In the Presence of Wisdom

Hello from the shadow of my Christmas tree as I listen to Mannheim Steamroller’s Christmas music,

During this week 25 years ago, I said my physical goodbye to my adopted father as he rapidly lost his battle with multiple cancers and a battle with dementia. It was this week 8 years ago, I came home (Menomonie, the place that was still home to some degree) and began a final watch for a little brilliant Austrian woman, who had become my surrogate mother, perhaps the best example of a mother I had. I am not sure I realized the rather corresponding chronology to those two events, and ironically for the two people who were, during my adulthood, the people I would most see as parental. I remember writing at the time for Lydia “Sie wurde die Mutter, die ich nicht hatte, und ich werde geehrt und demütigt, um einfach und liebevoll zu ihr zu sagen: ‘Lydia, ich liebe dich und du bist immer meine Mutter sein.” I was in Poland for the first time as I wrote those words. If I were to speak to her today in the language I have learned since then, I would write, “Trudno mi uwierzyć, że minęło już 8 lat odkąd odszedłeś z tego świata. Jest tak wiele rzeczy, za które wciąż jestem wdzięczny i jest tak wiele rzeczy, które mi powiedziałeś, a których mogłem wysłuchać bardziej efektywnie. Wciąż są rzeczy, których mnie uczysz. Może powinienem przyznać, że miałeś więcej racji, niż sam przyznałem.” And to my father, how did we get to a quarter of century since you left this world? So much has happened, the loss of Jim and Joanne, whom you adored, the loss of Kris . . . even, as I learned after the fact the loss of Suzanne, the eldest of the beautiful Pilgrim sisters, and yet life continues. I continue to work, though I am looking toward retirement. There are so many things I wish I had learned or paid attention to earlier. There are so many things I understand more clearly now.

What I realize about both my father and Lydia in retrospect is their incredible wisdom, both about people and the world in general. While my brother did work with my father in his professional situations, I never had that opportunity, but what I realize looking in, he had to be a profoundly capable electrician on a number of levels. He understood the basics of what made electricity work, and yet he managed that same basic understanding on coal-fire plants that were miles long. He understood how to get the wiring done on every level so that the plant would be functional. Additionally he understood how to move 250 electricians around not only to complete that job, but to get it done on time and within budget. Those are the sort of things about which I have no comprehension. And finally, he believed that every person working should be paid everything due to them, but conversely, those people would have to work for every dollar they were paid. There was an equilibrium in that. He was fair; he was honest; and yes, he was demanding. I heard this in no uncertain terms once from my older brother. He referred to him as a first class &%(#_ (you can fill in probably three or four words, and be accurate). On the other hand, Lydia had some similarities. She wanted things done one way: her way. She was a different type of taskmaster. She had a particular process and standard for everything. And when it did not happen, she was quick to question why. I have, from time to time, tried to imagine her in class. I know that she was brilliant, but demanding. Years later, 15 years after retirement, I would be out in town with her, and when someone recognized her and referred to her as Professor, she would say, “I do not know how they recognize me.” When I told her there was little doubt she would still be recognized, she would glare at me and say, “That is BS.” She was unparalleled in so many ways. My father was also unparalleled. What I remember as much as anything about him was his incredible smile. Unless he was deep in thought about something, he was smiling, and he had perfect teeth, straight and white as anything. And that was without orthodontia. The other thing I remember is his unfailing kindness. He was always willing to offer a hand to someone. His growing up and graduating from high school at the height of the depression left an indelible impression on him. He believed that people should work for what they received, but simultaneously, he was always willing to provide help to the other, with no expectation of receiving something in return.

Together they have created an example for me of both intelligence and wisdom. While Lydia was profoundly insightful about the world (and I mean the world) of economics, she learned to fend for herself. That ability probably was part of her initial journey from the Sudetenland to Vienna as a late teenager, but also again after George, her husband had passed away and she was on her own in Menomonie. My father, while he was the youngest, he was also the most giving I believe, but worked hard from the time he graduated from high school and would eventually become an electrician. From there he would be a general foreman for 250 electricians for a number of years. That takes both incredible insight as well as the ability to successfully negotiate the expectations of both the company and your workers. I did mention that some believed him to be a bit harsh, but what I know about him was he was honest and principled. He worked as hard as he expected anyone else to work. That was who he was. It was his ability to understand the other. He was certainly not perfect, nor was Lydia, but they were principled and honest.

One of the things I tell my students now is they do not have to be the smartest person or the best writer, but they do need to be willing to work hard. And then I tell them, if they have integrity that matters even more to me. If they have integrity, I will go as far as possible to help them succeed. A couple of years ago I had a student in a class who was quite capable, but he had a serious attitude issue. It took two professors tag-teaming him to get him to manage the class requirements, and at one point, as I pushed him to rethink and redetermine what was necessary, he asked questioningly, “You do not like me.” While it is written as a statement, it was really as much an inquiry. My response was simple. It is does not matter or not if I like you, what matters is if you are doing your work. And then out of fairness, I answered his inquisitive statement. I said, I do not dislike you, and in fact, in 30 years of teaching, there was only one student I really did not like.” I continued, “And that student might have been the most capable student I ever had.” And that is a true statement perhaps up to the class I am presently teaching. I added, “What I disliked about the student is I believe they would have sold out their own parents.” The older I become, the more I believe integrity is essential. I need to be able to trust the person; I need to believe they are who they say they are. If I could do anything over, I wish I was more courageous earlier in my life. I wish I could have stood up for the things I knew were right earlier than I seemed to be able. Standing up for what is correct and just is difficult, particularly when the understanding of fairness and justice has become so conflicted for us. Where is that line between compassion and being used? There is no simple answer to this, and most of us, I believe, want to be compassionate.

