published Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011

Roberts: A family tradition to keep


by Dalton Roberts

I recently learned the great lesson that some family rituals are too beautiful and meaningful to let them perish.

My son has done so well in the oil business that I cannot think of anything to buy him for his birthday. He needs nothing that I could buy, and yet we do want to give something to those we love on their birthdays. So the idea came to revive an old practice of my mother's: to write a birthday letter on someone's birthday.

Everyone in our family looked forward to receiving one of mother's birthday letters. She was a masterful letter writer. All of her life she felt that writing letters was one of her life ministries, and she treated the responsibility with great reverence. It was much more than a responsibility -- it was a labor of love.

Admittedly, when I was quite young I didn't properly value her letters. "Just another chance for mother to preach to me," I may have thought. I had not lived long enough to realize how precious it can be to have words from your mother, even if they were in the form of a sermonette. When mothers "preach" to us, they are digging up concerns and insights from their deepest hearts. As we grow and mature, we come to value all words from the loving heart of a mother.

Truth is, her letters were much more than preaching. She often wrote some funny thoughts, or family stories, or included a poem she had written. I've read a lot of poetry, so I feel qualified to say she was an excellent poet in the Edgar Guest or even the Walt Whitman traditions.

Everywhere I went in life, her birthday letters came. When I went off to college, they were there in my little college post-office box. When I worked in Charleston, W.Va., or Nashville or Boone, Iowa, they followed me like good-luck charms.

Then mother died. She was struck by pancreatic cancer, and lived only 16 days from the time it was diagnosed. I was praying so hard for her release from the pain that I could not cry when she died.

One year later, I went by the post office to pick up my mail around 2:30 in the afternoon, then to Po Folks to eat a late lunch. As I organized my mail on the table before my meal, the thought came, "You will never receive another birthday letter from your mother." All the repressed pain erupted from the deepest caverns of my soul, and I began to sob so loudly, I just quickly grabbed up my stuff and almost ran from the restaurant.

So as I thought about what to give my son for his birthday, I recalled how deeply I treasured my birthday letters from mother. So I wrote him a long letter telling him how much I thank God for giving me a son like him. In all the pains, stresses, failures and hard times of my life, he and his kind ways have been a reliable source of comfort and pride to me.

The rest of my life I will continue to carry on mother's "birthday letter" tradition with those I love and cherish. It's not every day that you can get a gift directly from someone's heart.

Email Dalton Roberts at DownhomeP@aol.com.

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