When you are no Longer Part of an “Immediate Family”

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How to teach, learn and care with extended family

At 89 years old, I found myself thinking with pride the other day about how amazing the experience and intellectual power of my extended family is. What a wealth of knowledge we are collectively.

My son Michael is a psychiatrist. I’ve learned so much from him about the power of stories to deepen communication. Daughter Ellen is the senior vice president and COO of a $270M private social service agency. Grandson Ethan, a Rabbi, sends the entire family his sermons with so much insight into our religion and how it guides us with current ethical challenges. His brother Benny is a teaching assistant working on his Masters and PhD in sociology. Another granddaughter, Jessica, is a wild animal trainer and manager (also called “The Snake Lady” when she is hired by movies and TV shows to clear natural settings of rattle snakes before filming). Her sister Kathryn is in marketing for an online hotel booking website.

I have learned about worlds far from mine from all of them.

There was a time when I might have learned of my family’s interests and dreams while we were sitting around the dinner table. I’ve always advocated for a culture of teaching and learning from one another, with knowledge and ideas spreading in multiple directions during our lively conversations that came naturally as were together in our day to day lives.

But today, I live alone.

No longer part of an immediate family, for teaching and learning to continue, we must seek it out across our extended family. We must make a concerted effort to connect and engage in a meaningful, purposeful way.

 A Symptom of USAmerican Culture

On the good side of USAmerican culture, we are fiercely independent. A primary goal in raising our children is to grow adults who can live and survive independently. Whereas in some cultures it “takes a village to raise a child,” in the US, parents lay strong claim to the right to correct and guide only their own children. That can even include excluding grandparents. The phrase “close mouth open wallet” is embedded in the dynamics of our individualist culture.

“In western cultures, and particularly in European American culture, families typically follow a nuclear model comprised of parents and their children,” says Marcia Carteret in her article, Culture and Family Dynamics. “This is markedly different from collectivist cultures that adhere to an extended family model. In cultures such as American Indian, Asian, Hispanic, African, and Middle Eastern, individuals rely heavily on an extended network of reciprocal relationships with parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and many others.”

To me that is a shame and a loss of opportunity to learn.

In our family I created the Witkovsky Living Legacy Foundation years ago to keep the siblings and cousins connected as they age. They and they alone make up the board of directors. They are able to apply for “grants” (aka projects or ambitions that Grandpa will fund), but they must first explain to the others what they hope to achieve, and upon completion, they must share what they have learned with the entire family.

When one grandchild recently applied for job search training courses, another who had been through a similar experience was able to provide support. We have seen pictures from African safaris and shared in the joy of another’s completing his Master’s. This process has allowed each individual success to be a joy for the entire extended family.

It makes me wonder where “interdependence” fits in. Can we cultivate a new cultural norm that lets us live independent lives while also embracing our need for one another?

Time and distance can get in the way of natural, ongoing connection.

Our family is spread across the country, literally, from New York to Los Angeles. My adult children are still driven by robust careers that keep them busy. My grandchildren range in age from teens to young adults, with one himself now a father of an eight month old boy, my first great-grandson.

I realize they all are busy–emotionally, mentally and physically–developing or managing their careers.  At the same time, the connection with my grandchildren and my adult children is critical to my mental health. I must let them know that so they understand my world.

I had this conversation recently with Kathryn, one grandchild who is 27 years old and finding success in her job at a top online hotel booking company. Kathryn said she understood my desire to maintain a rich connection. She said she will try to honor that request. And she has. With this open dialogue she also felt comfortable to set parameters. She found time by getting up early to visit me on a Sunday, but we discussed at the outset what time she would leave–which train she would need to take to get back to the City. I didn’t think “she doesn’t love me, already planning when she’ll leave.” I thought “how wonderful that she heard me and is making time.”

Shifting the Paradigm to Enter Each Other’s World

What if we, the grandparents, shook up the answer to the rote question, “How are you?” when we answered the phone. What if, rather than the expected “why haven’t you called,” “I’m fine,” etc., we responded with a conversation opener? “What’s the most interesting new thing you learned this week?” I could ask. The answer might give me new ideas and expand my mind while also shedding light on my loved one’s world.

Even if your family hasn’t grown up in a teaching and learning culture, it is never too late to make a change. Especially when you “own” the change. When you as a grandparent change what you are doing, the world around you will change in response. Here are some ideas that can shake up your family relationship dynamics and open the door to deeper connections.

