I haven’t written recently. Why? I don’t know. I asked my wife. She said, “It’s because you have been totally concentrating on buying your son a house.”
Actually he is not my son. He is her son by her first marriage. And I am not buying him a house. I am financing the purchase of a house for him. He will repay the loan at the current interest rate.
Actually he is my son, now that I am married to his mother. And if his mother should ever cease to be in my life, for whatever reason, he would continue to be my son. We have a relationship of mutual respect and love. It is not contingent.
A lot of fathers want to be friends with their sons, but they can’t be because they have a history of being their father. I don’t have that problem. I wasn’t there. I am his friend and he is my friend. I am his father and he is my son.
The experience of purchasing the house has developed a significance that transcends the transaction itself. To explain, let me go back to 1986.
It was a warm day in Atlanta, Georgia. I had just picked up my oldest daughter after her ballet class in downtown. We were walking along the sidewalk to the car when a well-dressed African American man approached us. He looked to be in his thirties. He said he had lost his job in Orlando and was taking is family to Knoxville, where a cousin had secured a job for him and a place for them to live.
“Excuse me, sir. I am passing through town with my family. We have run out of gas and we have no money.”
I took out my wallet. I had exactly $17.00. “I am sorry that this is all I have, but you are welcome to it.”
Now, that was a situation where a father should be proud. He should expect words of praise from his little girl. However, the little girl in question had a mind of her own. She had always been that way.
When she was a mere toddler she saw me down at the barn killing chickens. She crossed the yard as quickly as her little legs could carry her. As I watched and waited, I was thinking how I would explain the difference between animals and people, how I would address the concept of a soul, but when she was still a few feet from me she called out, “Daddy, can I kill the next one?”
This was no exception. “Daddy, how could you do that? You just gave all of your money to street hustler? Why did you do it?”
“Well, you are probably right. But what we do in this life is meaningless in eternity, except for the development of our soul. Think of the millions of people who have gone before us. The only thing they had in common was that they were developing their souls for eternity. If there were one chance in one hundred that man was telling the truth, it was not worth $17.00 for me to take that risk.”
But back to the house purchase. A nice elderly couple was selling their house. They had lived there for decades with their special needs son. Our son was out of town, so we went to look at the house without him. Afterward our real estate agent asked, “Are you interested and, if so, what do you want to offer them?”
I looked at my wife. She has an uncanny way of always knowing what I am thinking. Sometimes, it scares me. She simply nodded her head, “Yes.”
I turned back to our agent and said, “We will take the house. No counter offer. Tell them we will pay the full price in cash.” He started to say something, but then noticed my wife was silently mouthing to me, “I love you.”
The next thing that happened was the inspection by our contractor. He returned a thirty six-page report on the condition of the house, very detailed and with pictures. I read it carefully and reduced it to a one-page list of twelve things that needed to be repaired or replaced.
Our real estate agent explained that we needed to go back to the house, look at those items and then decide what price reduction we would ask to compensate us for those deficiencies. This time our son and his girlfriend went with us.
Our agent had been a contractor. He knew the cost of repairing or replacing. He and I walked through the house, discussing each item in detail. Through the window, I saw our son and his girlfriend out in the yard, talking to the owner. His wife sat at the kitchen table. “May I join you?” I asked.
“Of course,” she replied.
“We need to discuss a price reduction to compensate for the needed repairs and replacements. Also, I would like to ask if you are interested in selling your deck and yard furniture.”
“I think my husband is discussing that with your son now. Perhaps you should join them.”
I thanked her, arose, and stepped out on the deck. I was having a bad day with my arthritis, and it was painful to walk, so I called out to the owner, “If you have time now I would like to discuss purchasing your deck and yard furniture and the sale price reduction appropriate to compensate for the necessary repairs and replacements.”
My son called back in reply. “He just gave us all of the deck and yard furniture. We don’t have to buy it.”
The owner said, “I will come up and discuss a price reduction with you.”
I replied, “That won’t be necessary. We are requesting no price reduction. We will pay full price at closing.”
Later, in the car, my son said, “I don’t understand. What happened?”
I explained. “The contractor told me it looks like the owner built the deck himself after the house was constructed. It is not bolted through, as it would be if built simultaneously with the house. It’s a large deck. It’s a beautiful deck. The furniture is very nice and of good quality. Obviously the furniture was purchased to go with the deck. That is why he gave it to you.”
“I still don’t understand. He could have asked us to purchase the furniture. And why didn’t you ask for a price reduction?”
