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The Measure of Family
Everyone has seen a child ruler, a long piece of board or paper strip that
parents tack on the wall to measure their growing offspring. The modern version
comes with places for photos and some are brashly painted with whimsical
caricatures and patterns. Our family has an original.
Nearly forty years ago my father trudged through late winter snow to rescue a
particular piece of lumber from the burn pile in our back yard. He hung it on
the wall outside my bedroom with the precision of a master carpenter. My mother,
older brother, sister and I stared at him with curious eyes as he elaborated at
great length its purpose and function like a child unwrapping a toy on Christmas
To unknowing house guests, it was just a plain piece of half inch white pine
with dates and casual words scribbled in rainbow colors of ink and crayon. To
me, it was my family's history lying open like the weekly newspaper. Whenever I
looked at it, I took stock of our triumphs and failures set against the backdrop
of the world's current events. If success is truly a journey then this ruler
measures my family's success, one inch at a time.
Being a family of the Canadian Armed Forces, we were modern day nomads, moving
to new and exciting locales every few years. That board has been hung in homes
across Canada and Europe and each time, it was the last thing we packed and the
first thing we unpacked. It was a tradition that would eventually be passed down
to successive generations.
Time has long sanded its face smooth and rounded its corners with love and
attention. At special times throughout the years, my father backed us kids
against that plank and with the flat of his hand measured how tall we were. He
marked Glen's height in black, Donna's in red and mine in my favorite shade of
blue. Beside each tick he noted the date and the occasion.
Sibling rivalry was an unexpected by-product of every tick. Glen was the rebel.
He rode a two wheeler before junior kindergarten, got his first car at seventeen
and a bank breaking speeding ticket six months later. Donna was the nurturer.
She married first, made me a proud uncle twice and was always there with a kind
word or home made teddy bear. And me? I'm there, never taller, never first. I
grew up in their shadows and followed obediently in their footsteps.
Eventually, we all grew up and left the safe harbor of home, eager to see where
the wind would take us. For Glen and Donna, Dad etched the final mark in their
column and gave them a few words of fatherly advice before they set sail. Their
final departure was punctuated by the gentle slamming of the screen door.
The day I declared my independence the hilltops glowed like burnished gold and
the maples in our yard were afire. My father marked my height in cerulean ink
and wrote beside the tick "Sept 5, 1982 - Left Home". I wept like a child.
As I packed all my worldly possessions into the trunk of my beat up Ford, my
father came down the front steps carrying the ruler. In a quiet ceremony of few
words, the talisman was passed. It was now up to me to carry on the family
When I met my wife twenty two years ago, she shared my feelings of the
importance of family and tradition, so we quickly adopted that little piece of
lumber. It has stayed with us as we bumped along life's rocky course from city
to city and house to house.
Over the years, whenever my mood turned melancholy and I wanted to know where
time has gone, I would perch myself in front of the ruler and take measure. For
me, time is duly recorded on that sacred pine board. First steps; first two
wheeler; first day of school, all there as if they happened yesterday. I kissed
Heather Thompson behind Alexander Dunn Public School in grade two and Neil
Armstrong waved to me from the moon on my ninth birthday. And who can forget
September 28, 1972 when Paul Henderson brought Canada to our collective feet in
a screaming, frenzied mass. I was exactly five feet tall.
As our son Matthew grew, his marks appeared in bright green. The ticks reflected
his Indiana Jones persona. He rode his first bicycle before my brother, broke
his first limb before grade school and got his first sports car at sixteen. No
speeding tickets yet. It's obvious that Matthew was more of an adventurer then I
will ever be.
As every progeny does when it's their time, Matthew left home. He assumed the
position in front of the ruler as I took the emerald marker and wrote "Apr 9,
2000 - Left home". We were the same size.
While he packed up his Honda Prelude, I followed tradition and met him on the
front steps. A tear came to his eye as we stared at each other in the prevailing
silence. I repeated my dad's choice words and the passing-of-the-ruler ritual
ended in a heartrending hug. The family heirloom had once again been passed to
the next generation.
It now hangs reverently outside my granddaughter's bedroom. As I stand in front
of it now, my hands lightly caress its face, reading each mark like Braille. I
feel a light tug on my pants as Shannon appears, her sparkling eyes wide with
excitement and wonder. She points quizzically at the colorful plank so I kneel
down and like a child unwrapping a new toy, explain what each mark means. At
that exact moment, as I cuddle my granddaughter and gaze upon her porcelain
face, I realize I've lived an amazing and wonderful life. The proof is right
there in black, red, blue, green and pink.
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