My Father-in-law Just Turned 102. Here's What He's Teaching Me.

D.R. McElroy

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He's a member of the dwindling "Greatest Generation", born at the end of "the war to end all wars" and reaching maturity just in time to serve his country in the next even bigger war. My father-in-law is a contemporary of my grandparents, who have all predeceased him, yet he continues.

I call him "Dad". I never felt right calling him by his first name, a result, perhaps, of a genteel upbringing--or perhaps because he is so much older than me. Still, he seems okay with it, which is good because I would have a hard time changing my ways after 35 years of being his daughter-in-law.

Dad still carries shrapnel in his hip from his service as a tail gunner in the Pacific Theater. He survived his B-17 being shot down over Rangoon (now Yangon), and was honorably discharged due to his wounds. He received the Purple Heart. Nowadays, he has a tough time getting around despite having a hip replacement, and he's quite hard of hearing. But his mind is still sharp, and every time I visit with him he teaches me something.

I knew before my marriage that my husband's father was a teacher; he taught history and film and TV production at the local high school for 35 years before retiring. I was awestruck that this man had been able to not only put up with thousands of teenagers for that many years but that he had also managed to gain their respect and teach them something at the same time.

The first thing Dad taught me was how to make coffee. Lest you think this sexist, let me tell you this skill is one that I have used over 10,000 times since then and I'm extremely grateful for! Over the years, he's taught me everything from how to run a garage sale to how to make divinity candy. I'm better at the former than the latter.

Most recently, Dad taught me his family history. I treasure the stories of aunts, uncles, and grandparents back several generations and how they came to this country and made the most of its opportunities. There were no handouts or government giveaways then; people brought whatever they could carry with them and made lives for themselves and their families from the available resources.

They hunted to put food on the table, not trophies on a wall. They worked from the first light of dawn to the last glimmer of sunset performing all the chores required for survival, including making their own clothes and growing enough food to have a crop left over to sell. Some worked in factories and some in construction. But everyone worked hard.

This history, I believe, is Dad's greatest gift of learning. The stories aren't written down anywhere and once his generation is gone, most of the stories will vanish with them. Only the tiniest fraction of the lives of ordinary people is ever recorded for posterity; excess weight is given to those with the greatest wealth and influence--a common fault in all of mankind's historical record.

Since I've become a full-time writer I've become fascinated with the lives of our ancestors--not the great tides and cultures of history but the everyday lives of those who typically go unnoticed: craftsmen, teachers, tinkerers, farmers, soldiers, grocers, and others whose little lives are often overlooked in the grand scheme of time. My people. Our people. I won't let those stories die.

I'm grateful for my father-in-law: for his long life that has allowed to me learn so much from him, for his clear memory and gift for teaching that has equipped him to pass on what he has seen and done over the last 100 years, and most of all for his patience and forbearance from shaming or embarrassing me due to my lack of knowledge. That is a gift that is in far too short supply today.

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D.R. McElroy is a published author, writer, and copy editor with 15 years professional experience. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture and a Masters in Environmental Resources. A conservationist, naturalist, and environmental advocate, she spends her time writing nonfiction articles on a variety of topics, as well as writing books on contract for publishers. D.R. wants to build a community of people who love nature and wildlife as much as she does, and who want to help protect our resources for public use.


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