The Gift of Joy

By Vincent Kavaloski

Special to the Voice of the River Valley

They dazzled our childhood, the toy trains and pretty dolls, the plastic soldiers and board games; and for today’s kids the flashing, buzzing, beeping electronic invaders of Christmas. But a few days or weeks or months later they seem to disappear into the streaming, transiency of time, leaving behind only fragments of memory and a vague sense of dissatisfaction, or is it emptiness?

But there are some few rare gifts, intangible gifts that do not so quickly die, but once embraced and planted within us grow slowly over a lifetime, like an expanding galaxy giving light and energy and beauty. And unquenchable joy, most of all, unquenchable joy.

Strangely, you may not even realize that you have been given these soul gifts until many years later, after they have become part of you and after the givers have gone forever. How can we possibly thank them now? Our mother is long gone, but the three precious gifts that she (with Dad’s help) bestowed on us, her children, live on in our lives.

First is the gift of music: Mozart, Vivaldi, Beethoven, Mahler, streaming out every morning from her big boxy “hi-fi,” giving us the courage to face the day. Even today when melancholy I often wake with Corelli’s “Christmas Concerto” or Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” precise, plaintive, yet brilliantly structured polyphony. I remember Mom taking me to my very first orchestral concert and the gawky boy I was, being born into the wonder of shimmering Baroque strings and ringing brass. Later there were piano and French horn lessons, endless practice often tedious and frustrating but culminating in orchestra and band concerts – epiphanies of sound and exaltation!

The second gift was the elixir of books and learning. Even Dad, the Polish peasant exiled to the city, sat virtually every night reading in his big easy chair not just the newspaper but the World Book Encyclopedia. Did he ever make it through to “Z”? If so, doubtless he would have started over again with “A.” Books covered our walls and overflowed into our basement: Mom’s novels, poetry, science, religion, big brother’s science fiction, war stories and finally philosophy. Every Saturday I’d ride my decrepit bike to our public library and immerse myself in worlds of adventure, longing and love, worlds far beyond my own. Then precariously balancing an armload of books I would bike home. Today as a humanities professor, books are my life-blood, and without them I would wither and die.

The third gift was immersion in nature — countryside resplendent with flowers, trees, sumac, swamp grasses and Dad’s orderly rows of vegetables. We lived next to a steep, mysterious ravine with a small stream that flowed to the Mississippi River less than a mile away. Spring, summer, fall, winter, we grew up out-of-doors, building hideouts in the woods, chasing birds and butterflies and bugs. In the spring the Mississippi over-flowed its banks, flooding Concord Street where my childhood buddies and I splashed barefoot, heedless of the vile, polluted, brown water. (What were our parents thinking? But in the 1950s parents were not guardian angels hovering over us. Kid World was a free world — and a somewhat dangerous one.)

I worked my way through college working on the Wharf Barge for Twin City Barge and Towing, fueling and provisioning the big line boats and launching my little boat out into the current to put lanterns on the big, parked barges at dusk. The river was a wild world of adventure, defying predictions and all restraints. The river was real.

These three life-gifts were given without fanfare and received without acknowledgement. Only now, a half century later, can I clearly see the preciousness of music, books and learning, and immersion in nature. They were love incarnate — our parents’ way of loving in a loveless marriage. Sadly, gratitude comes too late for the givers.

We can only honor the gifts of wisdom by passing them on to our children, grandchildren, students and friends. We must pass them on if we truly respect them because like all good things, they are only on loan. The true gift must continually be given, and given again.

It flows like the river.

Vincent Kavaloski is a professor of philosophy specializing in the philosophy of peace at Edgewood College in Madison. He lives in Dodgeville.