By Jack Levine
Sunday, September 9th is Grandparents Day, specifically dedicated to give well-deserved honor to that stage of life when perspective is so valuable because of the treasury of history that most of our GRANDS possess.
Who among us has not benefited from the attention of an elder in our life…either a blood relative, family friend, or neighbor? And as we are learning, today’s grandparents are healthier, more active, involved and energized that anytime in human history.
As part of my 4Generations Institute work, I’ve been collecting family remembrances – stories passed across the generations – which provide a guiding light in my public policy advocacy.
I love family history. It’s what allows us to see ourselves through the lens of our personal past. Recalling our own history evokes a sense of responsibility to the future…..to create our own legacies. Here’s one of my favorite family remembrances.
My Grandma Minnie always liked to get people talking. As long as she was in a stimulating conversation, she was happy. Maybe she was just plain nosy, but I think there’s a better explanation. Minnie needed to know what was going on, and hearing news from the mouths of people she knew made life more interesting….and maybe, just maybe…..she would have an opportunity to share some bits of advice!
One way Minnie gathered her “sources” was setting a tender trap. The bait? A fresh-baked pan of her delicious cinnamon coffee cake. Here’s the strategy. Mix up a batch of rich, yeasty dough, slather it with butter, sprinkle it generously with sugar and cinnamon, pop it in the oven, and open all of the kitchen windows. As that sweet aroma began wafting in the morning breeze, you’d be astonished how many neighbor women remembered “Oh, I have something to tell Minnie!”
Following their noses to Minnie’s kitchen table, they’d come in groups of three and four, wearing their aprons, hair tucked into old-country babushkas, bearing tidings of family, friends and sharing those wonderful “fish-stories.”
Those tales got their name because they were often told at the fish store by women waiting for their hand-picked catch of the day to be gutted, scaled and filleted. In the several minutes it took the fish man to do his sharp-knife duty, you’d be amazed how much neighborhood news could be shared.
But most of the talk back at Minnie’s kitchen table was personal. “It’s Morris,” Yetta would begin. “First he said he was working late. I believed him. Then he started with the stories about helping a friend with a problem. I still believed him. But then he ran out of stories. Now I think he’s up to no good.”
Between bites of coffee cake, the other women would nod in sympathy. But Minnie had something to ask. “Yetta, what kind of no good? A girl or gambling?”
“How should I know?” sighed Yetta, shaking her head slowly, her eyes looking down in sorrow.
“Ask him,” replied Minnie. “The truth might hurt, but not knowing is no good either. If he lies, you will likely know it….at least he’ll know you don’t believe the stories, and you’re putting your foot down. Morris should know you care enough to learn the truth. If he won’t tell you, then cross that bridge later.”
Minnie was not a credentialed counselor, of course. She was a kitchen table connector with Old County smarts and a keen sense of justice. Her role was to gather “the girls”, hear their news, and give each one a special word of wisdom. She believed in teamwork. “Try picking up a big table by yourself……impossible. Everybody take hold of a corner…up it goes.”
Minnie organized people as naturally as she baked. And with the same system. No formal recipe…..just good ingredients and the right way of mixing. Whether it was a special dinner celebration, taking up a collection to help a sick friend to the hospital, or taking in a family who lost their apartment, Minnie made the plan.
For Minnie, solving a problem wasn’t really too complicated. Get people together, find out what’s going on, think of ways to work it out, and get started. If you have to change direction…so change direction!
Not acting was Minnie’s pet peeve. “You’ll wait a long time with your mouth open before a roasted chicken will fly in” was one of her favorite sayings. Whether it was attending to a private family matter or exercising her cherished right to vote, Minnie believed that knowing, feeling and wishing are not enough to solve a problem. She believed in getting the job done.
We all had our own childhood helpmates, people who were there when we needed them, opening their ears to our plans, and their hearts to our problems.
If not a close family member, maybe a neighbor, a teacher, a cleric or another mentor. I know that each of us had some of those special relationships which helped build our confidence, shape our attitudes, inspire us to achieve, and pave our paths to adulthood.
My Grandma Minnie was such a person for me. I am convinced my passion for advocacy was, in part, nurtured at her kitchen table, listening to her wise counsel and seeing her act in subtle but strong ways to get others moving forward.
Please take a moment to think of that special older person in your childhood whose influence moved you in the right direction. Consider what that powerful presence was, and how it helped guide who you are today.
Jack Levine, Founder, 4Generations Institute
Jack is also the director of GRAND Magazine’s GRANDPartners for GRANDParents program. Please contact Jack if interested in learning more about how your organization can be part of this program.