Ask them to tell you a story

Going back to the intercultural model, one thing that often confuses visitors from other countries is how USAmericans constantly ask “how are you” without waiting for or expecting an answer. “How are you” is akin to “Hi,” in the US. So why ask? Instead ask for a story….”Tell me a story about school.” “Tell me the oddest thing your boss did today.” “Tell me a story about something funny that happened since we last spoke.” And then be quiet and wait and listen. What’s especially fun is that after a few weeks, you may get a phone call saying “hey grandpa…I have a story that I though you would like.”

Leave judgment at the door

Of course we have opinions and it’s hard to break the old pattern of embracing everything as a teaching moment. But as our children and grandchildren age and become adults…well, they have the right to their own opinions, even if we don’t agree.

How can we control the knee jerk reaction to respond or express doubt? Ask more questions. “Tell me more about that.” “I have some experience in that area, would you like my opinion?” Or, you may have to just agree to disagree. And also refrain from saying “I told you so” when they finally realize the nose piercing was not a good idea. (But it is okay to commiserate and get sympathy and advice from your weekly coffee klatch!)

You may mean well by asking about your adult child’s finances. But they may interpret it as you doubting them. Know that you raised them well and now they are responsible for their decisions.

Own Your Own Feelings

Ask for what you need. Own your feelings. Don’t be afraid to “need.” We can inadvertently put ourselves in a catch-22. With our cultural emphasis on individualism, we may not express ourselves and our needs, not wanting to impose on the other. But silently we think they should simply know what we need.  But no one can read your mind. If you want your family to know what you need and feel, you have to express it. Give them the opportunity to help you and each other.

Sometimes all generations are afraid to ask because we fear an obligation that we can’t fulfill, or maybe even more work—that if we ask the need will be something that may cost us time or money. But what if we looked through a lens of love and just listened and acknowledged the other?

As a Psychiatrist, my son might appreciate this “start with ‘I’ sentences” approach. How do I share my world, express my needs, knowing that I can’t control the response? What I know is that I won’t be afraid to share my world. And, when a loved one shares a glimpse into their world, I will take it as the gift that it is, and imagine with them to experience that world together.

Extended Family Inventory

Have you ever considered taking an inventory of the knowledge and experience of your extended family? You will get a WOW feeling as well. And that includes spouses, too. Ethan’s wife Erin is a brilliant Jewish educator and director of a religious school; Michael’s wife Julie is also a psychiatrist; Ellen’s husband Don is in charge of human resources and benefits at a major corporation; Benny’s wife Corina is a social activist committed to helping others; Kathryn’s significant other knows all about the gaming industry. The two youngest grandchildren, Aiden and Merite are a freshman and senior in high school respectively, learning and exploring and imagining where their paths will take them.

It starts with a desire, a willingness to truly try to understand what the world of those we love is like. We may stand in the same space, but we don’t have the same realities. But when you add those different world perspectives up, the inspiration will take you to the moon and back.

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I am 89 Years Old. What Can I do about Charlottesville?

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Nazis Bad Jerry Witkovsky

By Jerry Witkovsky

I watched the TV news–and witnessed the KKK, the Neo Nazi’s and the White Supremacists shouting their hate. It burns a hole in my heart and soul.

What can I do about it at age 89? As I struggled with this, the following thought went through my mind:

“When a Grandparent dies the doors to the library are closed forever.”

What’s in your library?

What is in my library that can help me now? My library has stories rich with life experience. Civil rights meetings and marches with Dr. Martin Luther King when he came to Chicago in the 1960’s.  As the General Director of the Jewish Community Centers of Chicago in the 1980’s, we took four trips to Poland with Board Members and staff. We walked in the Warsaw Ghetto and saw the gas chambers; we witnessed the horror of these places where thousands of Jews were murdered. I’ve taken 14 trips to Israel, some with JCC Board Members, some with staff, some with family and some on my own.

From these experiences I was highly motivated to teach my family and JCC members and staff Jewish values: Deep caring about our people and the people in our community who live with us regardless of faith or the color of their skin.

Now I am 89 years old. What can I do?

Create a Culture of Learning-and-Teaching

My wife of 52 years died 14 years ago. Since then my greatest love and concern in life has been my seven grandchildren (one of which is seven months old and is the first great-grandchild.)  The approach I have always advocated with them is “how do we, as a family, create a culture of Learning-and-Teaching?”

