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Properly Honored Memories

From the 1989 movie, Field of Dreams

Elderly Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham is asked what he would wish for if given the opportunity to live again. He says: “You know, we just don't recognize the most significant moments of our lives while they're happening. Back then I thought [when he played in the Major Leagues for only one day but never got up to bat], well, there'll be other days. I didn't realize that that was to be the only day.”

Through the magic of the field of dreams, his youth is restored and he is a rookie again, until the medical services of his adulthood are needed. After saving a little girl’s life, "Moonlight" Graham walks off the field for the last time, knowing he cannot switch from doctor to ball player and has again spent only one day in the majors, although this time he did get to bat. Shoeless Joe Jackson knows his pain and how hard it is for him to leave. “ Hey rookie!” he yells. Moonlight stops to look at him and Jackson continues, “You were good.” Graham smiles, looks to heaven and nods, then walks slowly, disappearing into the cornfield.

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I’m a “stick-arounder” by birth.

My dad worked for Ford Motor Company for 42 years. His father worked for Alcoa Steel for 33 years. My mom’s dad worked as an ice/coal/milkman for more than 25 years until those trades were surrendered to automation. Then, he spent 35 years cutting hair. (Even decades after his becoming a barber, men would call the shop for an appointment and still ask for “Pat the Milkman.” I remember he loved that, being remembered for what he once did as well as for what he now did.)

So, it’s no big surprise that I’ve been working for the Cleveland Metroparks since 1985. What is surprising is that because of my “stick-around” quality, many of my contemporaries have moved on, leaving me with a network of friends, a generation older, which is a unique position.

You see, I get to be the guy that stands on the dock, waving goodbye while one ship after another called retirement sails out to sea.

Saying Goodbye

When people depart, we always seem to say the same things--“Oh, I’m sure you’ll be back to visit” or “Now we can get together for some fun instead of just work.”

Most of the time that never happens. It may be comforting for both parties, lessening the impact of the severance, but times change, people move on, priorities shift and, suddenly, the best intentions lose pace with the current needs of the day.

Some of these retired folks have wandered back into the office over the years. They may be passing through, stopping at one of the administration cubicles to complete paperwork or for some other reason, but they all seem to have a common denominator--a searching look in their eyes. They appear to have some unsettled business, and in its simplest form, I read it like this: “Did I once matter? Did my work stand for something? Or was I just marking time?”

As I grew more accustomed to this retirement cycle, I found myself anticipating their emotions and always tried to offer a supportive comment: “Hey, have you met the guy that replaced you? He’s a pretty good guy, knows he’s got big shoes to fill, but he’s trying to maintain all the success you had.”

This always brought about a smile, made even more positive because it was usually true. Any new person replacing a seasoned veteran does have big shoes to fill. Mentioning it to the newly departed is simply an acknowledgement of a fact, and it makes people feel good.

Lessons Learned

I didn’t really learn this lesson until I happened by the nursing home where my wife’s grandmother was living (she was 92). I walked into the cafeteria to find her surrounded by a few of her friends, laughing and talking about old times.

I kissed her and sat there among the group, clearly an outsider. I was only passing through for a quick visit, so I made my excuse to leave in a rush.

“Well, Gram, I just wanted to stop by and see how you are. I have to get back to the office, wrap up an appointment, and then pick Sam up from school to get him to soccer practice. After that, we’ll hook up with Cindy and grab dinner before we meet the rest of the kids at the beach. I tell you, this life is crazy.”

I looked around the table and immediately felt guilty. Envious looks from the senior crowd spoke volumes. They were saying, “What I wouldn’t give for your problems, kid.”

These long-retired people would finish their meal, then wander down the hall to their beds, watch some TV, and hope that they woke up in the morning (in some cases, maybe hope they didn’t), and here I was beefing about the “drain and strain” of life.

I learned a lot that day.

We Need To Know We Matter

Because of that day, I developed a simple philosophy (and like most of my conclusions, it is just a restatement of the obvious): “Every human needs to know he/she once mattered.”

Whether retiring, moving on to another job or watching a child leave home, that newly severed person needs to hear that if that contribution of the past makes tomorrow better for just one person, then their whole life has meaning.

So take the time.

Take the moment and speak the extra words that make someone’s day. It takes so little to make such a difference.

After that day at the nursing home, I bought one of those multi-picture frames at the drug store, and put a picture of each of Grandma’s great-grandchildren in it. I brought it to the nursing home and talked with her about each kid and reminded her how pivotal she had been in their lives. I reminded her how she used to read to Nicco when he was a toddler. How she helped my daughters with the problems of growing up. How kind and generous she had been through the years. We laughed about the stack of $5 bills she kept in her drawer to give to the kids. She laughed and cried, and it was an endearing moment I’ll never forget.

The frame sat next to her bedside for the rest of her days, and many was the time I would walk in and find her awake in bed, with her head cocked to the side, just staring at the pictures, eyes wet with emotion and memory.

Another good friend retired last week, one who had been here during the problems of the previous administration and who had seen us through to the current and successful administration. As she left the building following the plaque presentation that marked those years, I called to her. “I remember what you did.”

I looked to her husband as she embraced me. “She was the safe harbor for a lot of us when things were really challenging,” I told him. He smiled his appreciation, his throat tight. She looked deep into my eyes, both of us choked back the emotion, and we went on our way--10 seconds of my life handing both of us a lifetime of properly honored memories. Be generous with your heart, my friends. It’s so easy, and it feels so right. The love that it harvests is really the only thing any of us wants.

Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He can be reached via e-mail at rdc@clevelandmetroparks.com

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