When young John catches his mother burying something in the backyard, he agrees to keep it secret. He promises never to tell his father. John couldn’t have imagined how much Mom’s secret would one day change the world.
“Your place is at home, Sylvia, taking care of your family, not playing around with this nonsense!”
The sound of papers tearing followed Dad’s shouts. Mom wailed, and the little boy peeped from his hiding spot beneath his bed.
“Don’t, Chris, please!”
John crawled out from beneath the bed. Mom needed help! He scurried to his bedroom door but froze as Dad shouted again. Something metal banged. Was that the fireplace screen? The loud clang vibrated through the walls.
“There, now there’ll be no more of this nonsense,” Dad declared.
Mom sobbed like someone had cut her heart out. She sounded so sad that John started crying too. He wanted to go to her, but Dad’s heavy footsteps were heading toward his room. John quickly crawled back to his hiding spot and squeezed Red Ted, his bear, against his chest.
“Please, God, don’t let him come in here,” the frightened boy whispered. “Make him go to bed and leave me and Mom alone.”
A week later, John played Heroes in the garden with Red Ted. He’d found a solid stick to use as a sword and swung it against the big oak tree at the bottom of the yard.
“You’ll never hurt anyone again, you villain,” he cried, chopping some leaves from a low branch. “I’ve beaten you, and good has won.”
Satisfied, John went in search of the next bad guy to defeat. He was trying to determine the intentions of a tall weed when he noticed Mom digging in the garden. He dropped his stick and went over to her.
“Mom, what are you doing?” he asked.
Mom jumped in fright. “John, you startled me!” She glanced from side to side and then pressed a finger to her lips. “I’m doing something super top secret,” Mom whispered.
“You’re not allowed to see, and you can never tell anyone, understand?”
John nodded. He went to look for a different game to play, but curiosity got the better of him. John and Red Ted hid behind a bush with bright yellow flowers and watched Mom place a package in the hole. She covered it with soil, set a stone over it, and went inside.
For years, John wondered about the package Mom buried. John thought he might’ve imagined it as part of his game as he grew older, but the stone she placed there was proof of what he saw. One day, he decided to ask about it. He was finishing his breakfast, and Dad was leaving for work.
“I had to hide it away somewhere he’d never find it: in my garden.”
“Mom, remember when I was about six and you buried something in the backyard?”
Mom glanced at the entrance to the sitting room before quickly moving to John’s side.
“Don’t talk about it,” she whispered. “It’s a secret, remember?”
John nodded. “But can’t I know what it is?”
“One day, when you’re older. And John,” Mom fixed him with an intense stare, “no matter what happens, your father mustn’t find out about it. Understand?”
“I promise,” John said.
As John grew up, he asked Mom about the secret several more times, but her answer remained the same: she’d tell him when he was older, and his father must never find out about it.
Sometimes, John resented Mom for not trusting him with her secret when they were close in all other respects. Mom attended all his soccer games, and school plays. She stood up for him when he got into trouble at school and never missed a parent-teacher conference.
Mom was always there when John was troubled or had big news to share, but she refused to disclose her secret. It nagged at John during his quiet moments when he moved to the city to attend college and when he started his first business.
“Am I ever going to be old enough for your secret, Mom?”
John asked during one of his weekly phone calls with her.
“One of these days, my dearest. One of these days,” she replied.
“It must be something very important,” John muttered after hanging up. “Maybe something to do with Dad, something she could use to divorce him?”
John shook his head and went to the kitchen to prepare his dinner. If the secret was something Mom could use to divorce Dad, why had she buried it instead of using it? His childhood would’ve been much happier without Dad’s shouting and old-fashioned rules.
John huffed and continued chopping onions for his pasta bolognese. He could imagine his father’s outraged expression if he saw how adept John had become in the kitchen.
“That’s woman’s work,” Dad always said when he caught Mom teaching John how to cook. He’d then get dragged away, literally sometimes, and put to work doing something more ‘manly,’ like fixing a tap or changing the spark plugs in Dad’s ancient truck.
“I suppose it’s also manly to starve for want of a decent meal,” John muttered. He tipped the diced onions into the skillet. “What a load of bull.”
A year later, Mom fell ill. It was very sudden and progressed quickly. John rushed home to visit her. When he arrived, he sank to his knees beside her bed and took her hand.
“John, I need you to do something for me,” Mom whispered.
“I thought I’d be able to dig it up myself once you were grown, but it never seemed like the right time. Now, this disease has got me and I can’t even leave this bed.”
“The secret?” John asked.
Mom nodded. “Bring it to me so I can show you.”
John wasted no time. He fetched a shovel from the shed and went to Mom’s garden. Weeds had sprouted between the flowers in the garden bed, but the rock was exactly where he remembered it. John pushed the shovel into the earth.