I noted two other people in the first paragraph of this blog. They were technically my cousins, but because I was adopted by people old enough to be my grandparents, these cousins were as much parents to me in my middle of life years as anyone. Jim and Joanne Wiggs were two incredibly brilliant, and profoundly kind people. When I went through some very difficult times, if it were not for them, I am not sure I would have made it through as unscathed as I did. It was certainly not a walk in the park, but as I moved back to graduate school to finish my PhD, they reached out in a number of small, but nonetheless significant, ways to make sure I was okay. Often it was an email or a phone call, but it made all the difference in the world. They were also wise about so many things. Perhaps the most important thing I heard from Jim would become his mantra to me: “Take care of Michael.” He would peer at me through his glasses with that wry smile, and poke me in the chest softly, and intone (also softly), “Take care of Michael.” And until I answered in the affirmative, he would not be content. Over the last years I went back to Sioux City until my father passed away, their home was my home away from home. She would have a birthday coming up in the next week or so. In fact, my father was buried on her birthday. Even 15 years ago, this coming April, which will be when Kris passed away, they were there for me. As I ponder my passed relatives, and on this side, there is a connection to my biological family through my father, I can only stand in awe of the people they were.

What I know is wisdom comes in many shapes, and through multiple paths. What I realize is some of the wisest people I have been blessed to know were in my own family. What they imparted to me in their kind-hearted, unassuming manner, through their willingness to love me, even in the times I was not that lovable, provided me a foundation that perhaps I have too often overlooked or taken for granted. As I think of this particular day, it was the day before I would see Lydia the last time (it is now the 26th of January). It was the day before they took my father to the hospital for the last hours of his life. The 27th of December is a profound day in my life, and it is ironic that two of the most significant people in my life, it is the date I would last speak with both of them. God works in mysterious ways, and I believe God connects things in ways we cannot always fathom. The 27th of December in 1997 and in 2014 are both etched in my memory, and again, not surprisingly, when I left their presence I sat in the next room and wept. I understood their finitude, and I accepted it. That was not an easy task. And ironically, their last words were the same . . . they told me they loved me. What a most profound gift. I realize even today how much I loved them. I realize as I write this how much they gave me beyond their love. Perhaps I too am a little wiser because of them.

This is for you, Lydia. To all, thank you for reading and blessed Christmas and a joyous New Year to each of you.


Published by thewritingprofessor55

As I move toward the end of a teaching career in the academy, I find myself questioning the value and worth of so many things in our changing world. My blog is the place I am able to ponder, question, and share my thoughts about a variety of topics. It is the place I make sense of our sometimes senseless world. I believe in a caring and compassionate creator, but struggle to know how to be faithful to the same. I hope you find what is shared here something that might resonate with you and give you hope.

3 thoughts on “In the Presence of Wisdom

  1. Dr. Martin,
    I would just like to start out by saying I am sorry for the loss of your adopted father. Around the holidays can be such a tough times for those missing loved ones. My grandparents passed away around this time many years ago, but I still wish they were here to celebrate with us. However, I just like to focus on the fact that they are no longer in pain.

    The way that you describe your parents sounds similar to how I would describe my parents. My father amazes me with how he works so hard at his job. I have no idea how one person can be so organized. On the other hand, my mother is also a different type of taskmaster. She always tried her best to make everything perfect, even when that meant she had to completely stress herself out. She is a second grade teacher, and some times she forgets to turn off “teacher mode” when she comes home from work.

    I completely agree, hard work and integrity are two very important things to have in order to succeed. My plan is to keep these two things in the front of my mind as I finish out this course. Also, the line between compassion and being used is very blurring. Many of times, I have tried to find it. I too, want to be compassionate.

    Jim and Joanna Wiggs sound like two wonderful people. I am glad they were in your life and were able to make an impact on you. Everyone needs people in their lives like Jim and Joanna. The kind of people that want to watch you succeed and would to anything they can to help along the way.

    The story in your last paragraph breaks my heart. I, again, am so sorry for your loss. I dread the day that I have to say good-bye to my parents. However, I also believe God works in miraculous ways for a bigger picture that we do not understand.

  2. Dr. Martin,

    The pain that comes with the loss of a close family member never truly goes away. This fact I have unfortunately had to embrace due to the father of my children passing away a little over 4 years ago due to an addiction that tragically he could not overcome. While life does indeed go on, there is a constant hole that remains that can never be filled by either the passing of time or by new people entering your life. My loss occurred in the middle of summer and is a weight on my emotions that gradually increases as this ominous date in my history draws near.

    However, out of tragedy does come enlightenment. Due to this loss, I constantly remind myself to hold those I care for much closer than I previously did to ensure I capitalize on every second I spend with them. Having death rip a loved one away too soon highlights the frailty of life and fosters an appreciation of those close to us. While I would give anything to change the past and save him from the demons that claimed him too early, the appreciation of life that resulted from death is a lesson for which I will always be thankful.

  3. Dr. Martin,

    Your blog “In the Presence of Wisdom” is a great encapsulation of hard love and admiration. You seem to recollect on things and commemorate rather being the usual rhetorical question structure. This piece of text is the most vulnerable I have read from you so far.
    The relatability to any student to your stories can do wonders. Breaking down the teaching patterns you have to a successful process you were raised on. Making comparisons to family and other traumas people experience so students can understand the perspective the clearest.
    You have seemed very inspired to make a change. Like you have taken too many things for granted and want to ensure others don’t follow suit. With retiring coming up, memories flooding from the past, and previous blog posts topics indicate that you want to make impacts before your time is done, whether for yourself, family, or even students. That can only be respected and appreciated.

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