“Don’t sweat the small stuff.” That’s a trendy catch phrase, and in our hectic, fast-paced world, it can be good advice. But there’s more to that quote. What’s not being said is as important as what is being said. Don’t sweat the small stuff, but don’t forget the small stuff either. More often than we realize, a small act can make the difference, affect influence, and change a life.
I grew up in the 1960′s , when parenting and self-help books didn’t have their own section in the bookstore, and raising children was pretty much a seat-of-your-pants type of thing. What your parents learned from their own parents, whether good or bad, was how you were raised. That’s not an indictment. That’s just the way it was. It’s not that my parents were mean-spirited or didn’t love or care for us, it was more that they didn’t know how to express those things, or were too caught up in their own issues to take notice of the four of us and what we needed as children. We did the things all families did: posed for family photos, visited relatives, took vacations, celebrated birthdays and holidays. But in the midst of those family activities there existed an inner layer of turmoil and discomfort.
One year, when I was about seven, we went on a camping trip to a family reunion in South Dakota. Relatives from all around the nation were coming, and it was a chance for us to see many of our cousins, uncles, aunts, or others more distantly related. The last time our family had been to a big reunion, I was much younger, so for all practical purposes, this was the first time in my own memory that I’d meet many of my relatives. And it was one such relative, who, through a very small act, taught me the value of the ‘small stuff’. His name was Morrell Chambers, but everyone called him Uncle Mix.
How he got the nickname Mix, I’m not really certain, but it fit him well, in the sense that he was full of mirth and amusement. He was a solid man, a little round in the waist, with a pronounced nose and square jaw, and a slim mouth that always seemed to be on the verge of a smile. He’d inherited his bald top from his father, although he wasn’t much beyond 40 at the time. But his most distinguishing feature was his blue eyes, eyes that held a constant twinkle, as if they held a secret known only to him, a secret that gave him his ever-present sense of joviality and peace.
It was only natural that a seven-year old boy like me would be drawn to someone like Uncle Mix, and I spent quite a bit of my time lingering in his presence. It made me feel good, and he put up with my active mind, full of questions and wondering, as if it were second nature to him.
One day he decided to do some fishing, and of course, I tagged along behind him, walking along the edge of the lake and up to the boat dock. He carried a nice looking rod and reel, and a tackle box that, to me, was so big that it could probably hold the contents of an entire bait shop. Up to that time, my experience with fishing had pretty much been a bamboo pole with a string, hook, and bobber, so I was amazed when he opened the box, and the nested trays bloomed out, revealing the most colorful assortment of fishing lures I’d ever seen. I was fascinated by all the bright, shiny, mysterious objects, and squatted down for a better look. I didn’t dare touch anything, although I was greatly tempted. With a broad grin, Uncle Mix pointed out this one and that one, explaining what each was for, and how it was used. I muttered a few, “Oh!”s, as if I really understood what he was talking about, and after a few more minutes of explanations, he finished, and moved back a step or two to prepare his pole as I continued to take in all the colors and shapes of everything he’d pointed out. Finally, he lofted his rod and reel, satisfied that it was ready, and stepped forward to where I still crouched over that tackle box. Seeing the tops of his black shoes broke my spell of wonder and awe, and I looked up at him. He smiled down at me, eyes glittering, and then he said something I’ll never forget. “Why don’t you pick one of those that you really like, and you can keep it,” he said simply, so matter-of-fact, as if it was a natural thing to give something I considered precious and expensive to me, a young boy he hardly knew. But I was so completely, pleasantly, extraordinarily taken aback, that it literally took me about a minute to register his offer, and when I realized he really did mean it, I was so overwhelmed that I was speechless with excitement. “Go ahead!”, he urged with a chuckle.
I think I could have spent hours deciding, but I was at least mindful that he was ready to leave, so I fairly quickly settled on a red spoon lure that had a curvy, white stripe from end to end on the front, a chrome-bright shiny underside, treble hook on the back end, and a brass eye hook on the top. I lifted it gingerly out of the box, and held it up in front of me.
“Are you sure that’s the one you want?” he asked, still smiling. I nodded absentmindedly, transfixed by red and white, sunlight on chrome, as it swayed and turned in the morning breeze. Uncle Mix stooped down, set his pole to the side, and closed the tackle box. He paused to stare at the lure for a moment, head cocked slightly aside, as if maybe he too could see and feel what I did. Then he scooped up his pole and box, and with a grinning “See you later!” he stepped onto the boat.
I stood and watched him pull away, the boat’s engine gurgling and churning the water into a wake as he made his way out and away. I hadn’t even thought to thank him, but he waved back to me, as if he knew what I was thinking, as if that was his way of telling me that it was OK, that no thanks were needed.
I don’t remember much of anything else specific to that reunion, other than that I somehow managed to get a pole with a reel, no doubt from a cousin or some other relative, and spent hour after hour casting that lure, my lure, my gift, out into the water along the shore, not so much interested in catching fish, but more to watch it spin beneath the water, strobing red and silver, feeling the vibration in my hands as I cranked the reel. I was in seven-year-old heaven, and I was probably as happy as I ever have been.
I wish I had the opportunity to tell him what he did for me that day, but he died of a heart attack at a relatively young age while walking up the stairs of the school where he loved to teach. The news of his passing caused me to remember that day on the lake, and the memory of that precious moment in time began to take on new significance. Uncle Mix was just a giving type of person, and he probably never gave it another thought, but that small act gave me hope, and taught me that kindness and goodness have a place in the world. That was the real gift he gave me, a gift that changed my outlook on life, and shaped my character in a way that few other life events ever could.
And so, I thank Uncle Mix every time I hold a door for a stranger, help someone pick up spilled groceries, spend an extra moment listening to someone that needs to be heard, or one of a thousand other things that anyone can do to show kindness or consideration to others. And I share with my children the story of a small boy and a great man, and that moment by the lake on a warm summer morning, that they might picture in their minds the flashing of the lure, and in it, catch a glimpse of a man they never met, yet can still get to know, through me.
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