A culture of Learning-and-Teaching is where knowledge and experience are shared in all directions, from young to old or old to young; where individuals draw on what they do and what they care about and teach it to those around them.

Feeling lost, I began to focus on “how do I continue to build on the Learning-and-Teaching culture of my family regarding the issues that come from what took place in Charlottesville?”

So I talked to my adult children and with six of the seven grandchildren. They said “you have a right feel the way you do. We are worried also. We think it will get worse, but” they also yearned to know, “what can we do?”

I suddenly did not feel so alone, knowing that my family understood how I was feeling. One grandchild, now age 33, said “Grandpa you taught us to be concerned about these issues, and we are.”

It was then that it became so clear that the Learning-and-Teaching culture was embedded in our family and was beginning to express itself now.

My adult son sent the following poem to the 14 members of our family (It’s by Gideon Lichfield on Quartz, imagining how anti-Nazi Pastor Martin Niemöller’s poem “First they came…” might be rewritten for today):

First Trump came for the women
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a woman.

Then Trump came for the people with disabilities
And I did not speak out
Because I did not have a disability.

Then Trump came for the African Americans
And I did not speak out
Because I was not African American.

Then Trump came for the Mexicans
And I did not speak out
Because I was not Mexican.

Then Trump came for the Muslims
And I did not speak out
Because I was not Muslim.

Then Trump came for the gay, bi, and trans people
And I did not speak out
Because I was not gay, bi or trans.

Then Trump came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew.

Then Trump came for the journalists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a journalist.

Then Trump came for the judges
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a judge.

And now Trump is coming for the Constitution of the United States
And if I do not speak out, what am I?

Connecting to Family for Solace and Understanding

This piece and the ensuing comments from the family enriched me deeply. I also sent names of organizations that were taking action to them and suggested they Google them: The Southern Poverty Law Center. The Anti-Defamation League. The American Civil Liberties Union.

I suggested they will learn a great deal about what is being done about the matters we are concerned about. They may also want to make a contribution to one of them.

The grandchildren are the Board of Directors of the Witkovsky Living Legacy Foundation. Not a legal foundation, I originally created it as a way for us grandparents to fund their projects. But it was more a way to connect the siblings and cousins to each other—to support one another’s struggles and dreams. I suggested they may ask the Foundation to make a contribution to make a difference.

I am 89 years old –what can I do?

Perhaps the Learning-and-Teaching culture instilled in my family is in itself a very special contribution. For now, among adult children, spouses, grandchildren and significant others, there are 14 of us who are talking and thinking about what we can do.

As I have completed writing this I am no longer despondent of what I can do at being 89 years old.

At 89, this grandpa is still alive and the doors to the library are still open, with plenty of shelf space still to fill.

What have you talked about this with your family?

Photo Credit Ted Eytan on Flickr/

The Quartet

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Omama Gina, our dance was through a flicker of time.  So out of place in 1950s Newark; plump, romantic, pre-Raphaelite sprite, with garlands in her hair.  We sprawled on her living-room rug, drawing rainbows and sunbursts, princesses and unicorns.  And oh we danced, channeling her rebellious sister, the one who had beguiled Kafka.  Gina’s (hard “G”) wistful aquamarine gaze – was she always yearning?  Was it for her girlhood in Poland, before blood coursed down the cobblestones of Tarnow?   Or was she pining for a husband more gallant than the dour, withholding cantor?

She called me Himmlisches Wesen (Heavenly Creature), bathing me in the tenderness she never received, introducing me to art, to movement, to the poetry of the imagination,  She was 59 and I was seven when she died, suddenly.

Opapa Juda, for you I felt mostly fear.  He clung to the tenets of his faith more ardently and knew them better than he ever seemed to know or care for us.  While Omama still lived, their apartment was welcoming, redolent of chicken soup; with him alone, it felt chilly and austere.  I found its dark, heavy European furnishings inexplicably menacing.

He once caught me defiling the Sabbath by writing and sketching when I thought he was napping.  He seized my artwork and berated me with such ferocity that I refused to stay with him overnight ever again.  Years later, long after he was gone, I realized that underneath his harshness, he too was yearning – for parents and siblings swallowed up in the Lodj Ghetto.

