Grandpa Tom, father of DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley Hale, hugs a friend
From the Archives

From the Archives: Aren’t We Lucky?

“Aren’t we lucky?”

When I was a kid, it was one of my dad’s favorite phrases to say. When he’d realize that frozen grape juice concentrate was on sale or that my mom had made stir-fry or that the local newspaper was delivered early, he’d smile as though he’d won the lottery. As a young child, I was delighted in how he embraced serendipity, but as I approached the teen years, I thought it was annoying. “Listen! It’s my favorite song on the radio!” he’d say in his characteristic Texas twang, and I’d retort, “Dad, every song is your favorite song.”

He never let my teenage doubts get to him. “Well, then I’m a lucky man!” he’d say, as he clapped to the music in his beat-up car he’d been driving since I was born. That was another thing that embarrassed me—his car. It was four different colors of brown and the floorboards were so thin I feared that any moment they might bust beneath me. I knew we could afford a newer car, but he didn’t get one until I was well into my teen years. “This one works perfectly fine,” he said, even though it sometimes stalled in the intersection in front of the high school, causing me to sink as low as I could into the passenger seat to avoid the stares of onlookers. He blared the music from that car and sang along to every song he knew and cared little about our reactions. Sometimes he’d lean across the front seat, putting a hand on my shoulder as he said, “isn’t it a great day?”

But even though I often rejected it as a teenager, his optimism was contagious. He was delighted to have two healthy children (“with ten fingers and ten toes!”), to live in a tight-knit community and—most importantly—to be married to my mom. He loved telling stories to me and my younger sister Lindsay about any topic that piqued his interest. Maybe he’d read about a famous musician or athlete or just a regular guy who was in the news, and he had spent an hour finding out more about that person. “Can you believe this?” he’d ask us, and we’d nod, knowing that it didn’t really matter what we said back. He was going to share everything he’d just learned about some stranger we didn’t know and didn’t care about. To him, the world held so much wonder, and he was in awe of it.

But, “aren’t we lucky?” wasn’t the only thing that my dad liked to say. He also reminded us that no matter what we wanted, there would be times when life was unfair.  

In fact, it was his other favorite phrase to say to me and Lindsay when we were kids. He delivered that line with a shrug of his shoulders, even if one of us was crying. “Well,” he’d say, with little intonation in his voice, “life is unfair.”

Still, like many children, I often expected the world to be fair, and I was disheartened when it wasn’t. I complained about unfair teachers, unfair coaches, and—later, in high school—unfair bosses at my minimum-wage jobs. “That’s life,” my dad would almost always say. “And life is unfair.”

I hated it. Even as a kid, I thought it was strange that he saw both the possibility in the world as well as the brutality of it.

Though he towered over me at 6’2”, my dad’s slim build made him unimposing and his prematurely gray hair made him look more like my grandfather than my dad. He smiled easily and was prone to telling loud stories that ended with him laughing and slapping his leg. In his job as a small-town doctor in Northwest Oregon, he was a bit more serious, but his humanity shone through. When someone would arrive at our doorstep at dinnertime—a farmer complaining of a farm injury, or a neighbor who was worried about her husband’s heart—he would quietly listen and softly discuss the prognosis. Sometimes people would cry in our living room and I’d watch his face change. His features would soften, and he rubbed his eyes when something was particularly troubling.  

He knew what the world held. He worked every day to help people, but it often wasn’t enough. Why does one person die and the other person live? He didn’t have an answer for that. 

I learned how to act in my community not because my dad always told me what to do, but because he showed me. We went to mass together every week, and though no one arrived until a few minutes before it started, my father always insisted that we be there at least 30 minutes ahead of time. I’d sit there in the empty pew, thumbing through the program and thinking about how dumb it was that we were there so early. If I complained about it, he’d say, “Better early than late!” and then he’d laugh as though it was a funny statement. We had to wait until the end of church to leave, so we could say a greeting to the priest. If I tried to sneak out to “go to the bathroom” my dad would set his hand on my shoulder and say, “Later.” As we fidgeted in line, my dad would joke with my sister and me, always laughing if we expressed annoyance. “What’s so hard?” he’d say with a smile.

Image Credit: Sharyn Peavey.