Dear Zoey and Willow:

I realize that you are both too young at the moment to understand most of what I’m about to tell you. Zoey, after all, won’t celebrate her fifth birthday until late October - and Willow is only a couple of months old now as I write this. (Roughly the same age that your Uncle Josh was when we moved here from Illinois all those years ago, now that I think about it.)

Even so, it occurred to me the other day that now was the right time to write this letter to you - and that I’d better write while it was on my mind, because you never know what might happen tomorrow and I don’t want to take a chance on leaving anything unsaid.

Because it just so happens that today - Thursday, June 1, 2023 - is my 60th birthday.  And while the completion of another full revolution around Ol’ Sol is always cause for a certain degree of both celebration and contemplation, especially once a person realizes there are more such revolutions behind him than are still ahead of him, this particular natal day brings with it a greater sense of… I don’t know, gravitas I suppose… than the 59 that came before it.

That‘s because my own maternal grandfather, Elmer Leslie Tipps - former Tishomingo resident, decorated World War II veteran and, after my own father, the finest man I ever knew - died in 1981 a mere four days after his own 60th birthday. 

And while I’ve never been particularly fatalistic, or put much stock in such things as predestination, I’ll admit that it is difficult now to look back on that dark day that occurred not long after I’d graduated from high school without feeling the slightest twinge of trepidation.

I suppose that’s why I am sitting here at the moment, hunkered over my keyboard and struggling to work these thoughts swirling around in my head into words that will be reasonably coherent enough for you to understand when you’re both a little older. 

But despite a lifetime of experience devoted to such endeavors, and the good fortune to have been publicly recognized for those efforts by my peers from time to time, I suddenly find myself consumed by the fear that my abilities will prove woefully inadequate where this letter to you - quite possibly the single most important thing I’ll ever write during my lifetime, I can’t help thinking - is concerned.

So bear with me, girls, while Grandpa tries to find the right words…

For starters, it occurs to me that perhaps I owe you both an apology - not just the two of you, but your entire generation. You see, one of the lessons your father’s grandparents worked so hard to instill in me as I was growing up was the notion that we should live our lives in such a way that we leave the world a little better than it was when we came into it. 

A noble enough goal, to be sure - offhand I can think of none more noble - and when I was a youngster I was idealistic enough to believe it to be possible. 

Or, perhaps more correctly, naïve enough. It’s hard to be certain after all these years. 

Certainly there’s ample evidence to support the latter… to suggest that the sense of optimism that my parents instilled in me as a lad may have been at best just wishful thinking - and, at worst, an absolute canard foisted upon each new generation by an older generation that finds itself collectively unable, or unwilling, to accept the truth.

After all, I had only been on the planet a mere five months, three weeks, and one day when Walter Cronkite interrupted As The World Turns with that initial report: “In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy’s motorcade. The first reports say that the President was ‘seriously wounded…’”

Just like that, the Children of the New Frontier had lost their Pathfinder and a shadow fell across the land as the optimism he had worked to engender found itself under attack by a seemingly endless series of crises: the death of a good black man in Memphis, and of a good white man - the Pathfinder’s own brother - in Los Angeles;  violence and bloodshed, not just in the jungles of Vietnam but also in the streets of Watts and Chicago and the campus of Kent State; Watergate, Iran, AIDS… it never seemed to end.

Somehow - even through the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11 - I refused to believe that my overall sense of optimism had been misplaced. But, much as I hate to admit it, that refusal has wavered at times as I’ve grown older.  

I guess that’s to be expected, though, in a world where we can’t seem to get through a single broadcast of the evening news without hearing the anchor say, “We warn you that the following video may be upsetting for some viewers.”

Seems we can’t even engage in online discussions about such mundane matters as whether or not to put ketchup on our hot dogs without it breaking down into name-calling and threats of violence by some on both sides of the debate.

Given all that, is it any wonder that I fear we’ve failed in leaving the world a better place for you…?

-      -      -

…So here’s the thing, girls. I’ve spent probably the last 20 minutes hitting the “backspace” key on my laptop over and over in rapid succession, deleting who knows how many hundreds of words that were just too bleak, too unnecessarily dark and depressing for a letter intended to convey a message of love to two sweet angels who mean more to me than life itself.

Besides, it was never my intent to give you a lecture about when and how things seemed to start going from bad to worse. That’s a job best left to the historians - assuming, of course, that the historians manage to avoid having their voices silenced by leaders like that goofball governor who keeps picking fights with a cartoon mouse.

No, what I really wanted to do at this moment in time was to make you believe that, in spite of everything, there IS still hope for tomorrow. Sometimes people my age have to squint a little to see it these days, but it is there. 

