As far as parents go, I had a pretty good set. Always the provider, Pop made certain we had what we needed so Mom could stay home and take care of us kids. That had been the plan from day one for them. My mom worked until she became pregnant with my older sister then left her job in the typing pool and never worked for pay another day until my dad passed 24 years later. There were a few lean times but not once did we go without a home cooked meal on the table or a warm bed to sleep in each night.
Living extravagantly was not on the Collins’ family agenda but Mom and Pop did occasionally get the opportunity to splurge on their personal vices. For Mom, it was a doll collection and for Pop it was postage stamps.
As a kid, I had learned by way of osmosis that that the two most coveted postage stamps for my father were the Graf Zeppelin and the Inverted Jenny, a biplane flying upside down on a $2 stamp.
Pop never got the Jenny but he did manage to acquire the Graf Zeppelin. Keep in mind this was before the internet and Ebay. If you wanted a collectible postage stamp, you had to visit stamp collecting conventions and subscribe to and comb periodicals faithfully. I believe part of the joy pop experienced in his stamp collecting was the chase.
I will never forget when he got the Graf Zeppelin. He was giddy like a kid on Christmas morning. I can’t remember what he paid for it now but I do recall that it was in mint condition with no postmark and we all marveled at the price because we had never known Pop to spend that kind of money on something for himself. He was truly thrilled.
Not too many years later, we had hit one of those few lean times. Pop had lost his job and for the first and last time in my memory, he was unemployed. The unemployment lasted only a few months but hit at an already challenging time – the holidays.
As a kid, I had no idea how bad off we were in the bad times nor how well off we were in the good times. Things seemed to stay relatively the same and that Christmas was just as good as all of the others, with plenty of presents under the tree and my mom’s beloved marzipan and baklava on the celebratory table. Life didn’t feel any different.
Years later, as an adult struggling through a challenging Christmas with my own three children, I thought back on the many Christmases with Mom and Pop and marveled at how they always seemed to find a way to make them special for my brother and sister and me no matter what the circumstances. As I reflected back on those beloved childhood memories, I found that my perspective as an adult helped me recognize things that I did not understand at the time.
I remembered a particular Saturday, during that period of my father’s unemployment, when the family loaded up and drove to Knoxville for a day trip. A trip to Knoxville was not rare when times were good so none of us thought anything of it. I also remembered my Pop parking at a convenience store and us all waiting for what seemed like an eternity until a strange man approached our car and dad exited. They spoke for some time and Pop removed what I immediately recognized as his stamp collection from the trunk. I watched that strange man leave with Pop’s beloved collection and felt confusion over this.
When Pop returned to the car, I asked him why he gave that man his stamp collection, and he replied that there were things he loved more than stamp collecting. Not really understanding this, my youthful mind accepted that pop must not love collecting stamps anymore and I moved on to ponder the next stop on our agenda.
Today, I realize that Pop’s love for stamp collecting had neither died nor diminished but was simply overshadowed by his love for his kids. Ironically, I cannot even remember what I got for Christmas that year and truly would love to have the collection that brought him such joy. Seeing that Graf Zeppelin would surely bring a tear to my eye. Because of his selflessness, I do not have that but, also because of his selflessness, I have a beautiful memory that fills my heart everytime I think of it.
My Christmas wish is that if I have done anything right as a father, my kids will one day remember it and have memories about me that are as warm as those I have about my Pop.
If you enjoyed this column and would like to see more, click here.
© Michael L. Collins
*Originally published as “Nothing Overshadowed Pop’s Love for His Kids” in the December 15, 2013 edition of The Mountain Press.