By Jack Levine
Tallahassee Founder, 4Generations Institute
I find that oftentimes the most simple stories give the most powerful lessons. One such parable was written in the early 1800s by the Brothers Grimm, “The Wooden Bowl.’’
In a time long ago in a far-away place, a frail old man went to live with his son, daughter-in-law, and four-year-old grandson. The old man’s hands trembled, his eyesight was blurred, and his step faltered.
The family ate together at the table, but the elderly grandfather’s shaky hands and failing sight made eating difficult. Food fell off his spoon onto the table. When he grasped the glass, milk spilled.
The son and daughter-in-law became irritated with the mess. “We must do something about grandfather,” said the son. “I’ve had enough of his spilled milk, noisy eating and food on the floor.”
The husband and wife set a small table in the corner. There, grandfather ate alone while the rest of the family enjoyed dinner. Since grandfather had broken a dish or two, his food was served in a wooden bowl.
When the family glanced in grandfather’s direction, sometimes he had a tear in his eye as he sat alone. Still, the only words the couple had for him were sharp admonitions when he dropped a fork or spilled food.
The four-year-old watched it all in silence. One evening before supper, the father noticed his son playing with wood scraps on the floor. He asked the child sweetly, “What are you making?”
Just as sweetly, the boy responded, “Oh, I am making a little bowl for you and mama to eat your food in when I grow up.” The four-year-old smiled and went back to work.
The words so struck the parents that they were speechless. Then tears started to stream down their cheeks. Though no word was spoken, both knew what must be done.
That evening the husband took grandfather’s hand and gently led him back to the family table. For the remainder of his days, he ate every meal with the family. And for some reason, neither husband nor wife seemed to care any longer when a fork was dropped, milk spilled or the tablecloth soiled.
Children are remarkably perceptive. Their eyes ever observe, their ears ever listen, and their minds ever process the messages they absorb. Their honesty can catch us off guard and strike at the target of the heart.
If they see us cultivate a happy home atmosphere, they will imitate that attitude for the rest of their lives. The wise parent realizes that every day the building blocks are being laid for the child’s future.
So let’s be wise builders and role models to everyone we meet. Our children are watching. Like the adage goes ... “Children occasionally do as we say ... but invariably do as we do.”
As I think of the many challenges we face as a society, one trend which most concerns me is the segregation of the ages in our families and communities.
A generation or two ago, family members lived proximate to one another ... in many instances either under the same roof or within close walking distance. While these arrangements may not have been perfect for some families, there was great benefit for children to know and interact with their elders.
The wealth of our cultural, faith and historical heritage is best conveyed through communication with those who’ve lived a fuller life and have the accrued wisdom to share.
We have become a mobile society ... moving from place to place ... usually for educational and economic opportunities. As a result, the roots we grew up with became transplanted elsewhere. At the same time, many members of our grandparenting generation who could afford to do so relocated, as well ... into communities designed for “the retirement lifestyle”.
The attraction of a well-earned leisure life is real, but the emotional impact of separation from family members is oftentimes not factored into the equation. While multiplying the perceived benefits of this relocation, we may have inadvertently divided the family.
Connecting the generations through civic engagement and giving the gift of time philanthropy (my term for volunteerism) are certainly opportunities which provide all members of a community a sense of belonging and accomplishment.
We must strongly advocate for policies, programs and projects which connect people across cultural and generational divides so we learn from one another and as a result build stronger bonds.
Just as in families, the health of a community is in the depth and breadth of relationships among those who share common interests ... and wish to personify the Golden Rule.