What Character Means to Me

Every card or letter my mother ever sent me was signed the same way, “Hugs and kisses, Love Mama, A.B.N.” A.B.N. was my mother’s acronym for, “Always be nice”. It was so much more than the closing on a birthday card, it was a call to action, a way of interfacing with the world that defined my mom’s being. Mom showed her kindness in mostly small ways – how she spoke to friends as well as strangers, how she gave to others without judgment or expectation, and how she never spoke ill of anyone, ever. I am so grateful to my mom for this example of kindness, and I try every day to live up to her example and hope that I have passed that on to my daughter. And to this day, my daughter continues to try to convince me that we should get matching “A.B.N.” tattoos.

But it is my dad I thank for my understanding of character. My parents grew up across the street from one another in a modest north shore neighborhood. While my mother was the strong student, dad was better known for his playground brawls than his academic successes. It wasn’t until he was older that it was discovered that he had a significant hearing loss that caused most of his struggles throughout school. Although he seldom talked of his school experience, I believe dad early on heard a message that he was less capable, less promising, and he spent much of his life proving this message wrong.

One of the most important lessons of character I learned from my father is the importance of a strong work ethic. He dropped out of high school at 17, left my mother behind, and enlisted in the army. In Korea, he saw combat that he would only be able to put into words through writing much later in his life. When he left the service, he married my mom and joined the local police department. Graduating from the Police Academy with the highest score every recorded to date, he vowed that one day he would be Chief. Over the years, before and after work and on weekends, he studied for every promotional exam that came along, first the Sargent’s exam, then Captain, and finally Chief. I have vivid memories of Dad sitting in his chair in the living room with the Blue Book and flash cards, and my mom quizzing him on the various laws. Many joked that my mom, his study partner, could have done at least as well as he did on these exams, and dad always came out on top.

Along the way, my father earned his his GED in his 40’s and his college degree in his 50’s. He was a dedicated student, a truly clever writer, and a passionate student of history and religion. His lifelong love of learning extended into the final year of his life. Never an outwardly religious man, dad was a man of quiet faith and had read the Bible cover to cover more than once, as he did the Koran and the Torah. At the age of 80, he was reading about the Masons and grew intrigued by their history, values, and philanthropy. In his final winter and spring, dad again studied everything he could to better understand this organization. He struggled through his physical difficulties to dress and make the weekly trip to the Masonic Lodge and finally pass the steps necessary to become a third degree mason.

My father had unwavering honesty. You don’t speak what isn’t true, you don’t take what isn’t yours, and you stand up for what you believe is right. I clearly remember a Saturday morning when I was probably 8, and dad came home from the bank after cashing his paycheck. As he counted the money in the envelope, he realized the teller had given him too much money. There was no discussion, no hesitation, he just got into his car, drove to the bank, and returned the money. At a young age, I was taught that silence is tacit agreement. More than once I got myself into some sticky predicaments by speaking up to defend a person or a cause I felt was unjustly disparaged, but no one would question where I stood on the matter. This practice got my father into some dangerous situations on more than one occasion. One that occurred late in his life was during one of my parents’ final trips to Florida. They were stopped at a traffic light and my father’s attention was drawn to the car beside them, where he saw a man striking the woman passenger. Dad put his car in park, told my mom to lock the doors and call the police, and he got out, walked over to the driver, and demanded he get out of the car. Fortunately, the two engaged in a verbal conflict long enough for the police to arrive, and my parents and the woman were able to safely return home.

Finally, and probably the most important lesson of character I learned from my father was gratitude. Many years ago when I was going through a particularly difficult time, he tried to reassure me that I would always face difficulties, but a truly good life came from the ability to see past hardship and purposely contemplate those things you have to be thankful for. I thought, “Sure, dad.” But over the following years as my parents aged, he was a stellar example of gratitude. He would routinely tell my mother how lucky he was to have her, how grateful he was that his only granddaughter, the pride of his being, was doing well, and that I was healthy and happy. Family was everything to him. Just days before he passed, I sat on his bed and asked how he was feeling. He said, “I couldn’t be any more comfortable.” He was at peace, grateful for the life he had, the love of his family, and the comfort of his home. Thank you dad, for teaching me what is important, what it means to be a person of character. And I think I might just reconsider the “A.B.N.” tattoo.

About The Author

Carolyn Nelson, M.Ed.