I know it because, every time I find myself thinking that civility has gone the way of the dinosaur and that perhaps it is time we take the word “indivisible” out of the Pledge of Allegiance, I’ll run across a news story about how an entire community has come together - regardless of their differing opinions on religion or politics or which place makes the better hamburger, or some other ridiculous bit of trivial folderol - to do something positive for their community, whether it be a fundraiser for a neighbor in need or turning out to honor our veterans or lining up on Main Street to cheer on the high school or college team as they head out of town to compete in the state tournament.

I know it because, every time I worry that the new generation may be nothing more than a coffee klatch of self-centered, unambitious, entitled whiners who think their time is far too important to be wasted on such mundane activities as pouring milk over a bowl of breakfast cereal - time they obviously feel is better spent putting my generation down with their snotty “Okay, Boomer” remarks - someone like Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai or Amanda Gorman comes long and proves me wrong… not just through their words or deeds, but by the way others respond to those words and deeds. 

The response of the young poet, Miss Gorman, after a school in Florida restricted student access to her book - all because it offended some bigoted parent who considers her words of optimism and calls for positive change to be thinly disguised “hate speech” - seems ample proof to me that the Spirit of Hope refuses to be crushed by the dark forces that pit themselves against it.

I know it because of the growing number of voices calling out for change, and refusing to let those voices be silenced by those who ignore, criticize or ridicule them for doing so.

I know it because, whenever I find myself despairing over the way so many today have deemed those in my profession to be “enemies of the people,” someone will call or stop in to renew their subscription, thank us for providing some bit of information they would not have known otherwise, or simply express gratitude for the cutline we wrote for the four generation photo they brought in and asked us to publish.

Most of all I know it because, whenever Grandma and I are lucky enough to be able to spend time with you, the light in your eyes and the smiles on your faces are so infectious that it is difficult to feel anything other than joy and optimism. The two of you are the best proof I have of the basic truth behind something my mother told me all those years ago, as together we grieved the loss of my grandfather: “Dark days come, but life goes on - and the future is worth fighting for.”

Grandpa Tipps fought on the battlefields of France and Germany - coming home with a Combat Infantry Badge, a European–African–Middle Eastern (EAME) Campaign Medal with two Battle Stars, a Purple Heart and a 50 percent disability because of the wounds he received in Germany - because he believed in that basic truth and held it close to his heart. 

His daughter, and the man she married, spent their entire adult lives imparting the lessons and wisdom they gained because of their own belief in that basic truth. I, their oldest son, have devoted my life and career to trying as best I can to put their lessons and wisdom into practice… not always successfully, I’ll grant you, because I am merely an imperfect human and (as my father so often said)  the best of men are but men, at best. 

But there was something else that Dad often said: lack of success does not become failure until you give up and quit trying at all.  As weary and disillusioned as I sometimes feel - as tempting as it sometimes might be to simply throw my hands up, walk away and say “Screw it!” - giving up and quitting is something I’ve just never found it in myself to do. 

I hope that has been a good thing. I hope it is something that, at some point in your lives, might provide you with the same sort of inspiration and encouragement my grandfather and my parents - and, yes, even my children at times - have provided to me over the years.

If not, then perhaps I will have failed after all. In which case all I can do, I suppose, is beg your forgiveness yet again. And hope that you will not hold it against me whenever you think of your flawed but devoted Grandpa after I’m gone.

…So just now I’ve gone back and re-read everything I’ve written here to this point, and I’m disappointed to realize that I was wrong earlier - not only has this letter turned out to NOT be the single most important thing I’ll ever write during my lifetime, but I’m not at all sure that most of it even makes sense. Not to me - and so almost certainly not to you. 

Sad to think that all those years of experience, not to mention all that occasional public recognition from my peers, may have gone to waste...

So I hope you’ll grant me permission to try one last thing before I end this letter, by sharing words that are not mine - but have meant a great deal to me during most of my 60 revolutions around the sun. Words attributed to a great literary hero who was popular with youthful readers nearly a century ago, and who I was fortunate enough to encounter myself around the time of my 12th birthday.

While the speaker may or may not have been fictional - there seems to be some debate over that, but hopefully we can talk about this another time - the words themselves are meaningful and important enough for me to have held them close to my heart as a sort of personal code. (Again, not always successfully... but never quit trying, remember?) 

While it may not be within my rights to do so, I hereby bequeath those words to you now. Think of them as a sort of “ethical will” - one that hopefully will light your paths as you make your own journeys through life and, in doing so, serve as a reminder that hope and optimism and a better tomorrow for those who come after you will always be worth fighting for:

Let me strive every moment of my life, to make myself better and better, to the best of my ability, that all may profit by it.

Let me think of the right and lend all my assistance to those who need it, with no regard for anything but justice.

Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage. 

Let me be considerate of my country, of my fellow citizens and my associates in everything I say and do.

Let me do right to all, and wrong no man.

Well, I guess that’s all for now. Do me one favor, though... check back with me in five days and see how I’m doing, okay? 



(Column copyright © 2023 by John A. Small)