The best present I received this Christmas was not wrapped in colorful paper nor was it tied with a satin ribbon. It wasn’t awaiting me beneath the tree on Christmas morning. No this gift came unexpectedly, without pretense or fanfare, without a tag or card. But it impacted my heart more forcefully than any of the other presents I received over the course of the holiday season.
My present came early. Just before our local schools were scheduled to take the Christmas break, I assisted my oldest great-nephew with a social sciences project. The project involved learning more about one’s family and background. Each of the students in his class was given the assignment of picking an older member of his family and interviewing this relative about when and where s/he grew up, what conditions were like, ethnicity and the like. My great-nephew chose my father, his great-grandfather, as the person through whom to seek more knowledge about his family history. Although most of the questions for the interview were of the teacher’s design, my great-nephew had never conducted an interview and asked for teacher-sanctioned assistance with his project.
He began by asking my father a series of questions about when he was born and where and what the general conditions of the era were like, questions about his family’s ethnicity and so on. Once he began the interview, his nerves faded and he was steaming along with no assistance required from me. But I continued to listen, not expecting to hear anything new as I felt I was more than cursorily aware of the bulk of my father’s life. Then it came: a question that took me by surprise because I had not read all of the questions previously, a question I thought rather odd in the overall context of the interview’s theme. But there it was; it echoed in my head as my great-nephew casually posed it: “Have you ever had the chance to be heroic?”.
My father thought for just the slightest of moments (not even a Plank era, really!) and then nonchalantly replied: “There was a time when I had to pull a man away from a burning tank when I was in Germany.” My great-nephew was more than satisfied with that simple answer, jotted down his notes and moved quickly forward. I, on the other hand, had never heard that story before, so after the interview I pressed for more details.
My father went on to describe how he saved a man from a burning tank and carried him to a safe area where the medics could care for him. His explanation was brief and woefully unadorned.
I listened intently and probed further. I had never known about this episode in my father’s life. He is a truly humble man. His life’s accomplishments are many, but I’ve never heard descriptions of them pass his own lips. I was truly grateful for that one social studies question: “Have you ever had the chance to be heroic?”. Had it not been for that one question, I might never have known about this particular episode in my father’s military service. I thought I had known him so well; and indeed, we are close. But that simple question revealed a whole new dimension to my father previously unknown to me.
Since the arrival of that gift, I’ve wondered how many people in my life I might have taken for granted. Certainly, the clearer vision of hindsight has often made me wish I’d asked my grandparents more probing questions. As a kid, I just always assumed they would be there. Well my dad is in his eighties now. And some day he just won’t be here to talk with anymore. So I’m glad I helped his oldest great-grandson interview him or I would have missed a great story.
I’m truly grateful for this gift. Perhaps a greater gift yet is my new-found desire to engage more fully with my loved ones and friends so as not to miss the many other “great stories” that await my discovery. How about you? Maybe there’s someone in your life with an invaluable piece of hard-fought wisdom or a revelatory story just waiting to be discovered when you really open your ears and fully engage. I wish you each a treasure trove of “gifts” that could never be purchased in a store or laid under a tree.