Expressing gratitude or “the rest of the story”

Claes and host family in Berlin 1971

When I was in 5th grade, our teacher was a tall man who loved to tower above us from the raised platform his desk was on and remind us little kids of all his hard work knocking sense into our little childish minds:

“One day, you’ll come back and thank me!”

Yeah, right, we all thought, that’ll never happen. (No one dared to say that out loud, because sassing the teacher would most definitely get you detention or worse.)

Many years later though, I did what that teacher predicted. But to a different teacher.

Here’s the story:

When I was in 9th grade, we had a home room teacher, Inga-Lisa, who every year would take her students on an exchange trip to Berlin, Germany. A group of Swedish kids went to stay in homes of German students our age and then those students came to Sweden and stayed with us. A week in each place.

It was my first trip abroad (in southern Sweden, crossing over to Denmark doesn’t count as abroad). The week in Berlin (in 1971 very much surrounded by the Wall) made a huge impact on me. I discovered exploring other cultures and traveling and never stopped. Actually went back to see my host family several times over the next few years.

Decades later, I learned that Inga-Lisa was on Facebook and connected with her. Finally got to tell her how big of a difference that trip made for me, for it led to other trips and eventually me coming to the US.

But at the time it was just a class trip — a fun thing to do.

That’s how it often is: The big, life-changing things don’t seem so big and life-changing at the time. Only much later can we see all the difference that encounter made. And all too often, by then the person originally involved isn’t around to hear the rest of the story.

This of course applies to both sides of the equation: My wife Diane operated a daycare for a number of years. Children would come into our house as babies or toddlers. Many stayed until they went off to pre-school or kindergarten. That was a long time ago and we often wonder what happened later. How did those children’s lives turn out?

So it was fun when we got a wedding invitation from one of those little kids. Okay, not so little anymore. That toddler girl had grown into a lovely young lady. It meant the world to Diane to see how one of those kids from the daycare turned out.

Family dinner at Ron and Betty's house
Betty and Ron with the family gathered for dinner

When I first came to the US for college, I stayed with a family in the Chicago area for a while before heading off to the University of Iowa. Mom and dad in the family (Betty and Ron) took me in like just another one of the kids. I felt totally at home from day one.

A while ago I was back in Chicago and decided that I needed to go see Betty (Ron had passed away some years before). I’d actually written to Betty and Ron years earlier to say thank you for all the hospitality and friendship all those years ago, but I wanted to see her face to face again. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I walked up to her door and rang the bell. (Still same house.) Just knew I wanted to say “thank you” face to face.

It turned out to be a wonderful visit. I expressed to her how the kindness of her and her husband helped launch me well in a new country. I know that it meant a lot to her to see that what she did back then truly made a difference. And of course we caught each other up on what had happened in each of our lives over the years. Betty even reminded me of some things from when I stayed at her house that I’d forgotten.

I left that night promising to come back next summer and bring Diane. As fate would have it, that’s not how things turned out. Betty passed away about 6 months later. I am so glad I went to see Betty and got to visit with her one more time.

Our lives don’t play out in isolation. We each have people who are crucial at various points in our lives. Some for a short encounter, others for a longer season. The important thing is that in a particular situation, they provide insight, encouragement, friendship, a willingness to walk the road with us for a while. They inspire us to dream and follow those dreams.

Sometimes we get to be in that position for others, to cheer them on or help them move forward on their path or even try a new one.

And so I got to thinking that I needed to express my gratitude and let some people who were key in me becoming who I am know how things turned out.

It’s involved letters, visits in person and opportunities to reconnect. I didn’t have an expectation of a particular reaction from the other person when I set out to express my gratitude. I simply wanted to tell them of the difference they made.

Yet “the rest of the story” became as big of a blessing as the first part.

There are really two takeaways from this:

Do good things for others, be helpful. You never know where that will lead or what foundation you are laying today. Investing in other lives is like planting seeds, or watering a young plant. One day it will blossom and bear fruit. How awesome is that!

Thanksgiving is right around the corner. Isn’t that a perfect time to pause and recall people who have been influential in your life? What was it they did that stood out or made a difference for you? What did their acts accomplish in your life?

Then make some time to let them know.

Truly, today it’s easier than ever to catch up with people or reconnect. Think of 3 people who have been truly instrumental in your life and then find a way to let them know. Write a letter or email, call them, see them in person — whatever works in your situation. Just do it.