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The Measure of Family


Brian Peters

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 morning.

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 tradition.

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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