LASTING LEGACIES (May 31, 2021)
This month’s Agile Aging post explores how youthful impacts – encounters and relationships, experiences and inspirations – can influence the adults we become and the seniors we remain.
Seven blog subscribers have generously shared their recollections and reflections.
Foster Knight: LATIN LESSONS
In 1946, my father, leaving the Navy, decided to go prospecting for silver in Southern Mexico with his pre-war, mining-engineer partner. They wangled some funding from rich San Franciscans and our two families took off for Mexico, in a caravan of a WWII Dodge weapons carrier and a 1940 Ford sedan.
We arrived in the nearest town to the abandoned mine – Buena Vista de Cuellar, Guerrero, about 40 miles from Taxco. This was Emiliano Zapata country, although the good men from Buena Vista had successfully fought off an attempt by Zapatistas to take over the town some 30 years earlier.
There was no road to Buena Vista from the main highway 15 miles away. Only a dirt track for foot traffic, horses and wagons. My father’s Dodge weapons carrier was the first motor vehicle to make it into this colonial, cobble-stone town of 3,000. My parents found a large house two blocks from the church, with room for our two families. No electricity or running water. A large water tank and kerosene lanterns served us well. In the early morning, three young men would come in with buckets of well water, climb the ladder to the top of the tank and start filling.
I was six years old when we arrived in Buena Vista. My father’s partner and his wife had twin boys my age and we all were sent several blocks away to the one-room school. I have good memories of the teacher, profesor Nestor, a kindly good-natured man. Most of what we learned was outside in the streets playing with local kids our age. There I learned street Spanish and some good Mexican swear words like hijo de la chingada madre that still work today.
We were the only gringos in Buena Vista except for a retired American beekeeper who would threaten us kids with his bees if we came near his property.
Behind the village, up toward the base of a mountain, there was a small river. It had a great pool lined with avocado trees (pozo del aguacate), where we would go swimming. One day while returning down the path to our house, we encountered a snarling dog foaming at the mouth. We dared not go by. My older brother managed to slip around and run home to tell my mother. She came running back up the path with my father’s .45 service revolver and put that dog (apparently rabid) out of its misery.
The old silver mine, los doce apostoles, was 20 miles from Buena Vista, across a small valley and up a small mountain. My older brother, sister and I would occasionally go up the mountain to the mine on horseback.
When I turned 14, my family moved back to the U.S. For the next 40 years I spoke only English. In the mid-1990s, after a career as an environmental lawyer, I joined a friend to start a small consulting firm with a focus on environmental management in Latin America, hoping that my childhood fluency would open doors. After one of my first presentations to a group of senior Mexican executives, one manager spoke up, saying it was a good presentation but he wished I had delivered it in English.
That was an initial stumble. But within a year, my Spanish gears were well-oiled and our consulting business was up to speed.
For years, Foster Knight and wife Kathy were migratory snowbirds, maintaining seasonal domiciles in Rhode Island and the Yucatan. Now they’ve settled full-time in Ajijic, Jalisco, on the northern edge of Lake Chapala. Taking a magnifying glass to his childhood photo, Foster recalls that his huaraches were crafted by a local Buena Vista shoemaker. They featured hand-stitched leather straps and repurposed tire-tread soles. He adds that sister Sarah’s perch was on an empty dynamite box.
Nancy Swing: CHRISTMAS MORNING
I was less than six, an only child eager to tell parents and department store Santa what I wanted. A cowgirl outfit and a nurse’s uniform. A doctor’s kit, so I could practice my then-chosen profession. Games and sports equipment. But never a doll; I just wasn’t that kind of girl.
When pretty packages appeared under the tree, I spent long hours immersed in the scent of pine, pondering what they held. Christmas Eve found me careful to set out beautifully decorated cookies and a glass of milk, so Santa would remember what a good little girl I was. Waking before sunrise, I ran out to the living room. Sure enough, the cookies were gone, the glass was empty and there was at least one thing that hadn’t been there the night before. A big package wrapped in red and gold.
Back through the house to my parents’ room, jumping on the bed to say Santa had come and could we please go open our presents now? Out we came, robed and slippered, to distribute presents and take turns opening them one-by-one. The pile beside me didn’t look as promising as I’d hoped. Aunts, uncles and grandparents had all sent gifts, but Santa had left only one.
We always opened relatives’ packages first, and the ceremony seemed never to end. On and on, the most boring presents, until there was only the one from Santa. Was it large enough to hold all the things I’d asked for?
