Saturday, December 04, 2010
An Open Letter to My Eldest Granddaughter
You made a comment when you were here at Llangollen on Thanksgiving Day. It was just an offhand remark. An observation of sorts. You made it once before, at the rectory in Chatham. You didn't say it to be bad or a mouthy 'smart aleck'. You weren't mean-spirited. You said it wistfully, almost to yourself.
Do you remember?
You said, "Gee, everything in this house is so old."
This time, however, you noted with a certain amount of surprise and approval, that we had purchased a flat-screen television for the living room, noting that it was "kinda small".
And, I suppose it is. It all depends on what you're used to, I guess.
I've been thinking about this business of "old". A lot.
When I was your age, I had the same attitude about anything my parents or grandparents did or owned, so I understand. I've also been thinking that it might be important for you to understand a bit where I come from - so you'll know where I'm coming from. If you know what I mean.
Actually, I'm thinking it might be my responsibility to tell you some of these things, so you'll understand some things about yourself - who you are. Who your "people" are. And why some of us do the things we do and believe the way we believe.
I'm going to write a bit about myself, but, if you change the ethnicity to Lebanese or French Canadian, or Irish - all part of the 'ethnic stew' that makes you who you are today - and tweak some of the details, you'll get pretty much the same picture.
So, here goes:
Today, you and I understand ourselves to be American. When I was your age, I understood myself to be Portuguese. My parents and aunts and uncles softened that a bit by saying we were "Portuguese-Americans" but they would never have said that around my grandparents.
Everybody else was American. We were Portuguese. I think that was pretty much the same for Italians, Irish, Lebanese, Greek, Jewish and French Canadians who made up the distinct neighborhoods of my - and your other grandparent's - youth.
There were no "African-Americans". Well, there were but they were called "Negros" - well, when people were being "nice". At any rate, I never met a 'person of color' until I was about your age. Oh they lived in my town, but "on the other side of the tracks". Hidden away. So marginalized they were invisible.
I think I was about your age when I realized that I was, in fact, an American. But, it was confusing.
Americans went to the "supermarket" to buy their food. We, on the other hand, had a bread man who came on Wednesdays and Fridays, a poultry man who delivered eggs on Mondays and chickens ("fresh killed" was written on the side of his truck) on Wednesdays, a produce man who delivered fresh vegetables and fruits in season, and a 'Hood' milk man who left glass bottles (not plastic containers) of milk on our doorstep in an insulated aluminum box (very modern) along with a small block of ice.
No one ever got salmonella or e-coli. If you did get sick, however, you rarely went to the doctor. You had to be nigh unto death to go to an actual physician, mostly because there was no "health insurance" but also because if you had a health problem, my grandmother had a treatment.
If you had an ache or a pain, you got a "mustard plaster" slapped on the offending joint or body part. If you had the flu or a head cold, you got to sit over a large pottery bowl of steaming hot water into which my grandmother would plop a very large dollop of Vicks Vaporub and then sit under a "tent" of somebody's flannel shirt that covered your head and the bowl so you could breathe in the vapors.
After that "treatment", Vicks was also slathered on your chest and under your nose, making the whole bedroom smell like an Altoid feels in your mouth - "curiously strong". But, it didn't matter. After you drank the "hot toddy" (whiskey boiled in water, sugar or honey and cinnamon) and went to bed, you were pretty much unconscious for twelve hours straight. When you woke up, the 'head cold' was gone.
Alcohol was as much a social drink as it was medicinal. If the baby was teething (and, there always seemed to be a teething baby somewhere in my family), we would rub whiskey (the stuff my grandfather made in the cellar, along with wine and beer) on their gums.
When we could afford it, we got a small bottle of paregoric (camphorated tincture of opium - yes, opium) to rub on their gums. I know, right?
The baby had colic? Easy. One or two tiny drops of paregoric mixed in with the baby's "formula" - a concoction of evaporated milk, corn syrup and water, all properly sterilized in boiling water and removed with thongs - would do the trick.