He didn’t have to dig deep before he uncovered a flat, square package wrapped in plastic and duct tape. He grabbed scissors on his way back to Mom’s bedroom. Once he was sitting beside her, he carefully opened the parcel.
Inside was a folded envelope filled with schematics drawn on legal pad paper. John recognized Mom’s handwriting in the neat notes accompanying the drawings.
“What is this?” John asked.
“Before you were born, I was an engineer,” Mom said. “I quit because your father insisted. He convinced me that my role in life was to care for my family and raise you. So, I put my dreams aside and invested everything I had into seeing you succeed.”
“This thing is amazing, and it would’ve changed many lives for the better if it had been developed sooner. I’m to blame for that.”
“I don’t regret it,” Mom continued, “but lately, I’ve thought about other women my age who built successful careers while raising children, and I’ve wondered what might’ve been if I didn’t bury those papers in the ground.”
“You shouldn’t have felt like you had to hide this, or your talent, away.” John frowned at the pages, still trying to figure out what they were for.
“Maybe, but I had to ensure they stayed safe. He burned my other papers when you were five and told me my office was the kitchen. This design can do immense good for lots of people so I had to hide it away somewhere he’d never find it: in my garden.”
“I planned to return to it, but time slipped away from me.” Mom placed her hand over John’s.
“I leave it to you now, John. This illness won’t let me…”
Mom’s hand went limp and fell to the bed. The world stopped turning for John as he looked at Mom’s face and found it slack, empty of the light and strength he’d always seen in her. Tears ran freely down his face and into his beard.
“I swear I’ll make your dream a reality, Mom,” he sobbed.
But first, John needed to know what her dream was. When John returned home after the funeral, he took Mom’s papers to an engineer, who informed him they were designs for a wheelchair.
“A speedy wheelchair, too,” the engineer said. “It looks like the control mechanism can be varied quite easily to accommodate varying levels of motor function, so it can be tailored to suit a variety of needs.”
John nodded. He remembered Mom once showed him photos of her younger sister, who’d been in a wheelchair from a young age. She’d never reached adulthood, but John guessed she inspired Mom’s design. More than ever, he felt driven to see Mom’s dream come to life.
By the end of the year, John had raised funding and support from several organizations. Soon, the Sylvia Project was producing wheelchairs for children nationwide, but John didn’t stop there.
The following year, John was a speaker at the state science fair. He told the audience his mom’s story and urged everyone to encourage girls and women to enter STEM fields.
“To ensure none of you ever give up on your dreams, the Sylvia Project is offering grants to girls who present innovative projects that will benefit society,” John concluded.
His announcement was greeted with a round of applause. John gave out his first two grants that day, followed by many more. With help from the Sylvia Project, girls from across the country went on to patent life-changing inventions.
However, the most extraordinary achievement for the Sylvia Project and John personally was yet to come.
“My granddaddy always told me that wisdom comes with age.” John’s dad stared down as he got used to controlling his Sylvia Project wheelchair.
“He told me that although you might try your hardest to live a good life, you’ll still find things you must repent for when you’re old enough to reflect on your choices. I think I finally know what he meant.”
John sat silently in an armchair with his arms crossed. Visiting Dad was difficult for him. He’d never quite been able to forgive the man for stifling Mom’s brilliance or all the scary fights that sent him crawling under the bed to hide with Red Ted as a child.
Nonetheless, John had specially ordered a wheelchair for Dad once he noticed the man was developing mobility problems. As impassable as the rift of pain between them seemed, he was still John’s dad.
“I was wrong to stop your mother from living her dream,” Dad continued in a soft voice. “This thing is amazing, and it would’ve changed many lives for the better if it had been developed sooner. I’m to blame for that.”
John frowned. Was he imagining things, or did Dad admit he was wrong?
Dad sighed. “If only Sylvie was alive so I could apologize to her.”
It would’ve been easy for John to rebuke his father, but he knew that wouldn’t do anyone any good. Instead, he realized this might be an opportunity to get Dad to see outside the box of his staunch family values.
“There are others just like her who could use your help if you really want to make a difference,” John said. “I could use a hand finding girls with great projects that need a grant to continue with their work.”
Dad raised his eyebrows. “Are you offering me a job?”
“I’m offering you a chance to honor Mom’s memory by ensuring no other girl has to bury her dreams in her backyard. Will you accept?”
What can we learn from this story?
Don’t let anyone destroy your dreams. Sylvia tried hard to keep her dream alive, but her husband’s threatening behavior crushed her spirit. Her and John’s lives would’ve been very different if she’d made a different choice.
Let your talents shine for the benefit of all. Everyone has a unique skill or idea, and one of the most fulfilling things you can do in life is to use these talents to improve the lives of others.
Share this story with your friends. It might brighten their day and inspire them.