Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Living Happily on a Shoestring: Fifty Years For Less Than Fifty Dollars?

by Christine Wilkinson

It is challenging to balance good manners with working one's way out of debt. We've cut our budget down to bare-bones basics, so thoughtful things like giving nice gifts had to be gutted along with cable television.

This past weekend I faced the hardest of all money-related awkward situations: what to give my parents for their 50th wedding anniversary. How in the world could I not get them a fabulous gift?

For weeks I pondered what I could do, and then it hit me: contact all our relatives as well as my parents' friends and ask, kindly, if they could please send a note, card or funny remembrance to me so that I could then collect them all in one big box and literally give the gift of love (corny, I know). I was overwhelmed by the response -- letters, cards and photo albums poured in from across the country.

Then, I sat myself down to write a letter. I remembered that as a teacher, a thoughtful letter from a student beat any and all other gifts, even the coffee mugs filled with Hershey's kisses. Thus motivated, I sat at my computer and tried to put into words what my parents mean to me. When I was done, I sealed up the giant box of affection, wrapped it in red Dollar Store paper and festooned it with my small splurge of beautiful gold ribbon. I was pleased; it looked lovely.

My parents live in Philadelphia, and my brothers organized a five-course meal in an ornate private room at an fancy-schmancy restaurant. My oldest brother generously paid for hotel rooms for everyone in the family (twenty of us all together), including a luxury suite for my parents. For those of you who read my article in The Washington Post about my grandmother who survived a life filled with hard times, you might remember that my father grew up so poor that he was nicknamed Rags. Last weekend, he dined in Society Hill in first class fashion. It was amazingly gratifying, and felt poetically just.

I did have to spend a considerable sum on dinner, but every penny was worth it. The gift, however, was the best part of the weekend. I put time, love and energy into the project, but aside from a fancy bow, not much cash. It just goes to show the purchasing power of heart and creativity.

And now, my letter to my parents:
Dear Mom and Dad,
I bet fifty years ago it would have been impossible to imagine the celebration we just had: you surrounded by your sisters, four middle-aged children and nine beautiful grandkids celebrating your Golden Anniversary!

I want to congratulate you on fifty years together. Truly, no small feat. But more so, I want to thank you for so, so many things.

I was a lucky kid to have you as my parents. I never knew want. I was always clothed and fed and never once felt I had to go without. My birthdays were never forgotten and Christmas was a joy (with the exception of trying to help Dad with the infernal lights, trying to figure out just which one bulb was keeping the entire string from lighting!) And Mom, decorating the tree with you was something I looked forward to even throughout my college years. You both chaperoned field trips, took us to Kings Dominion and later across the country (a trip that is forever etched in with my mind, a trip I want to take with my family one day). We had bikes to ride, trees to climb, and nightly dinners with a Mom and a Dad who would ask us about our days (and also to please get our retainers off the table).
Dad, you taught all four of us to be polite and well-mannered, to give up our seats for our elders. You taught us, through example, just how important family is, and I mean the entire extended crazy lot of us! You also taught by example not to judge others – in fact, you're one of the least judgmental people I know. I wish I could hold myself to such a high standard.

You constantly told us that Life Isn't Fair, yet you countered that by instilling in each of us that doing the right thing matters. You are loaded with humble integrity, and I think it's evident in the lives your children lead that your legacy has been passed down. From you we learned to be more open-minded and fair. I'll never forget one time when we were all driving around in the station wagon (I must have been in fifth or sixth grade) and someone made fun of a strange looking, down-and-out couple walking down the road. You chided whomever it was (can't remember who), but you said, “Every jar has its lid” and that we shouldn't be so quick to think we knew their story. For some reason, that has stuck with me all these years.

You also passed on the undiluted joy that a “Spooky Road” can bring to four little ones (and, by the way, I now have a “Spooky Road” for my daughter, too and her exuberance always makes me think of you). And there's not a shadow of a doubt that you started my love affair with thunderstorms. A really good, shake-the-house storm makes me think of you waking us up as kids, throwing us in the car and driving to the top of Valley Forge Mountain to watch the lightning show. I was dumb enough to believe you when you said the car was the safest place to be (even though we were on the highest possible ground next to a metal tower!). Again, this is something that I am passing on to Jade. As a family, we run right out onto the deck into the pouring rain to jump and shriek with joy at a particularly vivid strike or exceptionally resounding thunderclap. It's impossible not to give to our kids what we treasured when we were them.

