This is the last photo ever taken of my mom and dad together. It was taken in May 1985 at my first ad agency’s tenth anniversary party. He suffered a heart attack a week later. “I think he was very sick before the heart attack,” my mom said after his death, “but he held on just long enough to go to your party.”
And that somehow leads us to today.
Jamie asked me what I’d like for Christmas. I gave her the same answer I always give when asked that question. “There’s nothing I want, nothing I need. I have everything I could possibly want in life.”
In other words, I have a lot to give thanks for. A lot to be grateful for. I may not have accumulated as much as some other people, but I have more than most.
Back in the late 1930s, my dad and a bunch of his Dutch pals migrated from frigid northwest Montana to sunny Southern California. They began their adult lives milking cows for other dairy farmers, but each of them fanatically saved every penny of their truly hard-earned wages, and they all eventually started their own dairies.
Milking cows is hard, dirty work and no one ever got rich from doing it. Nevertheless, all those Dutch dairy farmers — all except my dad, that is — became extremely wealthy.
How, you may ask. Well, dairies require land, a commodity that was cheap and plentiful in California in the 1940s, so the others bought as much of it as they could afford in hopes that they could use the meager profit they made from milking a small number of cows to buy more cows and sell more milk and then buy more land, ad infintum. I doubt that any of them were economically-savvy enough to anticipate how California’s post-World War II population would boom nor how that boom would impact the value of their land. Much to their surprise, sprawling suburbs soon began encroaching on the dairy properties that once sat in the middle of nowhere. Before long they all became land rich even if they were cash poor. (One of them just happened to begin his dairy a few blocks from a small Southern California amusement park called Knotts Berry Farm. The park grew and expanded and every time he wanted a chunk of cash he sold a couple more acres to the Knott family.)
“I never wanted more than I could handle by myself,” my dad always said. So instead of buying hundreds of acres as his buddies did, he bought twenty. Instead of acquiring thousands of cows, he slowly built his herd from six to one hundred. Instead of hiring dozens of workers to milk cows around the clock, he worked from 4:00 in the morning until 8:00 at night to do all the milking himself.
All of his Dutch dairy farmer buddies were baffled by his attitude. Twenty years later they were still poking fun at him the way guy friends do. “You’re still driving a Buick, Bill, but we’re all driving Cadillacs.” And a decade later, “You’re still driving a Cadillac, Bill, but we’re all driving Mercedes Benz.”
“Maybe so,” he’d chuckle, ”but everything I own is paid for.”
After they left, I’d look at him and ask, “Don’t you want to be rich like Jake and Hank and Sam?” and he’d respond by saying, “There’s nothing wrong with wanting more, but you should always be happy with what you have.”
I cannot tell you how many times my mom or dad uttered those words. And even more importantly, I cannot begin to estimate how many times they demonstrated that philosophy in their everyday lives. Hearing it called a philosophy probably would have boggled their minds because to them it was just a way to get through life happily.
My first business partner, the guy who founded the ad agency mentioned above, had the opposite point of view. He lived as if he were rich even though he wasn’t. From Monday to Friday he’d tell me, “You are the cheapest man alive.” Then, when I visited my parents on the weekend, my dad would say, “God damn, you just piss your money away.”
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve given my parents many silent thanks for pounding their remarkably sensible philosophy into my brain. I’ve tried to follow their example and that, I think, is what makes me such a lucky man. I’m just plain happy with what I have. And why shouldn’t I be? I have the best wife in the world. The sweetest little dog in the world. Great friends. Great neighbors. Five wonderful god children. And I was lucky enough to be born in the best time and the best place in the history of the world.
Happy Thanksgiving, indeed.