I can close my eyes and see Dad’s dresser settled in its home along the wall where it stood comfortably for years, proudly displaying his treasures on top.
His treasures included a black and white photograph of my mom looking beautiful in a swimsuit, sitting on a blanket at the lake. Close up photos of my sister and I when we were young, sitting on a piece of driftwood on vacation. Big smiles. Innocent hearts. Carefree Souls. Dad’s change tossed in a blue Straten Hotel ashtray. And lastly, a small wooden box that held things he wanted to keep. “2” dollar bills. Silver dollars. Old stamps. An old lighter. A slip of paper with something he wanted to remember.
I had given him the box as a gift for Father’s Day one year, shortly after we moved to Arizona, in the 80’s. It had an inscription on the inside I had written to him, telling him how much I loved and missed him. Holidays were especially hard the first years after we moved away – Father’s and Mother’s Day, I longed to be with them.
I remember all of those things being on his dresser for as long as I can remember. It was comforting, all of those years, coming “home” and nothing being changed. Everything still in the same familiar place that they were the last time that I was there. I cherished knowing that. It made coming home all the sweeter, knowing I’d walk through the door and saunter right back in time.
After Dad died I saved that box as my own treasure from him, knowing it had held a special place on his dresser. A few years ago, I brought it out of storage to put on top of our own dresser in our cabin. I’d pick it up and look at it occasionally, leaving the contents just the same as the last time he held it. I’d had it for years, but only a few months ago did I notice that Dad had taped something on the end of the box. It was a poem that had been cut out from a newspaper and taped to the end of the box, blending in so well that it was easy to miss.
The poem was one written by the poet, Sam Walter Foss, in the late 1800’s entitled “House by the Side of the Road”. The verse of the poem that Dad had saved was this:
Let me live in my house by the side of the road
Where the race of men go by;
They are good, they are bad, they are weak,
They are strong,
Wise, foolish – so am I.
Then why should I sit in the scorner’s seat
Or hurl the cynic’s ban? –
Let me live in my house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.
I was so moved when I read this and realized just how much Dad lived by those words. My discovery of this poem felt like the revealing of the secret to Dad’s immense giving and gracious nature. He was loved by many and everyone who knew him felt the quiet generosity of kindness that he lived by. He must have used the daily viewing of these words to remind himself how he wanted to live his life and that it would be his own personal affirmation to honor.
Of course, I’d like to be able to ask him what it meant to him and why he had it taped to the box. But, the simple fact that it’s sitting on my dresser and now that I know its revealed words means it’s something that I can’t ignore.
My dad is gone but finding it was like a message that he is still with me giving the wisdom that a father shares. It was a reminder of how he lived his life and what he strived for in his own character. Perhaps in its simplistic lyric form it is the legacy he wanted to leave.
The thoughts that Foss wrote through his poetry, were reflections derived from the late 1800’s, shortly after the American Civil War had left its scars on humanity. The message is clear – “be a friend to man”, “don’t judge”, “be compassionate to strangers”, “we are all one – capable of good and bad”.
These thoughts, as idealistic as they sound, are clearly what is needed in today’s world. A world that thinks nothing of hurling criticism and negative comments to their fellow man. Internet chatter full of discriminating and hateful comments. Politicians bludgeoning each other with accusations and rhetoric. And strangers disregarding the common desire for kindness or friendship.
The characterizing act that moved my dad to tape a poem filled with reminders that all of humanity is deserving of kindness fills me with humbling gratitude for the person that my dad was, for Sam Walter Foss and his words, and for the gift of the box. A comforting reminder that Dad is still present and impacting my life.
When I walk by the box now, I don’t just see it as Dad’s keepsake anymore. The gift of the poem and what it must have meant to him whispers to my soul. To read it. To live by it. To tell the story of it and share the wisdom of its words.
If only we all could find that gift of kindness inside ourselves to give to others every single day. If only we could remind ourselves that no one is perfect and that we are all deserving of friendship. If only we could look inside ourselves to first seek understanding before we judge. Then perhaps my dad’s favorite poem could be the shining gift for all humanity.