It saddens me to think you never had a father like you. You didn't have a blueprint for the job of being a Dad, but we ate diner together every night, you checked that we did our homework, you snapped and pointed so that we'd take our baths and go to bed, and you loved us in the best way you knew how. You made me love to follow the news and politics and, of course, to watch Jeopardy! And I also think you instilled in me a love of adventure, of seeing new places, and valuing people from all walks of life.


Mom, you are the best part of me. I feel like we're somehow always connected whether in the same room or in separate countries. From you I learned the greatest of all gifts – to laugh. I mean to really laugh, loud and long, and to find the absurdities that abound in daily life. And after any event, I look forward to our de-briefs.

From you I learned the less tangible things, the things that involved empathy and intuition. I learned how to read a room, to sense when someone was feeling down or burdened. And I inherited your gift to lighten peoples' loads. You do that just by entering a room. It's true. Your very presence makes people happier (I can't tell you how many people have told me that you are by far the funniest person they've ever met). You modeled the importance of friendships, and I'm so grateful that, like you, I have my own Ya-Ya's who help carry me through life.

It is you who deserves all the credit for teaching me to be a storyteller, one who captures the feeling of a scene, whether funny or poignant. And it's you who has lightened all of my burdens. I call you with each and every problem I have and you always make me feel better. Then, I know you carry my hurts long after I've let go of them. Whenever something is happening in my life, you're the first person I tell. And I respect that you have always given me independence as an adult – not ever telling me which path to choose, but supporting me when I pick (even if some of my choices weren't the best).

Those trips to Kings Dominion I mentioned earlier? You were the fun-loving person who would stay off the roller coaster when I was young and too afraid (while the rest of the family had a ball). You were the mom who stayed up with me every single night that I (or any of us) was sick. You were the mom who took us to the pool during the summers, who stopped at J-Mart on the way home for dip-top ice cream cones, and who took us to the library every few weeks. And you were the mom who worked full-time so that all of your children could go to college, even though your parents couldn't afford to do so for you.

You, too, encouraged me to travel and be adventurous. I've traveled the country with friends, taken more roads trips than anyone I know, have never feared a spontaneous trip to anywhere, including jumping from an airplane at an altitude of 11,000 feet. I've been to Germany, France, Mexico, Aruba, Ireland, England and China. And I still long to see Italy, Greece, New Zealand, Denmark and more, and one day I'll get there.

You and Dad inspire wanderlust.

It's trite to say you're my best friend, because we're not friends. We're mother and daughter, which trumps any and all friendships. You're my inspiration and the best role model I could possibly have. My husband and my daughter fill my life with an inexplicable kind of love, and I feel so indescribably lucky to have them both. But you – you've been with me every second of the past 43 and 3/4th years.

I don't know if it's urban legend or truth, but I've heard that the last things pilots are heard saying on the black box of crashing planes is a cry out for their mothers. That would be me.

I love you both, thank you both, and honor each of you.


Christine Wilkinson is a veteran middle school teacher, who holds a Master's degree in Education and is currently job hunting. Christine is also a freelance writer who has had articles published in the Raleigh News and Observer and most recently in the Washington Post. She has lived most of her adult life in the DC-Baltimore area, although she recently returned from a three year detour in the South (Raleigh, NC). She is married with a 7-year-old daughter, which prompts her to observe: "While I may be struggling in this economy, I lead a rich life blessed with a great family and amazing friends."

Christine welcomes your comments below.


  1. Wow! I sure hope I get a letter like that someday from my kids. What a beautiful thing you have done for your parents to commemorate their 50 years of marriage. They are so blessed to have you as their daughter, and it's obvious you were blessed to be their child, as well.

    Over the years, I've composed many letters, cards and poems for my parents, too. I know they cherish those thoughts from the heart more than any other gifts they received -- in fact, my parents have saved every one of them, and my mom (dad passed away in 2004) still brings them out to read every so often, while others are hanging framed on the walls.

    Thanks so much for sharing your special letter with all of us. So far, it has been the highlight of my week, just to have had the privilege to read it.

  2. Again, beautiful.
    I would love to receive a gift like that from my son, also.