As we witness what appears to be the demise of civility and the collapse of one of history’s most advanced societies, it is perhaps time to reflect on what has value in this life. For me this has been constant in my mind and heart since my return to Ukraine from Canada in April 2006.
During my short visit home there were many personal things with which needed attention relative to my dad’s death. We had said our goodbyes when I moved to Ukraine in March of 2005 and both of us knew that there was the possibility that we might not see each other again; at least in this life. I knew how fragile he was during the last months of his life, but I also understood his independent nature and that his strong conviction towards our independence eclipsed any need that he had for closeness. He had resisted any suggestion of my return, always saying that he would be in his chair waiting upon my scheduled arrival home. I remind my son all the time that distance is only felt in the mind never in the heart – for hearts once connected have no time, no space or distance – they are always close.
My dad had lived to a wonderful age and his desire to live validated his enjoyment of life. He had raised two families, enjoyed travel, had much by the way of material things and some measure of financial wealth after a lifetime of struggle. So when Marie, my step mom, who loved and cherished my dad, presented me with a little tin box with my dad’s most precious possessions, my sense of what’s important took on a whole new meaning.
Here in front of me was the legacy of 86 years all contained in a little black and gold box that was at least 50 years old. Inside were a few pictures from the war including one of a little girl from Italy, some memorial coins from Britain, a Christmas greeting to his mom written during the war and not much else. I was stunned with its simplicity and immediately knew its value – beyond fiscal or physical wealth – here were the things my dad held dear to his heart.
One can speculate the importance of these mementoes, but only my dad truly knew. Perhaps they are the memories of the days of his youth, mostly spent at war. Maybe the pictures were reminders of the tragedies he faced, the loss of buddies during those war years and later. Conceivably they were reminders of his humble beginnings and his early adjustment years upon his return to Newfoundland after the war and building a life and raising a family under very arduous conditions. What is most certain, is that these possessions including the well worn tin box had great significance to him.
The reappearance of this box, which had been around as long as my memory allows, has caused me much contemplation this year. It has set in my mind a theme of thought of what truly has value in our lives. My young friend Ingo during my recent visit to Germany asked me – Bill what will be in your little tin box. Of course, like most today, I have a warehouse full of stuff in storage and enough material things around me to fill another.
This theme was also amplified for me on a Sunday visit to my young colleague Natalie’s village in western Ukraine to help celebrate Turya Remeta’s 555th anniversary. I wasn’t sure what to expect and arrived to see people setting up booths and stalls as would happen anywhere. The difference being that most, except for a few commercial stalls selling food and drink, were by local people sharing their crafts, cooking and baking. Nothing was for sale it was just shared, I was treated to the delights of local food and Ukrainian cognac as well as a display of music, dance, costumes and so many talented children performing. My emotions told me that this was a special moment in time, as they were right at the surface and during many moments even overflowed in tears.
I contemplated the feeling that I experienced on my way home and for days afterwards and came to the conclusion this was just an extension of my wonder at my dad’s little tin box and what is truly of value. Here I was in a community which had been written in local records the year before Columbus discovered America – it existed perhaps long before that. During those years it had experienced untold tragedy, occupation by other countries and empires, fiscal benefits to many and so many different changes that the mind can only boggle. But after so many years they were celebrating the most simple of things; local talent, traditional food, their heritage all wrapped around communal sharing and a focus on children. Underlying all this was an undercurrent of emotions that were not mine alone but extended from their hearts as they welcomed each other and their guests to come and share. This is the richness that I experience here in my work and in my travels through so many towns and villages – a reflection of my past, my younger years in Newfoundland and nostalgia for a way of life that is rapidly disappearing as we worship the god of materialism and political control and forget the power of love.
We live in a world where values have been converted to economy and importance relegated to wealth – there is the belief is that materialism and wealth are synonymous. The reality, I believe, is something different.
The things that are important in this world will not be found in fiscal wealth, power or self-importance but rather will be similar to those things my dad had coveted for years in his little tin box. The real valuable things will be the fondness of memories, the lessons that life taught and the kindnesses that we shared.
Excerpt from 2006 Christmas message