As I grow older I have more and more appreciation for history and the times in which my parents and grandparents lived. As we head toward a new year and new decade I find myself thinking of my grandparents as young men and women who had endured World War I and seen the influenza epidemic that killed millions worldwide. Somehow they managed to find enough optimism to carry on with their lives and their work. They began their families with hopefulness and hard working attitudes that they passed down to their children. They wanted little more than to have a home and food on the table at night. At the dawn of the 1920’s there was a feeling that the world had finally set itself aright and there was much rejoicing. They had no idea that by the end of the decade a gut wrenching economic depression would threaten the very security that they so longed to have but they were not to be defeated. Instead they took all means necessary to keep going.
Both of my parents were born in the roaring twenties of the last century. They would feel the effects of the cataclysms that were to come. The rising storm in Europe of the nineteen thirties would punctuate their youth and the attack on Pearl Harbor in the nineteen forties would send them to war. They had inherited a can do spirit from their parents that would define their lives and cause them to wonder again and again about the complaints of the generations to come. They knew how to sacrifice and save and endure hardship with a stoic determination.
The grandparents of my era have long been gone and the parents are slowly leaving this earth as they struggle with the diseases of the very old with the same kind of dignity and courage that has defined their entire lives. As one of my high school classmates pointed out about her recently deceased mother they would expect us their children to “dust off our boots and keep on.” This is the way they were and so too were their parents.
I don’t recall hearing many complaints from my elders. They took it for granted that life would sometimes be quite hard. They tackled difficulties silently and with a sense that all things both good and bad end soon enough, They seemed to have the patience of Job and the wisdom of Solomon. They needed very little to be happy, finding contentment in meaningful relationships rather than things. They never seemed to dwell on the negative, instead they set to work each day rejoicing in the simple fact of having a roof over their heads and dinner on the table. For the most part they were a happy lot who understood the ebb and flow of life and accepted both their tribulations and their trials with great dignity.
We have so much more bounty today than our elders ever did and yet we seem to be stuck in a rut of discontent. We do a great deal more complaining than they ever did. Perhaps a critique now and again is a good thing, but constant whining seems to be counterproductive and a bit ridiculous given how much progress we have enjoyed. We seem to take our luxuries for granted in ways that my generation’s parents and grandparents never would have. Our wants seem at times to be unquenchable.
As children my grandparents had no electricity or indoor plumbing. They were lucky to get seven or eight years of education before being sent to work. Both of my grandmothers were illiterate. My mother and father were the first in their families to graduate from high school and then continue on to college. They were frugal even as their prospects for success rose. They vividly recalled the depression years and the lengths to which their parents went to keep them housed and fed. When my father died and my mother assumed the role of a single parent she already possessed the survival skills that she would need to lead me and my brothers into adulthood.
I learned so much from my elders but I often wish that I had listened to them even more. They had a remarkable approach to living that is sometimes missing in today’s world. They were the generations that kept calm and carried on even in the face of challenges that should have broken their spirits. They attempted to pass on their wisdom to me but my mind was always in a hurry to be its own master. Their stories and advice were all too often like the incomprehensible babble of Charlie Brown’s teachers. Now that they are gone I find myself wishing that I had spent more time recording their voices, asking them questions and taking their experiences to heart. I suppose that the curse of our youth is our tendency to disregard the common sense of the adults who raised us. By the time we realize our mistake it is often too late.
In my own family only my father-in-law and two of my aunts remain to provide me with guidance. I find myself valuing their sagacity more and more. They all possess a kind of contentment that comes from a clear understanding that life can at times be quite hard but there is always joy to be found in the smallest of things. They have learned the value of family and laughter and seeing the sun rise in a new dawn. They have known economic hardship, war, loss, bad health and yet they still smile and feel gratitude. They know better than to sweat the small stuff because they understand that there is always small stuff that matters little. I hope I can continue to learn from them and listen with a rapt attention when they speak that I should have adopted long ago. Theirs are the voices that all of us need to hear.