“That was my gift to him. I gave it to him because of his gift to you. The only things you can keep are the things you give away. The things you try to keep will eventually be taken from you one way or another. Only the things you give away will be yours forever.
“Compare these two statements:
“#1. My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings, look on my Works ye Mighty and despair.
“#2. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
You can keep only what you give to others.
Several people have commented to me about The Fourth Of July story. Most of the comments can be summed up as “What?”
Many years ago I knew a man who lived to be quite old. He was several years past the age of 100 when he died. Even though his body was frail and shriveled, his eyes were bright and strong, and he was always willing to engage in lively conversation.
I enjoyed our talks and visited him as often as I could. He was the most interesting man I knew. Why?
First of all, he had some interesting opinions. For example, after he turned 100, an accomplishment that was publically acknowledged on The Today Show by Willard Scott, I asked him how he got to be so old. Did he exercise? No. Did he eat a special diet? No. Did he take supplements? No. Did he practice meditation or spend a lot of time in prayer? No.
“Okay. How did you do it?” I asked. “How did you get to be so old?”
“The answer is simple.” he replied. “It was not what I did. It was what I didn’t do. I had a brother who smoked, drank and stayed up late at night to enjoy various nocturnal activities. It killed him. I warned him that it would. I told him he was ruining his health. It really hurt me to watch him squander his life and waste his money. He died young.”
“How old was he when he died?” I asked.
“Ninety-one,” he answered with a straight face. I look at him closely. No, he wasn’t kidding.
“I see. Well” I asked “can you give me some words of advice on how to live life.”
The old man seemed to be thinking. Or maybe he had fallen asleep. He had been known to do that, sometimes in mid sentence, but not this time.
“I am not sure I know the answer to that, but let me tell you a story. I was raised on a farm. Encouraged by my mother, I left the farm, went to college, and then pursued a professional career in the city. However, as I neared retirement age, I remembered nostalgically the peaceful simplicity of life in the country.
“So about ten years before I expected to retire, I bought a few hundred acres outside of town. Not yet retired then, and not yet ready to move then, I leased the property to a young couple who wanted to try their hand at raising cattle. I remember thinking it would be nice to have an orchard, but I didn’t plant one because I didn’t live on the property. Conversely, the young couple didn’t plant one because they didn’t own the property.”
He paused, seemingly to marshal his thoughts, and as he did so the image of his orchard appeared in my mind. It was a magnificent orchard, with every kind fruit-bearing tree represented. It annually produced an impressive bounty. I especially liked the persimmons and the cherries.
“When I retired at the age of 65, I sold my big house in the city, moved out here, and built this big farm house. I remember thinking it would be nice to have an orchard, but I didn’t plant one because I didn’t expect to live much longer. After all, I was 65 years old and most people didn’t live that long. If they did, then social security would be broke by now. When Roosevelt signed social security into law in 1935, the average life expectancy was 62 years old?
“Anyway, the years flew by. I remember thinking on my 75th birthday that it would be nice to have an orchard. I wish I had planted one when I was 65.
“It was a beautiful day on my 85th birthday. All of the nursery stock had arrived the day before and I had put colored ribbons on each tree to match the colored ribbons on the stakes I had put in the ground where I wanted them planted. The crew of workmen I hired to plant the trees arrived early. That evening I sat on my front porch, sipping a small bourbon, neat, while admiring my newly planted nursery stock. I remember thinking it sure is nice to have an orchard.
“That’s it.” he concluded, apparently satisfied that he had imparted a pearl of wisdom. I remember thinking: What?
“Okay. Thanks.” I said. “I’ll remember that one. What are you reading?” I asked as if I didn’t already know.
“Oh, this. It’s a fascinating magazine. It’s called “Organic Gardening.” You should read it some time.”
He had read that same issue of Organic Gardening every day for the past several years. His subscription to the magazine had been cancelled a long time ago, when his caretaker noticed that he always read the same issue over and over.
“I see. I will have to take a look at that sometime. So, what do you think about what the president did today?”
“I knew Harding was going to be a lousy president. He won by a landslide, but I sure didn’t vote for him. If this is a “return to normalcy” then I’ll eat my hat.”
“What’s the problem?” I asked. “It looks to me like you have a pretty good life here.”
“Here? Do you think I live here? I don’t live here. I am just visiting. I live about two miles down the road.”
So the answer to “What?” is: consider carefully your plans for today because today may not be as temporary as you think. Some time in the future your present may be your past. You may not remember this then, but I think you should know. Short-term memory is the first to go. So perhaps you should plant an orchard. It sure would be nice to have an orchard.