I felt love for him only when my brother and I sat at his feet, on the bimah of of his synagogue – where he loomed over us, over everyone, in a black satin robe and tall chazzen’s hat, swaying, chanting, bursting forth with the liturgical melodies of Europe and the atonal wails of Israel. It was there, on that bimah, that he collapsed and died after trudging to shul one frigid Saturday morning.  To my brother he bequeathed his gifts for music; I got only the love of it – but God, that was a lot.

Großvater Aaron, I never knew you.  All I have of him is a charcoal portrait – rakish, broody, movie-star handsome – hanging in my foyer.  His insistence that he would never abandon his beloved Berlin “nur mit dem letzen zug” (“only on the last train”) cost him his life; by the time he agreed to leave, Hitler had slammed shut the gate.  My parents often reproached me for displaying Aaron Orbach’s penchant for last-minute departures.  I don’t know what he would have been to me, in life.  In death, he put a face on history and ignited my fervor for social justice.

Großmutter Nelly:  living under our roof, you were the steadfast companion of my youth.  My father swore, after Auschwitz, that he would never again be separated from her.  Though her legs were failing (from a trolley accident after which she dared not seek medical attention during the war), she and my father were still a formidable duo: ferociously smart, bawdy and combative.  They invariably eclipsed my genteel, weary mother.

That she spoke only German ensured I would grow up bilingual, because I – like she – hungered to know everything, and would tolerate no secrets.  Together we watched television nonstop:  The Price is Right, As the World Turns, The Donna Reed Show, Twilight Zone, Yankee baseball, Million Dollar Movie.  I was her translator, both of us seeking to comprehend and to mimic, through that glowing box in the darkened den, what it meant to be American.

It was fitting that after she departed, it was time for me to go too.  She died weeks before my high-school graduation.  Hungry to know and see and do everything, I left for New York and college at 16, and never looked back.

What remains most vivid, from all those years at home, is her nightly prayer.  So many times I stood outside her bedroom door, listened to her breathe, and waited.  She recited the words, always the identical words, in a strong, even voice:

 “Lieber Gott, ich danke dir…”

“Dear God, I thank you… for all that I received, for all that I am now receiving, and for all that I have yet to receive.”

Each time I heard it, I could scarcely wrap my head around it.  With all that she – that our family – had endured… how could she still summon this naive gratitude?

Yet there it was.

Nellyschen, companion of my youth: your gratitude became mine.  It defines me.

I am grateful for you – for all of you – and for everything you taught me; and for your children (of blessed memory), my most loving parents.

All of you – you are with me forever.

VIVIEN ORBACH-SMITH
Wilton, Connecticut

Unforgiven: One Family’s Story

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“Separate Realities” of Parents and Children

 San Francisco-based psychologist Joshua Coleman, Ph.D., is the author of When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along (Harper Collins, 2008).  In a blog post for UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, Dr. Coleman recommends:

Honor the ‘separate realities’ nature of family life. Just because you made decisions with your child’s best interest in mind, doesn’t mean that they were experienced in the way that you intended. Don’t try to prove them wrong…  Take responsibility for whatever mistakes you have  made as a parent.  If there’s a kernel of truth to your child’s complaint, speak to the kernel of truth.  

Let’s face it: there are separate realities for parents and children in practically every family.  Even relatively minor, long-past separate realities have the power to destroy relationships when people don’t acknowledge them and make amends.   Take the case of Mrs. R., whose family saga is recounted here by her former neighbor.  It’s a worst-case scenario, to be sure. But sadly, don’t almost all of us know – or know of? – a Mrs. R.?

Unforgiven: One Family’s Story

             My former neighbor, Mrs. R., was a hard-working widow and a devoted mother.  Helen, her older child, was a brilliant student, but there was no question that charming, easygoing Sammy was the apple of his mother’s eye.  She didn’t think anybody was good enough for her son – not even Karen, the lovely young woman Sammy began dating when both were college freshmen.  Still, Mrs. R. was livid when she learned that Karen had broken up with him.

           Only a few months later, the young couple reunited.  But Mrs. R. insisted she would have nothing to do with her son until he came to his senses and dumped the no-good tramp who had wounded him!

            That was more than 25 years ago. Sammy and Karen are married parents of three – successful in their careers, active in their church and community.

             Unbelievably, Mrs. R. kept her word.  She never spoke to them again.

            At first, Sammy and Karen tried to make peace.  But after Mrs. R. refused invitations to their wedding, and their oldest child’s baptism and birthday parties, their overtures ceased.  They began bad-mouthing her as bitterly as she bad-mouthed them. 

