Becoming Your Parent

This is the eulogy I delivered at by father’s funeral, but it is also a commentary of what we receive, often unwittingly, from our parents.

Winston Herbert Stinson
November 15, 1923 – April 21, 2007

Our parents prepared my brother, Scot, and me for the transitions in our lives. They supported us through those transitions; our high school graduations, college graduations and our marriages.

At each of those events I saw in my parents’ faces the happiness that came from seeing us, their children, grow into a new phase of our lives. But I also saw the sadness that came from the knowledge that we were also moving away from them in many ways.

Today I am filled with the same contradictory mixture of emotions I saw in my parents on those occasions. For today is yet another graduation ceremony. We are here to celebrate my father’s graduation into a more abundant life with the Lord, where his spirit, the sum total of all that he learned, all that he created, all that he is, can shine unconstrained by physical limitations. It is my most fervent wish that all of you share my joy on this occasion.

I know you share my sorrow. The sorrow that comes from the lack of his physical presence among us. Yet in a very real sense, he hasn’t left us and can never leave us, anymore then, throughout all our transitions, Scot and I could leave our parents’ hearts.

Cigar boxes on basement shelves

Cigar boxes store magical stuff on shelves in my parent's basement. Note the label on the box in the center of the frame.

In the basement of my parent’s house there are shelves on which sit rows of cigar boxes. Each box is labeled in my dad’s precise lettering with their contents. There are boxes with electrical outlets, plugs, wire nuts, mercury switches and so on. As a child these were treasures and my dad explained what each one was for and how it worked. I spent hours fashioning perfectly functioning but utterly useless electrical circuits from this stuff. I also received a few nasty shocks.

One of my earliest memories is of my dad sitting in the black wooden rocking chair, with me curled up in his lap, while he read to me from the small, maroon volumes of the Funk and Wagner’s encyclopedia about electric generators, transformers and all sorts of other magical stuff. But this was magic that had logic, could be understood, and which a person could use to build useful things.

Later I went to college, and then to graduate school, and finally to work in the research laboratories of several companies. But — if I have done anything of use, it can be traced back to those cigar boxes and that rocking chair.

By the way, on those basement shelves there are certain boxes whose labels begin “ASST”. ASST screws, ASST connectors, and so forth.  Now as a young child one learns language seemingly by osmosis from one’s parents. A cat is called a “cat”, a spoon a “spoon” and generally one doesn’t ask why. A cat just IS a “cat”. And so it was that I learned that ASST means “this is the box you look in when you can’t find what you want in any other box”. Only when you grow into middle age does your mind take a philosophical bent and you begin to ask those penetrating questions such as “What the heck does ASST mean?!” I assume it means “assorted” but now I can never be sure.

My favorite cigar box was labeled by dad “ASST ODDS”. I assume ODDS is short for “odds and ends”. But apparently these are not ordinary odds and ends. These are assorted odds and ends. Clearly this is the box of last resort.

Another influence my dad had on me was in the appreciation of visual beauty and craftsmanship. Yes, he earned a living as a sign painter and as a master cabinet-maker, but beyond that, I grew up surrounded by wonderful wooden plaques cut in the shape of, and painted to look like, various cartoon characters and animals. Luckily, he never finished all of these and so I got to discover them in various stages of completion and could see all the detailed work that went into them. He also made signs for various relatives, friends and neighbors and I saw the care that came so naturally it seemed effortless but that informed every decision of shape, finish, lettering style and color to capture and express meaning, emotion – and love.

As a result of dad’s influence, I’ve dabbled in typography and graphic layout and developed a passion for photography. Earlier this year some of my photographs were selected to be displayed in a local exhibition. At the opening, a person whose talent I admire, pulled me aside and said “I really like your work, it is so precise”. This took me aback. I hadn’t heard anyone refer to a piece of art as “precise” before and, frankly, I didn’t know whether to be honored or insulted. Then two days ago I came across some practice pieces my dad did as a commercial art student. Expressing the greatest love of his life he produced, in large, dramatic 3-dimensional block lettering, the word “RUTHIE”. With a little notation that the “T” should be moved 1/16 of an inch to the left.

My mother's nickname

Robert Sapolsky is a professor at Stanford University who studies the effects of stress in animals. He has written a number of best-selling books for general audiences based on his research, perhaps the most popular being “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers”. By one of those strange coincidences in life, I was reading one of Sapolsky’s books two weeks ago while visiting with my dad, for what would turn out to be the last time. While studying baboons in Africa, Sapolsky employed the son of an African family, who, being the youngest, would not inherit the scraggly collection of animals constituting the family’s wealth. Having no prospects in his home village he left to make his way in the city. Sapolsky accompanied him back to his village for a visit and watched as the young man regaled his father and eldest brother with tales that must have seemed as strange to them as if he had just returned from an alien planet. Sapolsky noticed that the eldest brother and father nodded, smiled, laughed and talked at the same time. Their expressions were virtually identical and changed in unison. It was as if the older brother not only inherited his father’s herd, but was growing to become the father. And he thought “this is the difference between “western” and “African” cultures. In the west we strive to separate from and surpass our parents while here in Africa their ambition is merely to become their parents.”

Later, the death of his own father inspired Sapolsky to give a motivational, “carpe diem” lecture to his students. Once he began speaking, he found himself talking not about how life is short and how they should take risks and make their mark, but rather, quite against his volition, he told them to steel themselves against life’s difficulties and inevitable disappointments. In short, he gave the lecture his father would have given in that situation. Shaken, he realized that perhaps western and African cultures were not so different. That becoming your parent is not only inevitable, but admirable.

And so I find it is one of my greatest pleasures, and a far better tribute to my father than these words, when my wife turns to me and says with a loving smile, “You know, when you do that you remind me of your dad.”

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About dougstinson

Doug Stinson enjoys pondering unexpected connections and sharing his discoveries. He is also a physicist, a photographer, a new product realization executive, and a student of history, the environment and religion.
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