Most often, I write my intros first. But I’m writing this one after having written everything below, so I can tell you right now I’m tearing up a bit, that's the kind of post this is. When I wrote the tongue-in-cheek title, I smiled and I was excited to start thinking back. Well, I really thought back. And I'm so grateful for my parents. It's all their fault I'm where I am in life. ☀️
My father is an incredibly hardworking, creative, no-excuses Marine and businessman.
My dad didn’t finish college on the first try. He went into the Marine Corps in his early twenties, working largely with electronics and gathering lots of stories he’d later tell me as I fell asleep and marching songs he’d "sing" to me — my lullabies. Going into the military he married my mom (who he’d known since they were in the fifth grade), moved them to California, and less than a year later I was born. He was stationed in Japan for much of my first year, and was in the military for years longer. We have these old home videos my mom used to make of me as a baby and she’d send them to him in the mail — no Skype back then. He’d mail her cassettes back of him standing in the trees and talking about what was going on, and asking her questions (probably a lot about me 😊).
My dad worked a bunch of jobs between the Marine Corps and the industry he finally landed. I know he was a roofer for a while. I know he worked at a pizza place for a minute. I know he worked at in a mailing room at a shipping company called Maersk, and after a while of going up and down from the mailroom to the offices and getting to know the guys in the cubicles, he found out they’d be interviewing for more salesmen and he went, got a suit, and interviewed.
He got that job. He went to it every day. When my mom was working too, he did my hair in the morning, and dropped me off at school and picked me up, and made dinner (anyone else remember Chef Boyardee?). Throughout my elementary school years, when I said things like, “I need to stay up late to finish my homework!” Nah, man. That was not an option. My dad would smile at me and say, “Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” Which I still don't even really get though! No one was saying it was an emergency, I was just saying I wanted to stay up another hour. 🙄 He also used to tell me that I was “a natural” anything. “You’re a Varner,” he’d say. “We’re natural athletes” or “artists” or “speakers” or anything I’d ever wanted to be.
I remember my dad coming home from work tired. I remember him coming home from work stressed. I remember him coming home from work excited about promotions and sometimes bonuses. Our apartment was really small. It was drafty — there was a whole room we never used, I called it "the cold room," it was so drafty. The door to my room was always coming off the sliding track. I remember he thought about changing jobs once, and I remember that well. He came home talking about becoming a state trooper, and I cried because I was afraid he’d get hurt doing a job like that.
So, that passed, my dad kept working in that office, and eventually, he went back to school to finish what he’d started before I was born. I was in middle school around that time. He’d take me with him to the library at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and I’d read a book while he studied and worked on assignments. He would sit alone at a table in the library in a quiet place, and he’d just put his head down until his work was done. His handwriting was nice, his notes neat and organized, and I don’t think I ever heard him complain about his schoolwork once.
That must be exactly how I knew what to do when I got to college. I had a favorite quiet spot in my library at the University of Richmond. Saturday mornings I’d often wake up early, eat breakfast and go sit, head down until the evening sometimes, whenever my work was done. I don't think I pulled a single all-nighter in college, and I think that's why.
My dad did change jobs eventually, but not industries. After going from the mailroom to a salesperson at Maersk, where he worked for 8 years, he was hired at Tradewinds Intl, where he worked up to the vice president seat, where he's been for over 10 years and still is now, working hard every day, commuting sometimes for hours in that fabulous New Jersey traffic.
Look at my dad and there’s no doubt, it is definitely his fault that I’m doing all that I do. It is definitely his fault that I learned what it looked like to put your head down and keep working until the job is done. It’s definitely his fault that my standards for excellence became very high at a very young age. It’s definitely his fault that I learned to do as many things today as I can do, rather than wait until tomorrow. It's his fault that I believe if I don’t finish something the first time that's okay, I can finish it later. And that everything I do, I do not just for myself, but for God, my family, and other folks too.
My mother is a compassionate and tirelessly multitasking artist and entrepreneur.
My mother went to Rutgers and studied journalism and communications. Then she married my dad, moved to California, gave birth to me, and went back to New Jersey while my dad was stationed in Japan. She wrote some articles while we stayed with my grandmother (she mentions it in the video above, which also has my family talking in the background, lol), before my dad came back and we moved into a little street in New Jersey where I spent all my elementary school years and one of my middle school ones.
When we did live on that little street, she worked at Dow Jones & Company, which — I never knew what that company was until this day when I went and looked it up, lol — I just knew as a kid that it was the place that kept my mom away until late at night after my bed time. So I’d stay awake in bed waiting to hear the back door in that tiny apartment open and hear her come into the living room — waiting to hear my dad leave the living room so I could “sleep walk” (apparently she always knew I was faking) in there with her or I’d throw a doll onto the floor of my room and climb down to lay there and pretend that I’d fallen out of the bed so she’d come in to me.
I really don’t know much about that work she did when she was out of the house but I remember the work she did on her boxy Macintosh computer when she was in the house, all the Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing and those early versions of Microsoft Word and Adobe InDesign and Illustrator that she used to write the children’s books she’d later self-publish.
I used Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, and I watched her use those Adobe programs. I watched and played and tried new things all under her encouraging sight. I remember her giving me paints one time, and letting me do my thing. I made this odd really abstract design of a man lifting his hands and the stars and the moon and she made me feel like it was just the most artistic thing in the world. She kept it, took a picture of it, decided to use it as the logo for her self-owned publishing company, icdat, as in “I Can Do All Things,” as in “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me.”
It may have been around this time that my sister Elan was born and my mom stopped working at Dow Jones and started working in the office at our church. She’d bring me with her there. I’d help fold the church bulletins she designed while my sister sat in a playpen in that tiny church office.
I remember my mom babysitting too, there were twin schoolmates of mine who came over after school and stayed with us, and there were our neighbors, three kids from my age to toddler-age, my mom would watch sometimes. She was and still is an entirely open-door sort of person. We’d have people coming over often, just to talk with her, and she’d always be available.
And when my mom had finished writing, illustrating, designing and publishing her first books, Theodore Walks in the Light, Theodore Goes Fishing, Theodore Gets Salty, and The Worrisome Worm, all these books for children bringing lofty Biblical concepts to a level I could understand — don’t you know my mom said to me, “Let’s make these books ourselves,” and we handmade the first copies. I remember rolling the laminate over the covers. I remember her sowing the binding. I remember the gluing and all the precise lining up we had to do to get the cover attached to the pages just right.
As our family grew and moved and went through all kinds of changes, my mother took care of everything, kids, cooking, cleaning, her books, other friends and family, other jobs. She did everything prayerfully, with the utmost faith that God would direct her steps and be with her. From my high school years through college to this very day, I talk to her constantly. She's always been behind me and beside me, my best friend and my cheerleader and my place to turn to for comfort and advice.
It is definitely my mother’s fault that I do what I do. It is her fault that I came to believe I had something of worth to offer in this world — something born of compassion and skill. It is her fault that I didn't think it was such a crazy idea to start my business — she started her own after all! It's her fault that I believed I could teach myself to do things like all the graphic design work I do. And it's her fault that I learned that I could hustle, I could multitask, I could do more than one thing for a while if I needed to, to support the dream, the work, the life I'm trying to build for myself, my family and ultimately my community.
Do you have family histories that you feel deeply connected to your own journey? I'd love to hear about it. Share something with me about that — or whatever else is on your mind! — in the comments below.