“The thing I like best about the Old Man is that he’s willing to talk about what he knows, and he never talks down to a kid, which is me, who wants to know things. When you are as old as the Old Man, you know a lot of things that you forgot you ever knew, because they’ve been a part of you so long. You forget that a young’ un hasn’t had as a hard a start in the world as you did, and you don’t bother to spread the information around. You forget that other people might be curious about what you already knew and forgot.”
—Robert Ruark, “The Old Man and the Boy”
A few months ago, I wrote an article about parents and grandparents passing along traditions and family history to the young. A reader emailed me applauding my advice. He was a 90-year-old, second-generation immigrant from Italy, and from the little he told me, clearly had a good many things he wanted to say to his descendants.
Unfortunately, he wrote to me, none of them ever asked about his past.
In my reply, I commiserated with him, pointing out that many young people are caught up in their own lives, that teenagers, in particular, are blind to all but themselves, their present, and their future, and that sometimes, we who begin recalling the “good old days” may be shunted aside as fogies from a by-gone era.
I also told my correspondent, but without any explanation, that he could share his story with his children and grandchildren without depending on them to approach him.
That the young often neglect to investigate the lives of the old is a given. Surely many of us who are older look back with regret on our own failures to ask our elders, now deceased, to share their stories. I can think of dozens of questions I might have put to my grandparents and parents. How did you feel falling in love with Grandpa? What was the happiest moment of your life? The saddest? The most stressful? What were your favorite books and movies? How did you make important decisions? How did you react when your plans went off track? I have an inkling of some possible answers, but these are houses built on sand and speculation.
To be fair, these ancestors failed me as much as I failed them. I was young and dumb; they were older and wiser. They might have made more of an effort to impart their wisdom and experiences. Using examples from their past, they might have warned me of the pitfalls and snares on the pathways of life, pointed me more often to the mountaintops and high plains.
So, to return to the dilemma of the elderly gentleman: How can we hand over our heritage to our children and grandchildren? What are some practical ways we can share what we have learned with those walking on the road behind us, even when they fail to ask for such help?
First, we can leave them a record of our lives, what we have witnessed and done, and what we have undergone, good and bad. We can write out our stories, or record them on homemade videos or CDs. We can tell them of our triumphs and defeats, of the times we embraced the world and the times the world spurned that embrace, of what we have loved. These reminiscences require commitment and diligence on our part, but if we think of them as mailing a letter about ourselves into the future, that sacrifice seems minuscule.
Next, we can set aside time with our children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews with the specific intention of talking about our past and the lessons we learned. We schedule the hour and place, and dive into reminiscence. During my boyhood visits to Pennsylvania to visit relatives, my Uncle John would show up, and he and I would drift in the evenings to the picnic table in my grandfather’s backyard, where in the twilight, he would tell me of my family history: the three German brothers who had come to America before the Revolutionary War, the relatives who had helped operate the Underground Railroad, the two boys who had died in the Civil War, the way a military unit looked as it passed in review on its way to fight Spanish forces in Cuba. Without those evenings, I would know far less about my heritage. After his death, Uncle John’s sons honored me by sending me the family’s Civil War letters the two of us had read together long ago.
Finally, seize the moment. If your granddaughter asks you whether you ever went to California, tell her about the time you and her grandmother drove across the country and the long trip across Texas (“The sun has riz, and the sun has set, and we ain’t out of Texas yet.”) Tell her about the fake snow at the mall in San Diego at Christmas, the way the breeze sounded in the palm fronds on El Cajon Boulevard, your friend who was a Navy Seal lieutenant, the time you went south of the border to see a bullfight.
We take pleasure in giving gifts to our children and grandchildren: money, treats, and toys. But the greatest gift we can give them, other than our love and a good example, is our past and the lessons we learned there.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, North Carolina. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Virginia. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.