             Their children were the only grandchildren Mrs. R. would ever have.  She’s in her late eighties now, in the final stages of Alzheimer’s.  Helen takes care of her, and the relations between the two siblings are extremely strained.  Sammy’s family feels no obligation to the bitter woman who they know only as a living symbol of what it means to hold a grudge.

            Mrs. R.’s story taught me one of the most important lessons I’ll ever learn.  I remember vividly how her kids were everything to her, just like my recently-married daughter is to me! How could things go so terribly awry?

            Everyone who hears this story says: “A bump in the road of a college romance – that’s a ridiculous reason for a lifelong rift!”  And they’re right, of course.  But when you think about it:  what’s a GOOD reason for anger and blame that does not recede?

            I’ve promised myself I’ll be proactive so grudges never take root between my daughter, son-in-law and me.  I will offer and seek forgiveness immediately whenever hurt feelings or misunderstandings arise (as they inevitably do).  It’s a tragic waste to do otherwise! 

                                                                                     – Marta (48), New Jersey

 

 

Hearing a Grandmother’s Voice

Stock photo from Pixabay.com

A few years ago, when I was a teenager, I fell in love with a boy who just really wasn’t right for me in any way.

He was rude to my friends, but when they urged me to leave him, I didn’t listen.  My mom saw the way he treated me (which wasn’t very good), and kept questioning why I was still with him.  Her disapproval worried me, deep down, but I ignored it.

Then one day my grandmother called me and said:  “Baby, what’s going on with you these days?  I hear that things aren’t good.”  I knew, that moment, it was over.  After her phone call, I broke off all contact with him and felt more secure in my decision than I ever thought possible.

Whenever my grandparents step into a situation involving my siblings or me, I know it must be serious and I should take notice.  Let’s face it:  it’s not the same as when a parent steps in; parents will nag you about everything and anything, but grandparents just get to be sweet to you!  I know that if they are genuinely concerned about me, they must know what’s best and I should listen carefully to what they have to say.

Z.H. (22)

New York, New York

Times and Families Are Changing

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modern grandparents with baby

There’s a radio ad for First American Bank that features a smart man explaining things to his grandma. While it’s radio, she begs you to imagine a simple old woman from Lithuania, whose primary concern is cooking.

Well, as Oldsmobile likes to say…today’s grandma is “not your grandma’s grandma.”

Fact in point, here are some eye-opening statistics from the 2011 MetLife Report on American Grandparents:

  • Just over one in ten grandparents (13%) provides care on a regular basis for at least one grandchild. Of those, 32% are babysitting/caregiving five or more days per week; 15% are raising at least one grandchild.
  • Among children younger than five whose mothers worked outside the home, 30% are cared for on a regular basis by a grandparent during their mother’s working hours (2005 US census figures).
  • The majority (62%) of grandparents have provided financial support or monetary gifts for grandchildren within the past five years. Of those grandparents who provide financial assistance.
  • The average amount given for all grandchildren over the past five years was $8,289 total. More than half gave up to $5,000.
  • Cash was the most common type of financial support, and helping with basic needs rose to the top with 43% of grandparents giving for clothing, 33% for general support, and 29% for education, such as pre-school through high school private schools, tutoring, college tuition, and graduate school.
  • Forty-three percent report they are providing more financial support due to the economic downturn (in 2008), and one-third (34%) are giving financial support to grandchildren even though they believe it is having a negative effect on their own financial security.

Even multigenerational living is making a comeback. According to a report by the Pew Research Center:

As of 2008, a record 49 million Americans, or 16.1% of the total U.S. population, lived in a family household that contained at least two adult generations or a grandparent and at least one other generation… This represents a significant trend reversal.  Starting right after World War II, the extended family household fell out of favor with the American public. In 1940, about a quarter of the population lived in one; by 1980, just 12% did.  

Pooling resources by moving in together after unemployment, lost stock-market gains, dwindling pensions and housing foreclosures has its win-win aspects, too.  The biggest winners are the grandchildren, according to Amy Goyer, senior vice president for outreach for Grandparents.com, writing for AARP.org:

 Children get some extra-special attention from loving adults… people who [grow] up with grandparents living in their homes seem to know them on a more personal level…. [G]randparents tend to be central characters in these grandkids’ life stories, as opposed to part of the peripheral supporting cast.  A sense of generational responsibility and the importance of transferring knowledge across the generations are well ingrained.  Family history and cultural heritage are constant companions to members of multigenerational households.

