(First published December 2013. – Original title, “A Precious Gift I Didn’t Know the Cost Of”)
In 1975, when I was thirteen years old, my parents paid for me to attend Interlochen National Music Camp, there among the lakes of Interlochen, Michigan. I was there to study piano with Ms. Peggy Erwin, a famous piano teacher from Coral Gables, FL. I had the summer of my life there, enjoying drawing classes (I drew prodigiously in my youth); attending theater, ballet, opera (which truthfully I did not enjoy at age thirteen), and symphonic concerts; and, of course, studying and practicing the piano. I made friends, saw sights, got exercise, had a sick weekend at the infirmary, attended church, developed unrequited crushes on girls, and brought back a lifetime worth of memories. I also cemented a lifelong of love of classical music, live drama, and the arts in general.
I was there for ten weeks, and didn’t really get homesick until about the eighth week. I wrote very detailed letters home, describing the place and what all we did, letters my mom had until very recently when she gave some of them back to me.
When my father had retired from the Air Force four years before, we had moved into a three bedroom ranch-style house on the opposite end of Florida from where Ms. Erwin lived. The yard that came with that house was odd in that it included an empty lot next door and half of an empty lot behind the house. A year or so after we moved in, my dad went away to school for 10 months, and when he came back, he used the half-lot in the backyard to build a workshop for his new business: custom-building and repair of musical instruments. The empty lot next door he used for a great labor of love — a garden. He grew fresh strawberries, onions, tomatoes, watermelons, and I don’t remember what else in that garden.
That empty lot yard was kind of important for another reason. It contained half of our semi-circular driveway.
When I returned from camp, my parents had sold the lot next door. It was weird because a fence went up and we no longer had a semi-circular driveway: we had a quadrant. Easy to drive in, but clumsy to back out. I thought my dad would miss his garden, but he said it was so much trouble keeping the squirrels out that he was relieved to be rid of the nuisance.
I didn’t think much more about that empty lot; the people who bought it never built anything on it during the remaining years my parents lived in that house – nor has anyone to this day, to my knowledge.
Around 1996, my parents had decided to sell the house and move to Arizona. My whole family gathered there. There was my older sister and her boyfriend (now husband), my older brother, my (now ex-) wife, my 10-year-old stepson, and my 1-year-old son. We were going through boxes of old pictures, and my ex, who was a very inquisitive person, was asking my mother questions about the photos.
“Now where was this taken?”
“That photo — was from the lot next door, back before we sold that. We had a garden there we loved to work in, and that was taken when were getting ready to bring in our first strawberries. They were so good, so fresh.”
“Why did you sell the land?”
“To pay for Interlochen.”
I was stunned.
It had never occurred to me as a child that my parents made financial sacrifices for me or for us. I knew that there were things we wanted we could have, other things we wanted we couldn’t, which seemed par for the course. But it had cost my parents quite a bit to send me to that place, and the eyes of a thirty-four-year-old man saw it very differently than a 13-year-old boy had.
“I never knew,” I told my mom. “I didn’t realize you had to sell land so I could go there.”
My mom laughed a kind of joyous laugh. “You had the best time there. Probably no week of your life went by for the next five years when something wouldn’t remind you of that place. Best money we every spent on you.”
In my teens, I cared a lot about myself and my friends; by my twenties, I carried about very little else, and I blamed my parents for both their shortcomings and mine. I am truly ashamed to think of the way I sometimes spoke to my father; and it saddens me greatly to realize the poor return they got from me for all of the time, love and money they invested.
Still, that summer I spent at Interlochen was one of the great formative experiences of my life. My parents gave up a lot — literally — so I could go. The only thanks they got from me for years were the excited stories I would continue to tell about the place. This made it all worth it to them, something I understand now as a parent.
When you love someone, you don’t do things for them for the thanks; however, it’s the love that gives that’s the most precious gift, even more than the things love gives.
I just wish I’d known that.