I had a marvellous upbringing. Mom worked 24/7, staying at home to keep three kids healthy, fed, and making sure we did our homework, practiced piano, and made good life choices. I have vivid memory of her telling us to "say 'thank you.'" Dad was an accountant who worked from early morning to late evening at least five days a week. I don’t remember seeing a lot of him in the morning from Monday to Friday, but we all looked forward to our evenings and weekends together. Most kids know when spring is coming by the snow melting. When I was growing up, I knew spring was coming when Dad would start his work day at the dining room table before dawn, go to the office, and get back to the dining room table until long after the rest of us were in bed. The table was covered from end to end with pencils, files, and those old-fashioned, green-tinted, long-form accounting ledgers. It was tax-filing season, pre-computers, all pencil and paper. His livelihood was earned managing and caring for the livelihoods of others, his entire reputation built on meticulous detail, honesty, and the utmost in professional advice to each of his clients.
When he was starting out, he wasn’t paid much, and we were a single-income family. Tax-filing deadline was April 30th, and on May 1st, the piles of accounting paperwork on the dining room table would be displaced by road maps as he planned our summer holidays. Vacations amounted to Sunday boil-ups in a gravel pit along Salmonier Line, or in a picnic park for a couple of hours. Luxurious travel would be driving across the province to Corner Brook and staying in motels along the highway. I was four or five when we took our first family vacation to far-flung places like Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and even Quebec. Always by car. I was 12 the first time I was on a plane, and that was our first trip to Toronto. I didn’t notice the progression at the time because it all seemed so gradual: one summer of gravel pit boil-ups (which were awesome) was followed by the next summer in Woody Point about 10 hours drive away staying in cabins, followed by another few summers driving around the Maritime provinces, then eventually to Quebec, then Toronto. I think the year after Toronto, there was a trip to Banff and Vancouver, and I have a vague recollection of driving across the border to Washington State and feeling like I was in another galaxy.
Those vacations were testament to Dad’s hard work slowly but surely paying off. He wasn’t just “making” more money. He was earning it and was always thankful to his superiors and to his clients. Always. And he said so aloud. When he was a junior accountant, he had to work incredibly hard for a raise. To get a Christmas bonus in his day was not merely a token gesture in the spirit of the season. It was given to the hardest workers in a time when they could really use it to buy a little extra food or put an extra present under the tree. He grew up in a time when he wasn’t used to getting gifts, certainly nothing of extravagance the way we know today. Everything had to be earned. I dare say his Christmas bonuses and raises weren’t overly substantial in the big scheme of things. That raises and bonuses happened at all were commentaries on his work ethic. The more he earned, the harder he worked, and the more thankful he became, grateful just to have a job, right up to retirement.
Along the way, he would tell me stories of his being rewarded by his bosses for his unrelenting hard work, honesty, and gratitude. They weren’t like those TV moments where he’d sit me down and teach me a lesson with soft piano music in the background. Just brief, seemingly casual, anecdotes while on a fishing trip or on our way to the supermarket or something. He did that often enough that I remember to this day the names of his teachers, colleagues and superiors who he still credits with his life values, work ethic and successes. I never met most of them, and a good many of them are gone now, but their names were common around our house and I can still rattle them off. By extension, I’m grateful to them for the life I have because of how I know they influenced Dad's life.
In spite of the massive pressure he must have felt as he built his career, I rarely heard him complain (though I’m sure he must have to Mom now and then). Like we all do when faced with pressing deadlines, he’d get a little grouchy when April 30th drew nearer, but that was about it. The one time I saw Dad show anger over something work-related wasn’t at tax time when he barely slept or saw daylight. It was Christmas Eve when I was about 15 or so. Like a lot of families, we had a routine of going to the evening church service. We were waiting for Dad to come home from work so we could have our supper and go to the service. I heard the door slam behind him and he was pulling off his overcoat in a fit, and didn’t look up. Mom asked him what was the matter, and I’ll never forget his response. “Not one of them said ‘thank you.’” After decades of building his career, when he was finally in a position to do so, he personally prepared bonus cheques for his own junior accountants as his genuine thanks to them, and to encourage and motivate them to work harder in the new year. As that Christmas Eve work day drew to a close, one after another came to his office asking if their Christmas bonuses were ready yet, taking them from him, leaving, not bothering to say “thank you.”
I could write volumes of life lessons gleaned from growing up. But this one left the biggest impression and especially resonated with me this year. I have colleague musicians who are bound up in petty squabbles and narcissism, even in the seemingly benign little world of choir music, who are not content to be grateful for the blessing of the opportunity to have an audience for their music and more worried about winning the useless game of one-upmanship. In various circumstances in 2017, I gave gifts to someone out of friendship and respect, I worked extra hard for barely any pay just to help out another musician, and I lent money to someone in need – someone who isn’t really a friend but who thought would be appreciative. None of them have thanked me, and I have to say that it stings. It's not a matter of bolstering my ego or anything of the sort. I don’t want, need or expect a reciprocal equivalent return. I could care less about dollar value or gifts in kind. But I fear for what appears to be the fading art of showing gratitude. Call me old-fashioned, but when someone doesn’t say “thank you,” the silence is deafening and revealing. On the flip side, I remember fondly the ones in my life who do utter that simple little phrase and am grateful for their being grateful. That’s all. Gratitude is simple, meaningful and lasting, but sometimes it seems like it’s getting harder to find, and we shouldn’t have to go looking for it.
My Ph.D. earlier this year was a big deal for a guy who flunked out of university when I was a lot younger. It absolutely would have been impossible to even dream of that without the backing of my wife, parents, best friend, and mentor/teacher. For nearly twenty years, I’ve been living a life as a musician, a career unthinkable without my parents who bought that used Mendelssohn piano they could barely afford, three incredible piano teachers, my wife who supported me all the way, and musician friends who put in a good word for me, and I for them in kind. And I'm thankful for the kind of upbringing that instilled in me the essential value of thankfulness. Not just feeling it, but showing it. I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions, but I hope we all take the birth of 2018 as a time to thank someone every chance we get who makes all good things in our lives possible.
Have a great 2018, everyone, and thank you.