Magazine article U.S. Catholic

The Day I Hung Up My Tow Rope

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

The Day I Hung Up My Tow Rope

Article excerpt

A family "patriarch" ponders the passage of power, control, and responsibility to the next generation.

It all happened so suddenly. We had reached our resort on the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. All 20 of us had journeyed safely--"Gick," my wife, our four adult children and their spouses, and our 10 grandchildren. This biannual pilgrimage has long been part of the intimate fabric of our family life.

Forty-four years ago, Gick and I spent our honeymoon at this same lake. Each year we journeyed here with our children. This is where, with one old small boat after another, I taught them to ski. They all fell in love with this water--and this sport. I would pull them three at a time all over this lake. They mastered the art of taking off from the dock, never getting into the water. They popped off the dock, their little long thin bodies skimming lightly over the warm water.

By general family consensus I was the "center" of the event during this patriarchal period of our marriage. I loved this lake, I loved skiing, I loved teaching them the spirituality of the sport. For many years I could ski better than they. I would ski on one ski, holding the tow rope with my other foot. Then I'd put the ski handle around my head, while my children and Gick would scream in mock terror and secret pride. "Dad, you'll kill yourself," they shouted.

The Schmidts, all of us, loved this time, this place, this wonder. This massive baptismal font was where we bathed our lives annually for new birth and new life. We always left healed, and holy.

For 44 years it had been so. As the family grew, we continued every other year to make the same journey, filling our time as we always had: eating, drinking, talking, listening, playing cards, swimming, and skiing--of course skiing.

So I have sketched the setting. What happened suddenly was a new ambiguous insight about growing older. There were other metaphors I had learned this past year as well: retired, emeritus professor, older, senior citizen. None of those words catch the impact of what I learned when it happened so suddenly.

I arrived at the resort dock with my youngest daughter, Ruth, and her husband, Kevin. We were renting a ski boat for the week, and someone had to "sign" for the financial responsibility. I had been cautioned by my insurance consultant not to be that person. Because I was "retired," the consequences of a lawsuit resulting from an accident could be catastrophic. I needed to protect our retirement savings. So my daughter and son-in-law signed the rental document, and I left them to drive the boat to the neighboring resort where we were all staying. It was a beautiful boat--large, expensive, fast. Because it was similar to one they had just sold, they would know how to drive it, how to pull skiers, etc. They were comfortable! They waved and left, smiling, happy, confident, and conflict-free, I thought.

I walked to my car alone, watching as they crossed the bay to the main channel. Suddenly my eyes filled with tears. I was no longer in charge. I was not driving the family boat. I would not pull the next skier. Instead I stood on the side, watching the symbolic passage of control, power, and responsibility to another generation.

I was filled with emotion as I saw how my daughter and her husband loved this place, this sport, this wet and wonderful natural font of life. …

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