Untying the gold knot, I peeled back the red wrapping and found a plain cardboard box. Inside was a maddening profusion of tissue paper hiding…just the doctor’s kit. I tried not to show my life-threatening disappointment, but I must have failed.
Dad reached over, guided me onto his lap, held me close and gently said, “You don’t always get everything you want.”
Those words didn’t help then, but they sure helped the rest of my life. You don’t always get what you want. You have to make do with what you get.
Thank you, Dad, for the best Christmas gift ever.
Despite vigorous efforts, I failed to attract female subscribers’ contributions to this month’s essay collection. My wife offered to fill this gap in what otherwise would have been an all-boys’ portfolio. Nancy Swing is a writer and retired international development consultant. Her own monthly blog features excerpts of journals and letters from her years living and working in Africa, Asia and South America. At www.nancyswing.com, click on “Where in the World?”
Daniel Miller: WOODWORK
I really can’t remember a time when I wasn’t involved in the building trades. I grew up on a farm in Parkman Township. My grandpa was an old-time carpenter when I was a child. I remember going along with him on his jobs when I couldn’t have been more than six years old. He would build dairy barns and corn cribs and other farm buildings. I would spend my summer vacations helping him (or hindering as the case might be).
My Dad, being the far-sighted man he was, saw the demise of the family farm coming so he encouraged me to take an interest in construction.
After completing eight years of school, I got to spend more time with grandpa. I’ll always treasure my memories of the time I spent with him through my mid-teens. At a time when every boy needs a mentor.
Then, when I was 18, grandpa passed on. I fell into a funk (deeply depressed). I tried my hand at a few other things but nothing seemed to work out. Eighteen is a bad age to lose a loved one. Things were going downhill pretty fast when my Dad intervened. I remember him telling me that if I want to mope and ruin my life, I’m welcome to do it (my choice), but not to depend on him for help, support financial or otherwise. About that time I met Irene and that helped some. Dad also encouraged me to keep on with what grandpa had taught me.
So, slowly I started picking up the pieces where grandpa and me had left off.
For a number of years, I worked by myself. With little jobs, decks and remodels. After a few years, I started taking bigger jobs so had to hire help. The business kept growing as our own boys started to help, until by 2006 I had 16 people working for me. Around the year 2000 I started building our job-site stairs in the shop at home. In this way I could do quotes, payroll and billing at home and spend the rest of my time in the shop. It was a very stressful time.
Then in ’08 the mortgage meltdown hit. We laid off all our help and just went down to our four boys. We’ve hired one more since, but that’s as big as we want to get.
From ’08 on I stayed pretty busy on staircases while the boys built houses. We formed the partnership in ’08. It went from Miller Carpentry DBA to Miller Brothers Carpentry LLC.
I hope grandpa is watching from heaven and seeing what his great-grandkids are doing. When he had a house to build, he used to figure he had a year’s work. Now his great-grandkids build over 50 homes per year. Where I started out with a little red toolbox and a skill saw, my boys own over $70,000 worth of equipment.
It’s called progress!
Daniel Miller is an Amish artisan living and working in Orwell, Ohio. He and wife Irene preside over a close-knit family including seven children, their spouses and 30 grandchildren. Dan and I met on Amtrak’s California Zephyr climbing through the Rockies. (See my August 31, 2019 blog post for an account of that chance encounter.) We’ve been monthly pen-pals ever since.
Tony Lavely: AN ORAL TRADITION
As physical distancing became a reality in 2020, I realized that I would have to invent a new way to connect with my granddaughters (ages 10, 8, and 6). My thoughts went back to my childhood when my father John Hillman Lavely (1916-2004) would read Greek and Roman myths to me as a 6-to-10 year-old. My father was a philosophy professor at Boston University (Chairman of the Department for many years) and one of his most popular courses was “Philosophers of Ancient Greece and Rome.” He was an expert. For me, as a young kid, he was simply a storyteller.
My favorite stories were the ones about Odysseus/Ulysses. These classic adventures became a part of my consciousness, such that years later I named my consulting business, Odyssey CMO LLC. Odysseus’s adventures became my adventures. Some years ago, my son (who knew about my passion for Odysseus; I had nicknamed him Telemachus) recommended a book by Norman Fischer: SAILING HOME: Using the Wisdom of Homer’s Odyssey to Navigate Life’s Perils and Pitfalls. It synthesized perfectly all my feelings.
