My father was a teacher and a genealogist. My mother was a teacher and a seamstress. To
make ends meet my parents cleaned commercial properties. They emptied trash bins, they polished ash trays, and they scrubbed toilets, mopped floors and cleaned windows. From dawn until dusk my parents worked – hard. The only moment my parents were not working to earn a living, they were working to keep our house in order, our yard immaculate and their children scrubbed and respectable.
I grew up around kids whose parents were lawyers, doctors, businessmen and women, dentists. They were people from every walk of life, both blue-collar and white collar and in my crazy, egotistical and naïve mind I duped myself into believing a dirty little secret: my parents weren’t as cool as your parents because my parents don’t have cool jobs. Our family is not as cool as your family because we don’t have cool things like yours does. I’m embarrassed to bring my parents to school for “Career Day” because who wants to hear about scrubbing toilets?
Every evening while my friends were sitting down to a meal of lasagna and breadsticks or pizza for dinner we were lining up at the stove to get a helping of soup or fried mackerel, rice and brown gravy. While my friends were getting bikes and video games for Christmas under a bright tinsel tree me and my siblings were unwrapping clothes from the second hand store and toys with some other kids name on them.
Oh wretched life! Woe is me! Is there no justice in the world?
Every day I looked at every way to blame my parents for not being good enough workers who made good enough money to give us good enough things until all I could ever think about was all the ways that we just weren’t good enough.
Then Samoa happened.
And reality took a step back and kicked me right between the eyes.
My view of the world changed. My thought process was reformed. Not because my parents were suddenly millionaires and the stars were suddenly aligned for our family but because I stopped thinking about what we didn’t have as a family and concentrated instead on the things that we had in abundance.
I am embarrassed to think about the thoughts and emotions I had as a child. Even writing this post makes me recoil, my insides revolt to think that I ever felt and thought those things about parents who did everything within their power to give me a happy life.
In Samoa I was surrounded by families who were by every westernized definition of the word, poor. But they were happy and often content. Yes they longed for a better life but they did the best they could with what they had. Children ran about in threadbare clothes if they were available, barefoot and bursting with glee because they had families that loved them, they had enough food to fill their bellies from crops and livestock they grew and raised on their own.
As a teenager in Samoa I still had juvenile spats with my parents and I still had the teenage angst and the requisite chip on my shoulder that comes naturally to teens but my people and my birthright changed my perception of what matters and how my parents mattered so much more than what my childhood inexperience and idiocy once told me.
Societal stigmas from my childhood lied to me and I believed society because that is all I was willing to see, hear and learn. The culture and society of my youth, my Samoa, carved out those cancerous stigmas from the inside, purged them from my soul and replaced them with a genuine love for my parents, my family, my people, and my faith.
The lessons of my childhood and a portion of my youth have taught me in adulthood that the only stations and castes in life are the ones we create for each other. I am still burdened by my childhood thoughts even after all these years because if I had it in me then as a child to condemn my parents for being poor than is there somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind a place that is always going to place labels on the people in my life?
I don’t think so. In fact, I know so.
There is hope.
Hope comes to me whenever I feel the wrenching in my heart when I see an old soul sweeping up trash at a grocery store. Hope beckons to me whenever I quietly and privately shed tears for my parents who have passed on but whom I’m reminded of often when I see a woman rationing out a meal for her children or a man stalwartly walking along the side of the road to catch a bus in his white shirt and tie with the weight of the world resting on his brow.
No matter what my childhood self may have thought, I know now as I have always known that my parents mattered. My wife and my children matter. My siblings, my co-workers, my friends and extended family members matter. Every person in every walk of life matters no matter what the rest of the world may think of us.
On occasion I forget.
But it only takes a moment to see the struggle; to know that the struggle is real and what matters most is how we make people matter.