By Jack Levine, Founder 4 Generations Institute, Director of GRANDPartners for GRANDParents Program
For most of us, no one provided a more vital link to our heritage and family history than our grandparents. Wherever they were from, and no matter their background, our grandparents provided a first-person connection to our past.
Whether by birth or through adoption, grandparents are treasures deserving of honor and respect. Like all of us, none were perfect, but most were there for us when we needed them most.
The wisdom of our elders is irrefutable. I distinctly remember so many ways my grandparents, especially my dear Grandma Minnie, influenced me by example. Here are a baker’s dozen life lessons I learned at her kitchen table….
¨ Love knows no boundary. Keeping close to the people you love, and learning to love them without having to love everything they do, is the key to family strength. “You don’t have to be perfect to be loved.” Minnie held tight to those she needed and those who needed her.
¨ An open door is an open heart. Minnie’s kitchen table was a place where others came to eat and be fed spiritually. If a neighbor or their family had a problem, she was there for them. “If I needed them, I’d hope for the same treatment.” The golden rule does not tarnish.
¨ Waste not; want not. Finishing our meals or saving leftovers for another time is one of the most compelling constants for our elders. Many remembered the pangs of deprivation, so therefore valued the food on their plates and the treasure of having enough to eat for everyone. Minnie always made a little extra, just in case an unexpected visitor came for dinner.
¨ Charity begins at home. As little as they had, our grandparents always seemed to find a way to help others in need. Minnie had a tin can in which she would drop coins…”a little something for those with less than us.” Their example of giving, both through volunteer time and money provided the family a clear sense of appreciating the value of what we had. Reaching across the street as a way of helping others is good for them and us, too!
¨ Cleanliness is next to godliness. A clean home is the symbol of how we should conduct our lives in the sight of others. Minnie swept the sidewalk in front of her house almost every day. “When our guests come to our door, they should have a clear and welcoming path.” Picking up after ourselves so those who follow us have a clean path is a great lesson personally and environmentally.
¨ Progress comes in little steps. Expecting too much too soon is unreasonable. “A drop plus a drop fills up the pot” was among Minnie’s favorite phrases. Every day is another opportunity to take positive steps…for family and for community. Her crocheting and knitting prowess proved that each stitch is essential to make a beautiful garment.
¨ Laughter is the closest distance between two people. It’s a pleasure to enjoy the company of others and to hear a good joke, tell a witty story, and listen to the folk tales of the old country. These are among life’s great gifts. “Frowns make more wrinkles than smiles,” Minnie would say with glee.
¨ Honest compliments are among our most valued possessions. Giving credit when credit is due, and honoring the leadership of those whose energy and enthusiasm helps others, is important. “People shouldn’t assume you know about their good works. Tell them they are appreciated.” And if someone compliments you, accept the gift with gratitude and grace.
¨ If there’s a problem, try to fix it. Minnie knew that “you’ll sit a long time with your mouth wide open before a roasted chicken will fly in.” Ignoring a problem is neither smart nor sensible. Even a failed attempt at solving the problem is better than not doing anything.
¨ Don’t leave politics up to someone else. As an immigrant girl, Minnie felt the sting of discrimination and injustice. She was a suffragist as a young woman, and upon becoming a naturalized citizen, she voted for the first time in 1920. Minnie celebrated that right by never missing an election in her life. Even into her 90’s, when she had to helped into the voting booth, she did her duty with dignity. “Power is not given, it’s won with courage and hard work,” she said.
¨ Words without deeds are empty. Someone who makes a promise and doesn’t keep his word is an emotional thief. ‘It’s better to keep quiet than make a meaningless offer.” How many people set others up for disappointment by saying rather than doing? Our children learn from us not so much by what we say, but by what we do.
¨ Patience pays dividends. Whether it was baking her famous cinnamon buns or preparing a full holiday dinner for 16, Minnie knew that the process required patience and persistence. Traditional food preparation may seem archaic, but the beauty of yeast-raised dough, simmering spices, and closely watched pots gave the family an appreciation of the love that went into so many meals. “I like to cook because when I see the faces of satisfied eaters, I’m happy.”
¨ Resting is a reward for working hard. Minnie earned her rest, and made the time to relax, listen to music, observe nature, or read for pleasure. “Too much of anything isn’t good…including work.” When the Sabbath came, Minnie understood that rest provided the emotional and physical renewal she needed for a productive week ahead.
I’m not alone in receiving the gift from my elders’ life treasury. Family history is a living legacy. It’s not only the story of who our elders were, but it defines in many ways who we are.
Over the centuries, this nation has been and continues to be populated by those whose life’s story is worth telling. Whether they came for freedom or by force in slavery, the values our grandparents brought with them are heirlooms which our children deserve to inherit.
Their sacrifices fueled our freedoms. Those who survived became advocates for causes and people who needed them…..their life’s mission was to make the world a bit better than the one they experienced.
While I’m not yet a grandparent, my appreciation of family history is translated to our sons, and I’m confident that someday, they will in turn have the opportunity to pass along the generational gift.
Never hesitate to exercise your advocacy voice…in respect for those who paved our path to a better future….our valiant veterans, ardent activists and champions for causes which deserved their passion.
Please consider recording your family history, share the stories with your children and grandchildren, and make sure that treasured family photos are duplicated and records are kept safe and out of harm’s way.
If you wish, I can send you a document that guides you to ways to capture your family history….Just send me a note to jack@4Gen.org with FAMILY HISTORY in the subject line and I pledge to send it your way…..a gift for recording your family’s heritage.
I’m honored to have your vote of confidence….together we make a difference!
Jack Levine, Founder – 4Generations Institute
Partnership Director – GRAND Media