Graduation, Inheritance & Other Lessons

Graduation, Inheritance & Other Lessons

From A 2nd Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul

Graduation, Inheritance & Other Lessons

“It is with great pleasure that I present to you the 1978 graduating class of Drake University. These students have successfully completed their college studies: Michael M. Adams; congratulations, Michael. Margaret L. Allen; congratulations, Margaret.”

He was so damn bullheaded! How could he not feel the torment of my urgency to go to college? How could he have possibly conjured up the idea that “if it’s to be of meaning, it’ll be accomplished on your own”? Damn him!

“John C. Anderson. Congratulations, John. Bettie J. . . .”

One day he would see that I had done it on my own and he would feel remorse that he hadn’t been a part of it, repentant and apologetic that he didn’t actively follow me—freshman, sophomore, junior, senior . . . a college graduate.

“. . . Burres. Congrat . . .”

There. I did it! I had made it through the vast land of ambiguity and bureaucratic hurdles. College—the test to measure your tolerance to stress! Four arduous years, and the prized sheepskin was mine. The scroll with my name inscribed on it confirmed it. Thanks a lot, Dad! I’ve longed for you to be supportive of me; to be proud of me; to think I was somebody special, really special. What happened to all those childhood lectures on accomplishing whatever you set your heart on? On principles, goals, work ethics and discipline? Where were the fatherly pats on my head along the way? What was so important that you couldn’t tear yourself away to come to visit on parents day as all the other parents did?

And now, a no-show on graduation day. How could your day possibly be more consequential? How is it possible that you couldn’t arrange your day to watch your daughter on this momentous event in her life?

“ . . . ulations, Bettie.”

Against all hope I searched for his eyes in the sea of several thousand faces in the audience. He was nowhere to be found. Naturally. My going off to college coincided with the birth of my parents’ sixth child and other routines of a large and rural family. Why should he think of this day as anything out of the ordinary?

“Climb every mountain. Ford every stream.” The song our graduation class had chosen for the theme seemed appropriately trite. And painful.

“Follow every rainbow . . . till you find your dream.”

One hundred and two new graduates marched across the stage that day. I was sure that every one of them had two parents wedged in the crowded audience. When every graduate had picked up his or her diploma, our class rose and began the long march down the auditorium aisle, all of us ready to get out of sweaty gowns and prickly pins and rush off to the dinners and family graduation parties. I felt so alone. Saddened. Angry. I had sent Dad not one but two graduation invitations. It wasn’t so much that I wanted him there, but that I needed him. Needed him to witness the completion of something very special, an outcome of all those dreams, ambitions and goals he had instilled in me. Didn’t he know how much his approval of this meant to me? Were you serious, Dad, or was it just talk?

“Dad, you are coming, aren’t you? I mean, how many times does one graduate from college?” I had pleaded.

“Our coming will depend on whether we’re in the fields or not,” he had said. “If it’s a good planting day, we can’t afford to miss it with the rains coming. We’ve missed so many days this spring. Planting time is critical now. If it rains, we’ll try to make it down. But don’t get your heart set on it. You know it’s a two-hour drive to get there.”

I did set my heart on it. It was all that mattered.

“Climb every mountain. Ford every . . .” Parents, grandparents and relatives were all smiles, straining for a glimpse of their new graduate, politely shoving others out of the way to get that cherished picture, proud of their own status as mother, father, grandparent, brother, sister, aunt, uncle of the graduate. Theirs were the tears of happiness; the tears I fought back were of absolute disappointment and rejection. It wasn’t just that I felt alone, I was alone.

“Follow every rainbow . . .”

I had taken 27 steps from the spot where I had shaken hands with the University President in acceptance of my diploma—my ticket to the world in my future. “Bettie,” a soft voice called urgently, startling me out of my suffocating invented dejection. The gentle sound of my father’s voice leaked through the thunderous applause of an enormous, roaring audience. I’ll never forget the vision that was before me. There in the end seat of the long aisle saved for the spillover of graduates, sat my father. He looked smaller and more reserved than the bold and thunderous man I grew up with. His eyes were red, and giant tears streamed down his cheeks, dropping thuds on a blue suit that was obviously brand new. His head was lowered slightly, and his face revealed a picture of far too many words. He looked so humble, too filled with fatherly pride. I’d seen him cry only one other time, but here were big quiet tears that couldn’t be contained. The sight of this masculine and proud man—my father—in tears, broke the dam I had managed to hold back.

Within an instant, he was on his feet. My emotions under siege, I did what seemed like the thing to do in that fervent and impassioned moment—I thrust my diploma into his hand. “Here, this is for you,” I said in a voice blended with love, arrogance, revenge, need, thanks and pride.