 

And, yet, independence continues to be a sign of strength and success in the US. Here are some thoughts on a new model of interdependence, and how it can be better for everyone involved, and more on interdependence and knowing when and how to ask for and receive help.

Grandparents Teaching Values: Turn Your Values into Action

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By Jerry Witkovsky (adapted from his book, The Grandest Love: Inspiring the Grandparent Grandchild Connection)

Grandparents often ask me, “How will I be remembered?” They know that they can leave valuables, but things can be lost, discarded or no longer considered valuable. A legacy of values, however, can guide grandchildren in their daily life, school, friendship, family relationships. A value such as kindness becomes integrated into the being of the grandchild’s personality. It can be forever and it can be shared and taught to other members of the family and friends. It is part of the Teaching-and-Learning culture of the family, and the grandchild’s world outside of the family.

Interestingly, delving into Values often helps people to discover unexpected areas of commonality, notwithstanding what may appear to be striking differences of opinion.  Some families, for example, are very much split along political or ideological lines.  There’s nothing wrong with healthy disagreement and debate, of course – it’s all part of a vibrant Teaching-and-Learning culture.  But if, for example, social justice emerges as a strong core value for all or most family members, there are ways to share and live this that are decidedly nonpartisan.  Families across the political spectrum, or with different religious beliefs or practices, can volunteer together in a soup kitchen or community renewal project, and share articles or books that inspire them.

 Shared Interests vs Values

It may be tempting, initially, to try and define your family ethos by zeroing in on shared interests, or things that everyone likes to do together for fun. And, admittedly, focusing on the fun things first can provide an opening for the deeper values conversation. For example, a family where many members enjoy swimming may find that they share an affinity for environmental issues; or a family that enjoys playing chess may be interested in strategy and how that informs politics and democracy. Families who have fun cooking, at a minimum may boast better treats at their meetings, but may also find an underlying concern for food equity or supporting locally owned businesses.

But interests, hobbies and activities, for a host of reasons, may wax and wane through the years.  Core values, however, tend to endure – and they are frequently the foundation for our lasting passions and enthusiasms.  A family with a core value of “outdoor adventures and fitness,” for example, may relish taking ski trips together each winter.  But what happens during years when money is tight, or when a good portion of the family’s members are either too old or too young to participate?  Everyone can still have fun together, and fulfill the very same core value, by going (or watching!) sledding or ice-skating in a local park.

By exploring and coming to terms with our family’s areas of commonality and separateness, we teach the youngest generation how people of different beliefs respect each other, value each other’s contributions, and manage to get along in the world.

Values in Action: Contribution & Generosity

My family members and I are very conscious that we are privileged to be able to share the things we do.  This awareness is part of our shared Family Vision that values “bettering the lives of others.”  Each of us prioritizes volunteerism in our various communities, and this has emerged as a powerful topic of Teaching-and-Learning whenever we get together.  Ellen, my daughter, currently serves as president of her synagogue, an activity to which she devotes a great deal of time, effort and textual study.  We have all benefited from her teaching us about this major undertaking; she benefits from our questions and insights.

Even the younger grandkids understand that giving back is a central component of how we see our family.  From a very early age, they participated with their parents in community clean-ups and the like, and have learned to set aside a portion of their money for charity.

Rebecca’s Story: The Value of Adventure in Action

Values discussions may feel lofty, but the application of the spirit of the value can fit into a family’s everyday lexicon. When Rebecca introduced the conversation around values with her intermediate family, both adventure and multiculturalism rose to the top as important.

At first Rebecca was discouraged; thinking the only way to realize this value was to have lots of money to travel internationally. Instead, she broke it into baby steps, and she and her family came up with a fun way to try new restaurants, new foods, and to learn about new cultures.

First, they agreed that every time they went out to eat as a family, they would try a new restaurant. Second, they made picking the restaurant a lesson in geography. A la “pin the tail on the donkey” each family member would take a turn wearing the blindfold and be given a piece of tape to post on the big, laminated map that hung on the wall. Take away any markers that ended up in the middle of an ocean, and the resulting countries would give them choices as to where to eat. As a result they have tried “fast food” from Pakistan, traditional dishes from Sri Lanka, and even met the Finance Minister of Kyrgyzstan who happened to be visiting and dining at the same restaurant on one of their outings.

