My father was the most influential person in my life that made me the person I am today. He wasn't well-educated with any type of degree; he was a man with a vision and a plan for a better life. I only learned about my father's personal struggles in life during the days following his death, back in 2006. The things my father taught me while he was on this earth are the things that make me who I am today. He taught me the three most important life lessons and he was one of the bravest people I knew.
Lesson 1: Work hard and never be ungrateful for what you have, even if you only have a little.
Having a lot of things does not make you a great person. You are a great person for who you influence in your lifetime. Aristotle once said, “You are what you repeatedly do. Therefore, excellence should be a habit, not an act.” I lived in a nice home. We had food on the table and 2 cars in the driveway. We lived within our means and my father saved every penny he earned. Slowly, he built himself, my mother, my brother and I a very comfortable life. He accomplished this through long hours and hard work, but above all, though graciousness of self. He worked in a leather factory at night, the second shift, and during the day, he worked in a little shop that he built in the garage, doing what he learned to do in Croatia. My dad re-upholstered furniture and the interiors of old cars. I remember sitting on the side step of an old model-T Ford when I was a young girl that was sitting in my driveway, as all the interior was on the floor in my dad's shop. He made those cars beautiful again, and as his reputation grew, he built quite a large business because of his talents, skills, and reputation as a hard-working man. Not one of my father's customers ever spoke ill of my father,and that is one facet of how his business grew and he was able to provide us with much more than we as children, were lead to believe we had. Staying humble was important; it was a small lesson that he wanted to teach us. He wanted us not to feel entitled to things, because he worked hard for them. He wanted us to work hard as well, so that we could feel a sense of accomplishment in life. Those customers spoke fondly of my father's character, and not how much he charged them. I know my father’s prices were fair. I am sure if he asked for a hundred dollars more they would have happily paid the price. He was a true craftsman and that showed in this work. I only learned about the true character of my father after his passing. This is where I learned the most important lessons that I use today.
My mother, father and brother, who was only 9 months old, traveled to the U.S. for a better life with only 2 suitcases in hand filled with all of what they deemed important in their life, and a modest eight hundred dollars saved. Back in 1969, that type of cash could have gotten you a bit farther than it would today. On the trip over, my brother fell ill and my parents needed to rush him to urgent care when they landed. He was burning up with a fever of over 100 degrees, and as if being new parents wasn’t hard enough, they now had traveled to a foreign land and all they had were each other, and not a word of English spoken among them. They did what my brother needed and spent almost all of their money on his care; mind you, they had no clue how expensive the ER was with no insurance, but, for the love of their child, they paid the hospital bill and left with what money they had left.
That was my first lesson I learned after my father's passing, however, I already knew this lesson. I was being taught this as I was growing up, but it was not understood by me until later. Be proud of where you came from; live within your means; protect the ones you love and be humble.
I know in this world we are always looking for the easy way, that way it’s comfortable and easy. But what happens if that’s how you are used to living? When the difficulties of life find you, how will you be prepared to handle it? With graciousness and a will to fight on, or will you crumble and lay blame in others?
Lesson 2: Determination is what makes the success successful. Sometimes you just need to jump, and keep jumping if need be, until you get there.
My mother and father grew up in the same village in Croatia. As they got older, they started taking the train into town to their trade schools, never speaking, but always seeing each other on the train each day. They knew of each other from the small farm town in which they lived, yet they NEVER spoke a word to each other on the train. This continued for a few years, until one day, my mother heard a knock on the door of her farm house where she lived with my grandparents. Puzzled she answered the door to see my dad standing there. They had never spoken before and there he was. My mother said hello and my father's first words to my mom where, “Will you marry me?” My mom told me that she stood there in the opening of the doorway wondering if this guy was for real? He had a ring, nothing fancy just a gold band, he purchased with the money that he earned working. My mom snickered and told me she said “Yes”, and she thought to herself “Why not? He’s handsome, and this is probably the best I'll be able to do!” They were married 2 weeks later and remained so for another 41 years. My father passed away suddenly in 2006, and this was the absolute worst day in my mother’s life, and mine as well. They suffered through the good and the bad together, never fighting, and always being grateful, for not only each other, but for what they had accomplished. The lesson I had taken from that day was also one that I was taught daily, and one most aren’t ever brave to do themselves. It was overcoming the fear of NO! Sometimes you need to just JUMP if you want something bad enough. The bravery in any person is through following your heart and doing what is needed to make it happen. I am sure if my mother said “no”, my father would have done everything he could to change her mind until she did say “yes.” Determination is what makes the success successful. Sometimes you just need to jump, and keep jumping if need be, until you get there.
Lesson 3: Your character and your willingness to strive for excellence is not something that you do, it's something that you are.
The lesson of the importance of character was, above all, the very best lesson and I didn’t learn it until my father's memorial service. I knew my father was respected, but I had no idea the footprint he left on the hearts of so many. I was always told to be respectful of others and never to judge anyone, because the path they walked is not often visible to you. I was told to shake hands with everyone I met and introduce myself every time I met someone new. I was taught never to look upon someone different than myself with any type of hatred or jealousy, or come across as better than the person in front of me. I was also then warned to protect myself, because you never really knew who was a wolf in sheep's clothing. Do not judge, but do not play the fool, and never put it past a person to try to crush your dreams or take something from you; not everyone we meet has our best intentions in mind. However, I was told to respect everyone, until they deserve not to be respected, and then quietly walk away. It is that person's loss not to have you in their life, and they made that choice, you did not.
My father worked for 32 years in a factory in front of a machine that tanned hides to make leather. That is all I knew of his work and his work life. He left work at work and focused on us at home. He never spoke about anyone or said anything about his day, good or bad. I never knew much more. The plant closed, leaving my dad to retire earlier than planned. He lived only about three years after he stopped working. At his funeral, three of the most flamboyant people walked in. I thought for sure they walked into the wrong service. First one to walk in was a very tall slender black man wearing a long trench coat with a fur lapel and a wide-brimmed hat, and he was accompanied by two black women, one on each arm, with floor-length fur coats and hats just as large, if not larger, than the coat of the man they walked in with. I honestly never had any idea my father knew anyone of another race, let alone that they would attend his funeral service. The service was mostly members of the Croatian community and that was all I ever knew. I was standing in line as the group walked up to my mom to extend their hands, and they started to sob as they introduced themselves to my mom. She started crying and was taken back that they had come. I am sure my mouth was wide open at this point. What was happening? I was so confused. The gentleman came up to me, acting as if he had known me forever, and apparently he did from the stories he and my father had shared with each other at work. He told me that they had all worked along side of my dad for the better part of 30 years, and that even after the plant closed, they stayed in close contact with each other, sometimes speaking on the phone for an hour or more every week. I never knew this side of my dad, because he left work at work and home at home. The three of them went on to tell me how proud they were to have known my dad and that he was one of the greatest men that they had ever met. It still brings tears to my eyes today remembering our conversation that day. This was by far the greatest lesson of all. Never judge anyone, always be kind, always be a friend, and always set yourself up to be an example for the people you meet. Your character and your willingness to strive for excellence is not something that you do, it's something that you are, and that becomes part of the lessons and legacy you leave behind...and above all just JUMP without fear.
In closing, we all should work towards, excellence in life and even if the road you are on is your rock bottom, use those rocks to build your foundation. Be great, be respectful, help anyone when you can. And above all JUMP, even if it takes you a few tries, but always aim to hit your mark even if you miss it a few times. Success is not easy and sometimes the road to your own personal goals may falter, but you always have to keep on going and never let pride and arrogance get in the way.
This article is dedicated in loving memory of Eugene Serceki.