So last summer I held a series of Zoom calls with my three granddaughters (and my brother’s granddaughter from Canada even joined our little group). I read and explained 22 different Greek and Roman myths to them and finished each “lesson” with a quiz. I felt like I was channeling my father. As I read the girls these famous myths – Icarus, Jason, and Pheidippides – I realized that the myths my father read to me had influenced my life and my behavior. Lessons learned, so to speak. I was delighted when the girls picked up on the same themes in their own lives. The girls enjoyed it so much that they were disappointed when we ran out of myths. So, then we started on Shakespeare plays. But that’s a story for another day.
Atlanta-based Tony Lavely is a certified sommelier who enjoyed a successful career in the packaged-foods and chain-restaurants industries. He’s currently performing stellar service as national webmaster for our Yale Class of 1964, taking lead responsibility for keeping more than 700 scattered seniors together.
Frank Olson: WHEN DAD DUG OUT A STUMP
When Dad dug out a stump, he’d use a shovel, pick and axe.
Most afternoons, or so it seemed, when he came home from work,
he’d take off his lawyer’s suit and put on jeans. By then I’d be
home from playing with friends. I’d work with him – follow his directions
to dig, to pry, to chop clear through a root. Day by day we’d work
our way around the stump.
When we reached the bottom of the cone,
we’d cut the taproot, haul the stump and rest. A California Live Oak
every time – its roots did not grow deep as fast as the water table dropped.
Over half the hundred oaks on that acre and a quarter died
in the fifteen years we lived there. Dad always had a stump to dig.
I learned tools, ropes, tool handles’ leverage and common sense.
His prairie breeding made him dig those stumps – they’d stop a plough
in Illinois but not in Pasadena. We piled stumps, roots and tree wood.
Later, on some Saturday, he’d rent a cordwood saw. And in one day we’d cut
enough to burn in the fireplace for years. But most of the wood just rotted
down in the Southern California air and made a home for skunks.
My Dad was born in 1895 on an 80-acre farm in NW Illinois. After he graduated 8th grade, his family moved to a farm in Turlock, CA. They moved again to Los Angeles, near USC, when he graduated high school. He, his brother and younger sister all earned graduate degrees from USC. Dad enlisted in the Army and was in France in WWI. Because he could type, he rapidly was promoted. At the end of the war he was Regimental Sergeant Major responsible for sending soldiers home. He kept his name at the bottom of the list so he could finish his Officier d’Academie at the University of Poitiers. In the mid ’20s, he earned a PhD from Harvard.
Dad always loved working outdoors. A favorite phrase of his was “a change of work is play.” He never left his practical, agrarian childhood behind. Later, after he died, I realized just how much his example and work ethic meant to me. He gave me both the confidence to tackle the challenges of 40+ years of living on a hill farm in NE Kentucky, and the skills and patience to survive the experience.
Frank Olson served as Navigator of a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker in Alaska, flew his private plane across the Lower 48, taught high-school English and directed a Performing Arts Center in eastern Kentucky. Frank’s poem, “When Dad Dug Out a Stump,” first appeared in The Journal of Kentucky Studies, September 1998. I’m happy to report that, since retiring in Denver, he’s resumed his poetry-writing.
David Abernethy: CALLING AT 12
In 1949, when I was 12 years old, something happened that shaped the direction of my life.
Looking through a library collection, I came across a book about Albert Schweitzer and signed it out. Schweitzer (1875-1965) was a Renaissance man, a renowned organist with scholarly contributions on the life of Jesus and the works of J.S. Bach. At age 30 he decided to become a medical missionary and trained to become a doctor. In 1913 he founded a hospital in Lambarene, Gabon, a colony in French Equatorial Africa.
Reading the book, I became intrigued by where this man was working. Did anyone around me know anything about Gabon? More generally, why was the world’s second largest continent such a blank slate to so many people? I wanted to find out more. Within a few days I’d made a decision: I would spend my life doing something about Africa.
I came to see this decision as a calling, though I didn’t imagine a divine being issuing the call. There was nothing mystical about the process. Nor was it clear until a decade later, when I decided to become a college teacher, what form this commitment would take. But a life-shaping event had taken place.
The problem was that it was difficult in the 1950’s to learn much about Africa. When I attended Harvard College, only one course – taught by a visiting anthropologist — was offered on any aspect of the continent. Fortunately, I was able to join the first contingent of college students sent by a new organization, Operation Crossroads Africa, to five West African countries in the summer of 1958. Our group travelled throughout Nigeria and had a fabulously stimulating time. My youthful, relatively uninformed commitment began to make more sense.
It made even more sense in the 1960’s, when Africa exploded on the international scene, 16 colonies becoming independent in 1960 alone and many others thereafter. My little personal story began to converge with the big story of a continent suddenly gaining prominence. Just when I was ready for an academic job – with 15 months of doctoral fieldwork in Nigeria in hand – a position teaching African politics at Stanford University was created. I was offered the post in 1965 and took it. And off I went, doing what I had dreamt about at age 12.