Leave Your Campsite Better than you Found it.

I’m not saying that this is an easy, clean, one-time process. But I do say always leave your campsite better than you found it; leave your school better than you found it, and leave your neighborhood and community better than you found it.

It is within your power to leave your family with greater meaning, and the world a better place, because your family was in it. The discussion around values is a step to making that happen.

 

Bookends Grandparents

 

OUR GRANDPARENTS, OUR MEMORIES – CHOOSE TO CONNECT
By Matej Silecky

I have been working on a project that, it is safe to say, would not exist without the lifelong influence of all of my grandparents. The project, “Baba Babee Skazala” translates from Ukrainian to English as “Grandmother told Grandmother.”

Basically, it consists of:

  1. oral history interviews of American-immigrant post-World War II Ukrainian Displaced Persons;
  2. a documentary film about their experiences as refugees and immigrants;
  3. a related digital media/curated exhibit that will support the of artifacts from these individuals and the DP camps.

Reading that, many would assume that my ethnic heritage is Ukrainian, but this is only half true. Let me explain.

When I was born, all four of my grandparents were alive. My father’s parents were both Ukrainian, immigrating to the US after fleeing Ukraine during World War II, as other family members were murdered or disappeared, living as refugees in Displaced Person camps, and finally making their way by boat to America. They were Ukrainian Catholic, and raised their six children in a tightly-knit Ukrainian community whose organizations were designed to insure the continuance of Ukrainian language and culture.

My mother’s parents had English and Native American ancestry traced back to living in the United States before the Revolutionary War. They were Methodist, spoke only English, and had one child – my mother. My grandfather was a world War II veteran, but his experiences during the war were completely different than those of my paternal grandparents.

Viewed through society’s usual ways of categorizing people, my two sets of grandparents were polar opposites. They were the opposing bookends on opposite ends of a shelf, with pages of disparate history and experiences insurmountably between them. Or were they?

By the time I graduated from high school, only my mother’s father and my father’s mother (say that three times fast 🙂 ) were with me to attend my high school graduation.

When I graduated from UC Berkeley, my Babcia was my only living grandparent. Sadly, my Grandfather suddenly passed away just a couple of weeks after I started my freshman year at Berkeley. He lived right around the corner from me most of my childhood, and was very much a part of my everyday life. It was pretty traumatic to move across the country and immediately lose that connection to home. This loss influenced my perspective on the importance of family history.

In a blog post on my website for Baba Babee Skazala, I referred to those two, my Grandpa and Babcia, as the “bookends” for the evolution of the project during college. As events unfolded in Ukraine in the coming years, “Baba Babee Skazala” developed from an idea of a few family interviews to a broader concept of preserving stories and memories of a group for whom this has not been done in a cohesive way and creating a documentary film that would make their compelling stories accessible to a broader audience than those who might do research in library archives.

By college graduation, a project proposal was written and I was in search of funding sources. Babcia was with me at graduation, has helped organize interviews and (spoiler alert) agreed to be one of the interviewees.

How did these individuals from opposite sides of the world, with vastly different upbringings and viewpoints, influence this project, and more importantly, my life perspective? At its core, the answer is that they chose to connect across all those differences. Rather than viewing themselves as the always-separated bookends on opposite ends of a shelf, they looked to the function of a bookend: the function of a pair of bookends is to support what is between them, to buttress those items and keep them from falling.

Without a pair, something supporting both ends, the items fall.

In their own ways, each of my grandparents chose to reach beyond their differences every day to support me and surround me with love. They adjusted their own holiday plans, attending different religious celebrations and sharing new traditions, so the whole family could be together. They traveled with us and shared time helping my parents when work overwhelmed them. They adjusted their own plans to transport me to and from the myriad locations required by my figure skating training. They shared meals and recipes, with varying degrees of success. Even when things did not go smoothly and they disagreed, they kept moving forward and worked to make it better next time.

Sometimes, the things they did were just crazy, in retrospect. One Christmas season shortly after my maternal grandmother died, my parents did not want to leave my Grandpa or Babcia alone for the holidays. However, my Babcia lived in Florida and my Grandpa lived near us in New Jersey.

We also had a family tradition of cutting our own Christmas tree, but that surely wouldn’t work if we were in Florida. Knowing that my Babcia loved her winter Christmases even though she was in Florida, we went to cut a tree. Then – this is the crazy part – my grandpa DROVE WITH THE TREE to Florida while we flew so that we could all celebrate together! A huge surprise for Babcia and great fun for all!

