Love and adversity in Christmas 1970 | Judge Larson

It will be 40 years ago in April 2011 when the famous billboard first appeared near Sea-Tac Airport declaring, “Will the last person leaving Seattle — Turn out the lights.” 1970 was not a good year for this area, and it seems like we have gone full circle, with many families hurting some 40 years later.

I was 12 years old in 1970, and the Larson family had its own economic issues. My dad was a mechanic for Northwest Airlines and was laid off due to a protracted strike by ticket agents. That experience was one of the more difficult times of my young life, but turned out to be the most fruitful on a long-term basis.

At 12, it seemed that my family was the only one suffering, and everything seemed magnified and scary. I was ashamed that my dad was laid off. I was embarrassed that we were eligible for food stamps. I was petrified at being eligible for free lunches my first year at Sacajawea Middle School. In fact, I did not even eat lunch the first half of the year until my dad went back to work because I was just too embarrassed. I could not make myself get in line with all of the other kids and have them see that my family was suffering. I never did tell my mom because I did not want her to know how embarrassed I really was.

Little did I know that this experience was meant to be. It gave me the tools I need as an adult to overcome adversity and to appreciate the intangible gifts we have the capacity to give each other, and to receive from each other, every day.

My dad never quit. Giving up was not an option. He took any job he could get, even if it paid minimum wage ($1.65/hour). There were no unemployment benefits because it was a strike and he honored the picket line. No job was too menial or too hard if it meant taking care of his family. My brothers and I helped my dad pour patios and sidewalks with a small cement mixer. We helped him cut and sell firewood to help make the house payment.

My mom had been a homemaker, but she took a job as the lunch cashier at Mirror Lake Elementary at minimum wage for a few hours a day. She did anything she could to help us make it through the tough times we faced as a family. One of my favorite stories was when she helped at the school to create care packages for needy families, never seeing herself as deserving of such help. Yet, much to her surprise, there was a knock on the door later that day. It was her boss, the principal Mr. Tenpas, with one of the very care boxes she helped pack. She was embarrassed yet graceful in her appreciation.

The Christmas of 1970 was not a banner year for tangible gifts in the Larson home, but the intangible gifts were bountiful that year and for many years to come. The gifts of love, care, tenacity, humility, hope, compassion and gratitude were priceless. I cannot remember what I got for Christmas in 1970, but I will never forget the gifts my parents gave me that year.

My family’s story is not unique and I was not the only kid suffering that year. You may be facing tough times this year and your child may feel the same way I did some 40 years ago. Please help them understand that adversity makes them stronger, not weaker. Help them understand that character is not measured at the dips in the road; character is measured by how you get back to the top of the hill.

I hope it serves as some consolation that the most important gifts you have to give cannot be purchased from a shelf or wrapped with a bow. My hope is that you understand that despite your economic hardships that there are gifts you can give that are richer than gold itself. The same is true, even if you do not face tough economic times.

I love you, mom and dad. Merry Christmas from your very grateful son.

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