“I don’t know how to put this,” my friend said on the phone.
“Just say it, whatever it is. It’s okay,” I told her.
“Dad died yesterday.”
There really is no other way to share such news. We have been friends since junior high school, though in a small community we’ve known each other much longer. In a small town you are friends with the kids who are there, for no other reason than that they are there. If you get picky about who your friends are you have none. As adults we have even less in common than we did 30 years ago, but there is something more than mere coincidence and habit beneath our friendship now.
Two days later I found myself hustling out the door in the middle of morning rush hour so I could get to our childhood village in time for the burial service. My presence seemed undeserving at the private ceremony in the cool, grey mist wafting past the fresh cut grass of the isolated cemetery. I never worked for my friend’s family, and I never knew her extended family much at all. Two of our friends arrived just before the start of the ceremony. As brothers, they knew my friend’s whole family intimately from their younger years when she used to walk to their house on almost a daily basis to play and to have dinner with them.
My friend’s father had been a well-respected business and civic leader since I can remember. The family’s commitment to community stewardship through business was especially evident through her father’s leadership in the local Chamber of Commerce and Rotary chapters, and her mother’s community service activities. To this day my own father, a minor civic leader himself when I was young, holds great admiration for my friend’s parents, as well as her grandparents. When I shared the news with my dad it was clear his respect for the family flowed to my friend as well.
For different reasons and circumstances all three of my friends have returned to live in our small river town. I’ve sworn I’ll never go back, though I’ve heard never is a long time. I suspect all three of them swore they would never return. Spending a day in the adult lives of a child’s world gave me pause to contemplate the professional identities we assume and our personal mission and vision that helps us form our identity.
My friend heralds from a long line of merchants and entrepreneurs, even before her grandparents migrated to the U.S. Her parents were raised in our small community, which must have been downright claustrophobic feeling more than a whole generation before we came along. My friend’s grandparents opened a business – a diner, a gathering place – that her parents continued to operate until recent years. During that time her father invested in improvements in the commercial property and businesses in the tiny downtown core. Many people in town recognize my friend’s father as a visionary entrepreneur who lead the way in rebuilding our withering timber community into a destination town. He created jobs and attracted revenue, and his efforts re-captured the hospitality industry that brought guests to the river a hundred years ago.
It was my friend’s legacy to continue the tradition and take over management of the family businesses after her father’s death. I’m not sure she had much choice in the matter when she moved back to our childhood community a decade or so ago to begin managing parts of the family enterprise. At the private burial service it was clear that a lot of folks in town rely on the family’s stewardship of the community.
My friend’s family and their business investments represent a source of stability in what was a working class community not so long ago. Moreover, my friend and her family represent a source of pride for community members. Her family believed in the community when the future was looking grim, and cared enough to take a risk on it. While they are not the largest or most well-paying employer in town (one of the nearby mills is still operating among other small industries) my friend’s family has become so interdependent with the fabric of the community socially and symbolically I wonder if it would even be possible for her to disentangle herself from the roles her parents and grandparents prepared for her?
I believe that through education anyone can find the tools and resources to change their circumstances and find a way to live their dreams. Since the funeral I’ve realized that sometimes that does not mean education as a way to find a dream, or find the knowledge and wherewithal to live a dream, but rather to find a way to mesh one’s own dreams with the needs of those we love the most.
At dinner after the burial service my friend’s commitment to her family and to the community revealed itself in a bit of frustration. In that moment, in a funky cafe conjuring what’s to come over a Northwest-style quesadilla (use your imagination) I saw her father’s vision. His vision was so dramatic forty years ago and he’d nurtured it to fruition. Reaching over the table to pick at my friend’s salad (she offered!), the struggle to honor her father’s vision, while introducing her own emerging vision, and maintaining accountability to the family employees converged in her furrowed brow and exaggerated enthusiasm for her new leadership role. It is a huge load to carry.
My friend will bring the world to her community, not to be a profiteer, and not to trump her father’s vision, but to enrich the community. Of course the community will benefit, as it did so much from her father’s vision, and in new ways as well through her own leadership. The world, too, will be a better place when more of it is more well known in that small corner of itself.
Unlike my friend, I come from a smattering of this and that in my lineage – a baker, a teacher, a painter, a homesteader, a chicken farmer, an engineer, a timber worker, maybe even an admiral for the Queen, along with a long line of mothers. My muddy roots give me freedom to invent my own vision from scratch. My homage to my ancestry requires that I dream really big, for a better life, and for independence. My links to community are where I choose to make them. Even with this freedom, my friend reminds me that my personal vision is only worthwhile if it integrates the needs and vision of the people around me.