“This is for you,” he countered in a voice devoid of anything but gentleness and love. His hand swiftly entered into his coat pocket and emerged with an envelope in it. In a clumsy gesture he reached out his weathered huge hand and thrust it at me. With the other hand, he rerouted the stream of tears cascading down his cheeks. It was the longest, most intense and emotional ten seconds I had participated in.

The procession continued. My heart raced as I tried to piece together the events of the day—his thoughts as he made the two-hour drive, his ease or frustration in finding the university, fending off graduates and hoarding a seat ten rows in front of those reserved for parents!

My dad had come! It was one of the most beautiful days the spring had to offer—a perfect planting day. And that new suit! As I remembered it, he had bought one for Uncle Ben’s funeral. One decade later, he had purchased one for my sister’s wedding. A suit was considered frivolous to this farmer; besides, owning one took away an excuse for not going where you didn’t want to go! Buying a new suit definitely demanded a very important occasion. He was there; Dad in his new suit.

“. . . till you find your dream.”

I glanced at the envelope that I was crushing to death with my grip. Having never received a note or card from Dad before, I really didn’t know what to think. My imagination went wild with the possibilities. Would it be a card . . . with his signature? It was a rare and integrity-laden deal when E. H. Burres signed his name. Everyone knew a handshake from this man was better than a signature from someone else. When E. H. Burres gave his word—well, it was a done deal. No banker had ever turned down this man who after serving two terms in World War II had started his life with nothing more than a good work ethic, a solid sense of character, and a beautiful and loyal woman at his side; this man with all those kids and those bold dreams of owning all that land. Maybe it was just an extra copy of the graduation program. Maybe the exchange was just as flustering for him as it was for me and he simply handed me something, anything. Could it be an invitation to the assembling of the Burres clan to celebrate this day? Afraid of being let down, and wanting to savor any and all possibilities, I reserved opening the envelope until I reached the changing room. I struggled out of my cap and gown without letting go of this precious piece of paper.

“Look what my parents gave me for graduation,” Martha gushed, as she held up her hand, showing off a gleaming pearl ring for all to see. “My old man gave me a car,” yelled Todd from across the room. “Must be nice. I got nothing, as usual,” came a voice from somewhere. “Yeah, me too!” chimed in another. “What did you get from your parents, Bettie?” yelled my college roommate from across the room.

It didn’t seem appropriate to say, “Another incredible lesson, too precious to share, from one of the most admirable men in the world,” so I turned away and pretended not to hear. I folded the graduation gown neatly and put it in a bag where it remains to this day—a symbol given life by my father’s words and actions.

My eyes watered over as I remembered my father’s tears. He had come after all. I was important to him. Either that or Mom won the fight! I opened the envelope slowly and carefully, not wanting to tear this precious memento from my father:

Dear Bettie,

I know you remember how as a young boy, my family had lost the family farm. My mother was left to raise six children, mostly alone. It was a rough time for all. On the day my family’s farm was taken from us, I vowed that someday I would own land, and that all my children would have a legacy to this land. They would always be secure. Wherever they lived in the world, no matter what was to be their fate, there would always be a Burres homestead to come home to. My children would always have a home. The attached letter is your deed to your farm land. The taxes have been forever paid. It is yours.

When I saw you go off to college, you can imagine how proud I felt, and so hopeful that you would, one day, complete your degree. You can’t really know how helpless I felt when I could not stretch our family’s dollar to include your college. At the time, I didn’t know how to say that without destroying your belief in me. But it wasn’t because I didn’t value what you were doing, nor was it for lack of recognition of how hard you were working to make your dream come true. Though I might not have followed you as closely as you would have liked, know that you were never out of my thoughts. Always I watched you, though from afar. It might have seemed to you that I was impervious to your trials of going it alone, but I wasn’t. I was coping with my own struggles of a growing family, and actualizing a dream I refused to let go of because it was so important to me—it was my legacy to you children.

I prayed for you constantly. Know, dear daughter, that your strength and ability to forge ahead when all seemed against you was often the very thing that kept my own dreams alive and renewed my strength to forge ahead with my own trials and tribulations—and made them worth it. You see, it was you who was my hero, a model of strength, courage and audacity.

There were times when you were home on holidays that as we walked the farmstead and talked about so many things, I wanted to tell you so you wouldn’t lose faith in me. I needed you to believe in me. But as I watched the boundless energy of your youth and arrogance and pride, and listened to your determination to complete your mission, I knew you would be all right. I knew that not only could you do it, but that you would. And so, today we both have a piece of paper symbolizing the completion of dreams, actualized because we have applied hard work toward noble goals. Bettie, I am so very proud of you today.

             

Author’s note: (His actual signature!)

Bettie B. Youngs

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