It also helped if you ironed a diaper, placing it carefully in the crib and put the baby, face-down, tummy on the warm cloth. "Back to sleep"? Not when I was a kid.
If you had menstrual cramps, you got red wine, boiled with lemon and honey. Again, you'd be practically comatose for the day, but you wouldn't find yourself anywhere near anything that even seemed like discomfort.
The way we looked at illness and health was also very different. We understood that we were human and that human beings don't live forever. We knew that because (1) we heard it in church every Sunday - which we had to attend, no matter what, and (2) because we often visited the local cemetery to "make a visit" to our relatives who had died.
My grandmother - "mia Vavo" had what she called "pick-a-nickas" at the cemetery. These were command family performances - no arguments - no discussion. You practically had to get a "doctor's excuse" not to attend - and that meant that you must be close to death, but a doctor's certification was the only excuse my grandmother would consider. And, even then, she would raise a suspicious eyebrow.
She would spread a table cloth over the grave, near the headstone and put out a big cardboard box of food. We would sit on the grass or on the nearby benches and have our lunch while Vavoa and some of my aunts and uncles told stories about the deceased.
Christmas and Easter? You knew you were going to "make a visit" to the family plot sometime during that season. No questions. No discussion. No arguments. That's just how it was. You would put a "blanket" of flowers on the grave - which always made me giggle, thinking how silly it was to try to keep a dead person warm with a blanket of flowers.
I totally missed the point about love. I guess I wasn't "old enough" to understand.
And, and, and . . . you dressed up. Sunday finest. It was about 'respect'.
We knew other people - Americans - had grandparents, but they lived some distance away - "over the river and through the woods" - not on the same street or in the same house. Until I was nine years old - your age - we lived in the apartment above my grandparents, but my grandmother's house was where the family always gathered, in some constellation, almost every day of the week.
We ate with our grandparents - my grandmother making big vats of stews and soups and large baskets of bread - which we gobbled up without care or concern for cholesterol or fat or grams of protein.
As we sat around the large dining room table, my grandparents would sometimes tell stories about how they came to this country "on the boat". They were both teenagers. They both traveled alone - without their parents or any of their relatives. I still have my grandmother's "guitara" - her guitar - which she brought over with her, along with her one small bag of clothes and her dreams.
My grandfather was 18 when he met my grandmother in Boston. She was 16. They were married soon after. My grandmother had twenty pregnancies and twenty-two children (two sets of twins). Only 15 of her children survived to childhood. When I was a child, I had nine aunts and uncles.
But, I knew of everyone who had died. Heard about them from conception to death. I knew because we went to visit them at the graveyard on a regular basis where their stories would be told. We would laugh and say prayers and leave with a deeper understanding of who were were and whose were were and what we believed.
Well, that's some of what I want you to know. There's a lot more, but we'll save that for another time. Your other grandmothers and grandfathers will have to tell you of their experiences of their youth.
Now, as I read over what I've written to you, I can see where you'd think "everything in this house is so old". I don't think of myself as "old".
I think of myself, as the French so elegantly put it, as "une femme d'un certain age" (that's pronounced 'a'jea') - "a woman of a certain age".
I think of myself as "getting older" - just like you. And, your sister. And, your parents. We all "get older". I'm certainly "older" than you, but I'm not "old". At least, I don't consider myself "old."
I'm not as sure what "old" is - as, like you, I once did - but when I was a kid, it meant "out of date". Meaning, "no longer useful". Something to be thrown away.
And, as you'll discover - one day soon, before you know it, and as we all do, eventually - that this is simply not true.
In fact, I'm really glad to have had the experiences I had when I was your age. I'm glad to have gone through a period of time to witness the evolution - and, revolution - of the American identity.
It makes me appreciate what it means to be an American. To live in America. To continue to work for the principles this country on which this country was founded.
That becomes especially important to me when people we've elected to positions of governmental power and influence start talking about "immigration reform" - by which they mean tightening the controls over who can come into this country to live. And work. And, have families. And, dream.
