Dearest Rachel –
This past week, when the girls were over for our every other Friday get together, Ellen and I were together in the kitchen, talking about old times. She is the one person I can talk to when I want to reminisce about you, as her memory is stronger than mine, and goes back far further. Even the other day, when the entire family had Sunday dinner at the folks’ house for the first time in what seemed like forever, on the anniversary of your homegoing, the topic somehow moved past you to the days when Dad began his sales operations, and the characters he traded with as dealers. They were colorful stories, don’t get me wrong, but they had nothing to do with you. Then again, maybe the point was to get my mind off of the fact that you weren’t there, in which case it was a reasonable success.
In any case, the two of us were talking in the kitchen, and the subject came up about how low your family’s expectations of us seemed to be all the time. I’ve said more than once that if I didn’t find it so funny as to how little faith they put in us, I would be rather offended. Maybe I keep saying that in order to convince myself that I’m not offended by it, but I do admit to finding it funny. The idea that ours was a ‘starter marriage,’ the fact that they were surprised that we paid off our mortgage consistently every month… Those aren’t the sort of things that I expected to not be trusted with, and yet, that was our life as your parents saw us. At least this way, I said to her, they were pleased by the results.
Well, not necessarily. It turns out that, after we said our “I do”s and drove off to our new home together, those of the Macomb contingent met for an after-wedding get together. This is something I never heard, and I expect that I will never told you either, but apparently your mom said something to the effect of “I didn’t spend $30,000 for her to go to college and become a housewife.”
I wonder if I’m allowed to get offended by that now.
No matter what you ultimately were to do with your education and degree, it’s not like your mom would’ve seen the return on her investment personally. If it resulted in a prosperous and successful life, it’s not like it would’ve put any more into her pocket, or investment accounts; and it wasn’t as if your folks needed more there, in any event.
To be sure, a bachelors degree in computer science just as the ’90s were beginning was a singular case of poor timing. Either you had to go into the workforce immediately, or get that much more education, because the things you learned were about to get obsolete in a hurry. We were still dealing with Windows 1.0 when I left college; never mind the Internet. Either you had to get in on the ground floor, or you weren’t going to get in on it at all. And the middle of flyover country wasn’t the best place to find the ground floor for all that. I don’t know if your mom expected you to fly out to get a job in Renton, Washington, or what, but I guess she was disappointed that you weren’t putting that degree to work somehow.
It’s not like everybody gets a job – let alone a career – in the occupation they studied for. Actually, that’s part of the problem these days – there’s really no call for gender study majors in the workforce, and all the money spent on getting your precious progeny such a degree is just poured down the drain like so much curdled milk – which, frankly, is a fair approximation of the personality of many of those graduates, once they step out into the real world clutching their useless sheepskin that they think entitles them to lifetime employment. For all the good it does them, they might as well use it as a chamois to dry off their car – assuming they can afford one.
Okay, that’s enough about university students for now; we’ll get back to that later. I will submit that sometimes the benefits of one’s life choices have little (or even negative) financial impact, but bring effects to bear in other ways, ways that might be so much more important, except that, since they can’t be quantified, their importance cannot be appropriately measured.
For all the frugality of your parents, for instance, they had the wisdom to know that sending you to Western Illinois would have been a bad idea. Sure, the cost would have been considerably cheaper – be it from being a state school (as opposed to a private university), to all the savings on room and board (from being in your home town), and most likely the discount they would have gotten on tuition from both of them being professors there – but they had the foresight to know that you would never leave the nest were you not forced out. And so they insisted you go to university elsewhere, costs be hanged (not as though it mattered – you’d told me about how the filled out the FFA forms requesting aid, and politely got laughed out of the room).
You acknowledged that (despite my initial assessment of you as relatively timid and mousey – I suppose that, in comparison to the likes of say, your roommate Elizabeth, anyone would appear such) their conclusion was correct. After all, it wasn’t as if you were interested in any of the trappings of a ‘normal’ life as defined by society – you might have, like Ellen, just sort of assumed it would eventually happen that you would find someone, fall in love and set up housekeeping together one day, for one thing – but you weren’t in any hurry to pursue any of it; if it happened, it happened, and if not, you would have considered it no great loss, as you hadn’t experienced it previously, and had no knowledge of what you were missing out on. So, if your mom was upset about forking over X amount of money on an MRS. degree, she should have at least taken solace in the fact that it wasn’t your intent in the first place any more than it was hers. Even less so, perhaps, as she’d been the one to push you to the school you ultimately went to (and where you met me) in order to make sure that you socialized. And that aspect of her plan – at least, from her perspective, apparently – went horribly right.
Indeed, it went so much more right than she could ever have imagined. You described yourself in middle school and high school as being something of a social misfit; no wonder you gravitated toward me, or vice versa, for that matter. But once you came up to Chicago with me, and found yourself a home at church and in the community, you made friends with people who needed somebody like you. I would often console myself, in my worst days at work, that if there was nothing else I did right in my life, it was to bring you up here where you could blossom, and bring light and joy to people who needed it.
Who you were to those people, both young and old, could not be measured in dollar terms. But you were like Fred Holloway, who the spirit of Christmas Present described as having ‘put aside more than money.’ That thirty thousand may have been wasted in Jo’s eyes, but how do you quantify the souls you touched in your life up here that would not have benefited were you to stay in Macomb, or gone to work in your chosen profession elsewhere?
Speaking of Macomb, I sometimes feel guilty about not supporting your old church down there. However, I think they made a mistake in their own ‘investments.’ Churches in college towns have the potential to be incredible mission fields, if they would only see it. The problem is that, more often than not, the ‘townies’ don’t see the ‘collegiates’ as being able to aid them in their cause. The students going to the local universities are poor, relatively speaking and, soon enough, they will graduate and move on to wherever their degrees and jobs take them. Almost by definition, they bring no long-term gain to the church in the college town. So why should the local college town church invest in them (and it does take an investment, in both money and time), when there’s no percentage in it for them?
So it was with the church you once called home. There was a time when they seemed to encourage students to attend and participate. But somewhere along the line, possibly when the church tried to move out and expand, that they decided to find a location on the outskirts of town – literally on the opposite side of town as the campus. They left behind the students, who in this day and age are desperately in need of spiritual guidance, considering the anti-theistic bent of secular academia. Theirs is a church for the ‘townies,’ and I suppose the ‘townies’ are welcome to it. They didn’t want to invest in souls that would be of no profit to them, and in so doing, I dare say their spiritual ledger has a larger amount of red ink than they know. They might have had an impact that would extend so far beyond the borders of your hometown, a revival that could have been carried by each student set afire by their instruction as they graduated and took the faith bestowed upon them by your old church to wherever they went – had your church considered the possibilities inherent in their unique position as a university church.
But that’s what comes of not considering the spiritual in one’s ledger; and I say that as one who puts together ledgers for a profession.
It’s possible that I may be too harsh on your old church; it takes a special kind of vision to see a return on investment when it doesn’t involve money. I’m sure I’m being harsh on your mom – if she thought your getting married right out of college was a waste of money, what would she think when she found you up there only two years after her passing? Would she have considered that a waste of your life? Or would she still have the faith of a child that she did in her last few years, and be accepting of what impact you did make in the short amount of time allotted to you?
Because those returns continue to pay dividends even to this day, and I expect in generations to come.