David Abernethy taught for 37 years in Stanford’s Political Science Department, specializing in African Studies and the history of colonialism. His major work, THE DYNAMICS OF GLOBAL DOMINANCE: European Overseas Empires, 1415-1980, was published by Yale University Press.
Don Bennett: THE TRIG 6
I was born & raised amongst close-spaced hills on the western fringes of the Appalachians. As 1st-generation college graduates, my parents were public-school teachers. Kindergarten for me was home-schooling by parents and maternal grandparents. Before I began 1st grade, I planned to attend college. My grandparents owned a small, largely self-sufficient farm, with fields, gardens, chickens, hogs, a milk cow, etc. Like almost every farm-kid in mid-century America, I absorbed a lot of practical STEM knowledge in biology and mechanics. My favorite school subject was mathematics, followed closely by baseball and basketball.
As an eager high-school freshman, I met Miss Butcher, our Algebra teacher. After her guidance through two enjoyable years of Algebra and one of Geometry, five classmates & I entering our senior year had already completed all math classes our rural school offered. Amazing as it seemed then, & even more so now, Miss Butcher opened her classroom an hour before school began each day to teach us trigonometry. Without fanfare or any incremental compensation, she did that & much more for her “TRIG 6.” She also shared with us the beauty of 3-D analytical geometry, including vectors, Boolean algebra, fault tree analysis, Golden Ratio, Mobius Strip, and the concept of rate-of-change, the basis of differential calculus. Based largely on Miss Butcher’s suggestion, I became an engineer. The other TRIG 6’ers also prospered: as a medical doctor, a math teacher (sole TRIG-6 female), a Chemistry PhD, a CPA and a physical therapist.
After degrees in Aerospace Engineering, I joined The Boeing Company for the next 37+ years. Initially I toiled at airplane design and aerodynamic analyses that were scarcely dissimilar from my engineering classes. Then, by happenstance, I discovered the miniscule (by employee numbers) sales & marketing efforts of Boeing that interface directly with airline customers & others who purchase large airplanes. Beginning with minimal economics, finance, business, airline, or communication education, & zero international cultural awareness, I learned quickly and thoroughly enjoyed worldwide technical/business interactions for three decades. At retirement, my country count was 65 from 6 continents, as well as 18 US states. For more than a decade post-retirement, I enjoyed tutoring teenagers in STEM subjects, partially to pay forward Miss Butcher’s legacy.
After worldwide business & cultural experiences that I could never possibly have aspired to, I still rate my core beliefs as constant, derived from a loving, caring, supportive family — & from Miss Butcher. I still characterize myself as an ethical, somewhat nerdy, people-friendly Appalachian kid. For best results, plant potatoes on Good Friday & ensure the corn is knee-high by the 4th of July.
Don Bennett grew up near the hamlet of Weston, West Virginia. He jokes that Clarksburg, population 35,000, was the big city to the north. When Don visited Miss Butcher in the 1990s, she had retired as Chair of Mathematics at West Virginia Wesleyan College. The TRIG 6 celebrated their 50th Reunion in 2010. They “talked for hours,” picking up threads from teen conversations suspended decades before.
COMING June 30
SERIOUS SUMMER READING
And looking ahead to our July 31 post, here’s your advance invitation to participate in a new Agile Aging conversation:
PATHS NOT TAKEN
Friend Don van Doren and I were recently chatting about serendipitous travel experiences — when chance encounters, delays or detours opened doors to spontaneous discoveries and delights. This reminiscence led us to consider other life situations when we hadn’t walked through open doors.
I’ve consequently been reflecting on two dimensions of paths not taken:
- Now knowing in old age how we’ve turned out and whom we’ve become – our talents and passions, careers and relationships – if we had a time-travel opportunity to re-launch our life journeys, can we envision a different set of choices for developing our potential?
- Or to come at this topic from another perspective, can we recall a fork in the life road where our personal or professional development might have led us to a different destination if we’d turned left instead of right?
Please join me in sharing glimpses of pivotal life choices. I’m not probing for misery memoirs – regrets, recriminations or rationalizations. My Agile Aging agenda is relaxed retrospection. “What if I’d said yes [or no]?” “What if I’d chosen a different college major [or partner or basecamp]?” How much of my undeveloped potential can I still nurture as a senior?
300 words max (loosely enforced.) Send, by July 10, to: email@example.com.