They always went above and beyond to love and support me. Part of that was always looking for ways to connect with each other across differences. They did not have to do that, but in doing so they taught me that it is my decision – my choice – whether to focus on differences or whether to look beyond those differences, focus on what we all share as humans, and choose to connect.

With “Baba Babee Skazala”, I am choosing to connect with people of a different generation with different life experiences than mine, and it is hugely rewarding to share time with them and record their stories. But, it never would have happened if my grandparents had not chosen to connect across their differences – connecting to support and buttress my efforts from childhood to now.

 

Every Life, A Lesson

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Jill Filipovic Headshot

Jill Filipovic, Writer. Lawyer. Author of the The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.  She also contributed a letter on “what I learned from my grandparents” to The Grandest Love.

Thanks to Vivien Orbach-Smith, Editor of The Grandest Love: Inspiring the Grandparent-Grandchild Connection, for sharing this kudos on The Grandest Love Facebook Page:

Congratulations to Jill Filipovic, one of the contributors to The Grandest Love, upon the release today of her first book, The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness. In this excerpt from her book in The New York Times, Jill looks at the changing lives of women through the prism of her own family – beginning with her grandmother’s difficult road.

Here is Jill’s  Filipovic’s letter from the book, written at age 30:

My grandfather beat my grandmother. I don’t know how many times – at least once, probably more.  There are police photos, but I’ve never seen them.  After they divorced, my grandma was left raising five kids on her own on Chicago’s South Side.  She was a divorced single mom in the 1950s with no skill set, no family support, and no money.  She worked three jobs — crossing guard, waitress, whatever paid – while my grandfather refused to pay child support.  He went to jail for that, I think.  I don’t know how many times, but at least once.

My grandfather also called me Jilly-bean, built me a backyard fort, married a wonderful single mother who I knew as one of my three grandmas, and was an involved father and grandfather to his second family.  I adored him.

When he died, it was quick and painless – fine one day, gone the next.  An entire busload of his friends came to the wake.  Everyone remembered how he loved poker, how he loved to bake in the sun.  Two young Marines folded a flag over his coffin at his Catholic funeral.  His children and grandchildren spoke; we all cried.

My grandma died after a decade-long descent into dementia, a shell of her former self. She didn’t remember taking me to pick Bachelor’s Buttons from her garden, teaching me how to make necklaces out of clover, singing the songs she wrote about mama cats and their kittens to my sister and me.  There was no funeral.  We scattered her ashes across the Shenandoah Valley.

There are lessons in how they both lived – the importance of resilience, the necessity of self-reliance, the truth of real and transformative change.  There are ripples they both left – generations of steely women, families that boomerang between enmity and forgiveness.

The lessons in how they died are less satisfying.  In the end, a life of struggle undertaken by a woman who deserved better in every way – a life without security or money or physical safety, a life where work and misery were rewarded with flickers of light and beautiful moments – still ended unfairly.  Ended with those moments erased from her memory.  Ended with so much less than she deserved.

JILL FILIPOVIC (30)
Brooklyn, New York

Dan Chamberlin on Jerry Witkovsky Day

 

Dan Chamberlin, Co-Chair of the Special Education Department and School Champion for the Grandparent program at Deerfield High School, joined Jerry Witkovsky, along with family and friends, when Mayor Rosenthal proclaimed “Jerry Witkovsky Day in the Village of Deerfield” last month. (See the Facebook Live Video of the event here.)

Dan’s words:

So, Jerry, congratulations. You are my Carpe Diem

I work with Jerry at Deerfield High School. It’s been 3 years, but it’s felt a little bit longer, just because, not in a bad way, but because you are so endearing.

You have a passion for starting a tradition that is through this kindness and generosity that you carry in your eyes and your soul.  It warms my heart every time you come into my office.

It‘s always “how can we do this better, Dan?” And he’s always pushing, in a good way. You have touched me as an educator and it’s only been three years. I really think what you want to give to other people, other grandparents and grandchildren is so endearing and special that I think it’s only fitting that we have a day in Deerfield named after you, for grandparents day, Grandtimes, grandparent programs and everything you are even bringing into the middle school.

You are my carpe diem. You do seize the day and say we are going to make it and keep on going.

Thank you for your time that you give to Deerfield High School and the Village of Deerfield.

Congratulations