“In 1959, my father hung a plaque on our dining room wall. The plaque had a beveled edge and was the size of an unframed 5 x 7 photo. My curiosity was peaked as my father worked away hanging the small plaque in place. I waited until he finished to take a closer look. As I looked up, I saw a painted path with trees and bushes and the words of a poem written on the face of the flat wooden surface in a thin scripted font. The words were simple enough for even a young schoolgirl like me to read at that time. The poem was entitled ‘Be the Best.’ The poem read:
If you can’t be a pine on the top of the hill
Be a scrub in the valley–but be
The best little scrub by the side of the rill;
Be a bush if you can’t be a tree….
It isn’t by size that you win or you fail–
Be the best of whatever you are!
Authored by Douglas Malloch (1877 – 1938), an American poet and syndicated writer, his words resonated within me that day as a youth. Oddly, the poem continued to speak to me over the years, sometimes as a light lyrical heartening tune, oftentimes now in my waning years, as a sobering deeply drawn breath. In the past, I found that Malloch’s words offered a way to make sense of and respond to a world filled with many differing and conflicting emotions.” (Edited excerpt from doctoral dissertation, ML Skiles Buck, pgs. 116-117).
Over the last years and especially as I began to settle into a new life here in Abingdon, VA, Malloch’s poem about contentment continued for some reason to tug at me. I had earlier taken a closer look at Malloch during my doctoral studies and discovered that he prized nature and the naturalist life. For him profit and productivity existed only in a state where man, acting as an overseer, protected and nurtured his environment. As I thought about Malloch’s work, I realized that somehow his words had become part of an important process for me, beginning as a young girl and continuing even now as a mature woman. It was part of a process by which I had learned to place a high regard on contentment as a lifelong value—but how?
Earlier this week, I discovered among other things that the word contentment comes from the Latin root –contentus, meaning a state of happiness and satisfaction. Most social psychologists agree that contentment is both an intuitive and natural concept. In comparison, contentment differs greatly from a state of peace; peace is a civil concept and is, oftentimes, hard won. One only has to open a history book to recognize that peace comes at a great and high price!
How contentment develops as a life long value, however, differs from one individual to the next. For example, in my father’s case, I believe that development of contentment as a value began in the Philippines where he was born and raised. Possibly, his father held and modeled contentment as an important value. Perhaps stories were told at the dining room table about a meaningful and content life. For, as my brother-in-law Dan is apt to say, “The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
I’m sure, however, that the development of contentment in my father’s life followed him here to the States where he and mama raised nine children. And, it necessarily continued to grow as a deep abiding ethical root throughout his 26-years with Bechtel Corporation as an electrical engineer. And, just as surely, his contentment was likely challenged over and over again as he tried to make sense of life away from his birth land.
Surprisingly, I never had the chance to ask my father what Malloch’s poem meant to him. By the time that I was old enough to form my questions, my father had lost his hearing and become isolated from his family. I’m sorry that I never asked him about the poem, it’s something that I will always wonder about.
For me, contentment developed growing up in a large busy home. As a young girl, I learned to be content with the quiet care that my father showed toward me. Contentment came, for example, when reciting my catechism, he would smile and nod; reading my books, he would read his newspaper; and, waving good-bye as he dropped me off at the bus stop during the week– he on his way to work and I to school. I also learned to be content sitting to his left at the dinner table; bringing him ice tea during the summer that he painted the house pink; and, watching Thursday night boxing on TV together.
As I think about those quiet times, I have to admit that my contentment, of recent, has been sorely challenged. “Change, at best,” a parish priest once preached, “is difficult.” And during a recent time of change, my heart has felt sore and raw like a stubbed toe or burned finger. But, despite it all, my contentment has never gone missing or completely disappeared. And, I realize now why Malloch’s poem had been tugging at me.
What I’ve discovered is that happiness and satisfaction are nurtured by the simple and ordinary things we do for and with each other. I’ve realized that during those simple quiet times with my father, I was experiencing and learning to value being content. Perhaps, most importantly, I’ve come to understand that in 1959, with hammer and nail in hand, my father not only hung a simple 5 x 7 plaque of Malloch’s poem on the wall of our dining room but he simply, quietly set the value of contentment in my heart, for a lifetime–nurturing and protecting it, as only a father’s love can do.
Happy Valentine’s Day, daddy!
Living life in 2011,
To access a memorial of Arthur Frank Skiles, Jr., as created by Mrs. Patti Skiles Robinson, please see: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=42407388