Everyone in America came here from a different place. Except, of course, for the "First People" - the "Native Americans" - to whom this land once belonged. Even they understood, however, that no one could "own" the land. Or, other people. Which made it easier for other people to take advantage of them. And now, we're trying to take advantage of anyone who wants to come and share the dream of freedom and hope.
I think part of the problem is that we've forgotten - or don't know, or become disconnected from - our stories. We've forgotten that most of our grandparents and great grandparents came here as 'immigrants'. Most of them came here with the clothes on their backs, a small bag of clothes and maybe a few pictures, and memories and dreams in their hearts.
Indeed, in a few weeks when we celebrate Christmas, one of the stories we'll hear is about how Mary and Joseph, the parents of Jesus, were once "strangers in a strange land". If it hadn't been for their courage and their faith, we wouldn't even be having a Christmas to celebrate.
I don't want that to happen to you, my darling - to forget, or not know your own story and lose appreciation for all you have.
I don't think it will, given the amazing parents you have who not only make sure that your daily needs are met and cared for, but are instilling you daily with values and ethics and morals. I'm sure you don't understand this fully, but I can tell you that you are one very fortunate, one very highly blessed little girl - especially because you have such terrific parents.
In these days leading up to Christmas, I hope one day you'll understand that it's not the "new things" your parents give you that make you fortunate and blessed. In fact, it's the "old things" - the ideas and ideals, the values and morals - they give you, which you'll come to know are the most precious gifts.
I've been thinking that, like all the "old things" that are in this house, it's part of my job, as an "older person", to tell you the stories behind all those "old things". I'll let you decide for yourself what's important to take and what's important to leave behind. Just as I have.
I'm certainly glad we don't use some of my grandmother's concoctions any more. We know now that while they treated the symptoms, they, in fact, could have been very harmful - especially to babies.
But, I do appreciate her more holistic approach to health and illness. An ounce of prevention is still worth a pound of cure. Maybe worth even more, these days. (And, I'm not just talking about inflation.)
I'm glad women don't get married at age 16 any more - that you can make a choice between being a mom and having a career. Or, like your own mom, do both. It's so much better for women today than it was for my grandmother. She'd be the first to tell you that choice is so critically important to the idea of freedom we have in this country.
And, even though my grandmother didn't consider us "Americans" she taught me great respect for others. She loved nothing more than the neighborhood gatherings, once a year, where everyone would bring foods of their own ethnic specialties. She took great pride in her cooking and appreciated the culinary skill of others.
She and Mrs. Goldman from the next block would talk for hours about the stories of the women in what she called "The Old Testament" and Mrs. Goldman called "The Torah." They had a deep respect for each other, even though their religious beliefs were so very different.
Their conversations on warm Spring or Summer afternoons on my grandmother's front porch, where Mrs. Goldman would stop by on her way home from her son's shop and have a cold drink, taught us to respect the differences in others because we discovered, through them, that we have so much to learn from each other.
I think we've lost some of that respect for the differences of others. Ironically, that's really what makes "America" great.
Perhaps, if we could regain that sense of respect, we would have a better chance of eradicating racism and bigotry and hatred completely. I'm hoping and praying that your generation will help us make even greater gains in this struggle.
Maybe one day soon, in the spring, we'll take a trip to one of the cemeteries where your relatives are buried and have one of my grandmother's Saturday afternoon "pick-a-nickas". We'll set out a table cloth and bring a big basket of food and sit and talk and tell stories.
Maybe I'll tell you some of the "old, old stories" about Sarah and Hagar, Ruth and Naomi, Judith and Ester, Rachel and Leah, Mary and Elizabeth, Mary and Martha, so you'll know about the heritage of great women from whom you come, and find some inspiration to be courageous and bold about what you believe.
Of all the presents I could give you this Christmas - or at any time, really - I think the gift of stories is the most valuable one of all.
That's something you can't get from a television - new or old.