That a child will never know the extent of his parents’ influence is obvious. And who’s to say whether the unspoken lessons aren’t more lasting than the spoken?
Monday at dinner, the kids asked for Darryl Wilson stories. They had heard of this cognitively impaired semi-hermitic neighbor of my adolescence from grandma, grandpa, and tía Carolyn, and were hungry for more. How did you first meet him? (Trick or treating, though Darryl didn’t realize it was Halloween until dad and 10-year-old Carolyn enlightened him). Did Darryl have candy for Carolyn (yes; but it had expired in 1987). When did you see Darryl outdoors? (only during the spring when he was re-painting his white fence). What did Darryl eat at home? (only oatmeal and potatoes). What did he eat when you took him to a buffet? (everything in sight). Where did he use the bathroom? (an outhouse, even in the mid-1990s).
From B (age 5) to I (age 13) the kids were full of Monday dinner wonder. They delighted as I recited the greeting cards Darryl sent for every holiday on the calendar:
“To 100% neighbors the Stipps
From your 100% neighbor Darryl Wilson”
Happy Valentine’s Day to my 100% neighbors, the Stipps
Rev. Michael Stipp, 100% neighbor
Darryl Wilson 100% neighbor
“Can we go see his house?” asked R (age 6). And though I assumed it was demolished, I said yes. We’ll go tomorrow. Anyone who wants can leave after morning chores.
So off went to Danville, in search of adventure. On a Tuesday.
We approached the East side of town on this just-right June day, and I was both host and guest of the tour. I managed the remembrances that come unbidden whenever one returns to an old home, while answering questions from the back of the van. We drove slowly down South Kansas Avenue, past the VA cemetery, and took the curve West. While the kids peered out the passenger side windows for any traces of Darryl’s house, I was awestruck by our old street.
The road is beautiful. In a state where flatness begat large-scale farming, which begat hurried people, who begat almost everyone I know, South Kansas Avenue is a holy portal. You follow the road’s contour, and you leave post-industrial Danville, with small houses where factory workers once dwelled, and enter rolling farm country. A canopy made by the trees slows you. The large thick vines that hang alongside many of the trees, together with the slope of the hill (first shallow, then steep) are positively un-Illinoisan. While the kids looked for Darryl’s place, I remembered the first time I drove on my own, up the hill and to Danville High. I remembered driving home on fall days with the weight of teenage stress, and slowing the car to a halt, to take in the multi-colored beauty of the leaves above. I remembered the pleasure of realizing that the snow plows might not get down the hill for awhile, keeping everyone home a little longer.
“Darryl’s house was juuuuust up here on the right,” I told the kids. But there was no house to be seen. There was a clearing where only saplings grew within the forest of trees 10 times their age, but no house. May the memory of Darryl Wilson and his place be 100% eternal.
Here’s a quick vignette, the specifics of which I’m skimming over intentionally, but which is important for this story’s point. Last winter, shortly after MG was born, we went as a family to an unknown place: a gathering we had read about online and decided to attend despite not knowing anyone there. As we approached the entrance of this gathering, I noticed tentativeness and apprehension across the brood. I huddled the kids up, and told them that we would go in with “adventure in our hearts.” They heeded my advice, and we made a fun and memorable day of it. I assumed then that the phrase “adventure in our hearts” was my stroke of think-on-your-feet fatherly genius, and nothing more. “Where does he come up with these things?” I imagined my wife saying to herself.
Back to Tuesday. After looking out into Darryl’s Vacancy, we descended the rest of the hill to look at our house, still standing in front of a creek on six acres, quaint as America can be.
And I remembered the sacrifice it took for my parents to make this home ours. A year or so before, my dad had to renegotiate his contract to free up money for housing. Mom and dad made an embarrassingly low-ball offer, and waited out the owners until they accepted. We bought the place just 2 weeks before its well stopped working, and we had well problems the whole time we live there. (As dad would say here, it’s a deep subject. Har har). When my parents moved away from Danville, they could not sell the house, and maintained two mortgages for years.
The place we all loved came at a steep price. I’ve always been thankful for that house: for South Kansas Avenue on the outskirts of Danville, Illinois, and its out-of-nowhere beauty. But today, at age 38, with a handful of kids of my own, I’m cognizant of what it cost.
I’m aware of other things I learned from that place, too. My parents never needed to tell me that you make sacrifices for your kids, even if those sacrifices set you back for years. They never needed to say that beauty matters. They lived these realities. They never needed to tell me that when you meet the Darryl Wilsons of the world, you slow down. And when my dad and Carolyn came home on October 31, 1995 with Darryl’s “treat” of decade-old candy in Carolyn’s plastic pumpkin, they probably didn’t realize that the adventure they both had in their hearts would someday be my kids’.