as we were growing up were stories of his parents’ heroism, memorable family gatherings, experiences in World War II and his courtship of my mom. He always taught us to give people the benefit of the doubt, never to judge a person on appearances.

“We have every reason to be grateful,” he would remind us often. In “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Viktor Frankl, citing Nietzsche, wrote that we can endure almost any “how” if we have a compelling “why,” a “reason to be happy.” Gratitude is the virtue that helps to keep that reason before us: we are children of God, royal heirs to an eternal kingdom. God came into the world as a child to be near us, to win our affection and redeem us.

Gratitude keeps us focused on what matters most. Knowing we are loved and have a purpose gives us much needed peace and perspective in the face of family conflicts, economic uncertainty, physical suffering and loss -- all so palpable this time of year. Advent invites us to count our blessings and grow in hope. Jesus was born in a manger, so we could build an abiding and worthy home for Him in our hearts. When I think of my father’s gratitude born of hardship, and wonder at the great gift we are preparing for this Christmas, I am reminded of George Herbert’s poem, which reads like a prayer:

Thou that has given so much to me,

Give one thing more -- a grateful heart;

Not thankful when it pleases me,

As if Thy blessings had spare days;

But such a heart, whose pulse may be

Thy praise.

Karen E. Bohlin is Head of School at the Montrose School in Medfield and Senior Scholar at Boston University’s Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character.