What is a promise? It can be a vow, an assurance, an obligation, a guarantee as well as a prediction of behavior. For a child growing up in the 1930s, there were few promises from Dad, for he understood his credibility was at stake, especially in times when the future was unclear. Even though there were few explicit promises made, in retrospect he did make many promises.
“You’ll always have something on your plate, even though it may be beans.” Because of this obligation he worked a variety of jobs and went without many material benefits for himself.
“Get enough fuel on the porch for a three-day blizzard.” This would be a way that his children would learn to plan ahead and prepare for an emergency.
“It is not so much the shame of being poor as the inconvenience.” This resolve of his encouraged us to retain our self-respect, despite our lack of running water, etc.
“Saturdays are to help widows and the church.” There were six boys in our family and when Dad heard of some family in need of a small repair job, he would tell them he would send some of his boys. This also established an informal contract that our family would receive some help if needed.
“Lee, pick up that piece of paper.” If we were walking around town and he spotted some paper on the ground he would repeat this request. I would reply, “But I didn’t throw it down there.” His reply, “But you’ll be the one to pick it up.” This pledge continues to this day: either I pick up the paper or else I feel guilty.
“Remember you are a Smalley.” If I were going somewhere out of town these would be his parting words. This was a responsibility that came slowly as I increasingly realized what the implications were of being a part of a long line of ancestors.
“If you get drafted, don’t come back here.” Dad was a great patriot, enlisting in the armed services during World War I and World War II. He claimed no Smalley had ever been drafted and five of his six sons enlisted. What a vow to contribute to the security of America.
“You can salt his oats and then you can’t keep him from the trough.” An old proverb says, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink, however you can make him wish he had. Dad’s attitude would resonate throughout my 42 years of teaching — leading students to the trough of knowledge.
And so, in uncertain economic times, Dad did not make promises he might not be able to fulfill. He did not promise me a new car, a college education, a good job or a new suit; rather he lived a life that provided a model for his children to help the communities in which they lived, from Seattle to Boston. Thus, it was up to us, as it should be, to fulfill Dad’s promises.