Of all the rituals we try to hold onto, my wife and I host our parents, children, and their children every Sunday for dinner.
I have mentioned this time-honored tradition in previous articles--the value of that experience and how it keeps the family ties tight.
As time passes, the wisdom gained by elders from challenging experiences is passed onto the younger families, leading to generations of well-balanced, thoughtful offspring--all of them ready to face the world “our way.”
As the elders of the family realize the days behind them far outnumber the days ahead, for many a certain loneliness sets in that is difficult to shake. In some ways, it’s almost a sense of desperation.
My wife’s stepfather, Miki, one of my dearest friends, recently received a letter from “the old country.” Enclosed was a picture of Miki and 15 of his classmates when they were teenagers. Their bodies were hard, their faces young, their spirits high.
Miki sat atop a white horse--no saddle, no shoes, no fear.
Fifty years later, he scrutinized the cracked black-and-white photo through a small magnifying glass he carries in his breast pocket, since he lost most of his vision by the time he was 20. Medical knowledge was not as developed in Hungary then as here in the states, and a facial kick by a draft horse “adjusted” Miki’s eyesight only a few weeks after that picture was taken.
He’s told me many times of how he brought his wife and newborn daughter to America with one trunk and the clothes on their backs. They didn’t know the English language or American ways. But the family was greeted by another Hungarian group that helped him get his family settled, and to find work as a laborer.
Miki applied himself and became a tool-and-die maker. He rented half a house, saved enough money to finance a loan, and then bought the entire house from the landlord. He then rented out the other half. The rent covered the mortgage and soon he owned the house outright.
He learned English by listening to other workers.
His daughter went to public school and showed abilities in science and math that fast-tracked her into college.
Miki worked, developed a good reputation, and moved up. He took extra shifts to cover her schooling, to acquire a better home, a newer car, and better food. It was then he coined the phrase, “In America, every day is Christmas!”
As he watched American consumers pile up “things,” he spent in a modest way, buying a used car, a black-and-white television, and hand-me-down clothes.
His principles didn’t change as he became more financially secure--“good enough” was indeed good enough. He invested and saved money that came from coveted extra shifts. Still fresh in his mind were his sisters and brothers back home, sitting around the fireplace in winter and sleeping on mattresses filled with hay and straw.
He packed boxes and boxes of clothes from Goodwill and over-the-counter medications to send “back to old country,” not only to share his good fortune, but to help those relatives live longer, as most of his kin were usually dead by 60.
Was It All Worth It?
So with all that in his heart--the job, the family he left behind, the wife who eventually left him because he was always at work, the loneliness of wondering if he ever should have left his roots--he gazed at this photo and wept. That Sunday at dinner, there was a silence about him I had not seen before.
I began to wonder if all of this health and science and nutrition that help to extend lives well beyond what it used to be is really a good thing. Maybe there’s some value to dying when all has been said and done. And I came to understand exactly what was foremost in Miki’s mind that day, a question we all must face eventually, “Was it all worth it?”
His youth and middle years were consumed with finding a better way. He fought his way to America and fended off the wolves at the door to raise his daughter well, provide for his family, and move up.
And now, as he reaps the benefit of his work and retires to a handsome home with heating and air-conditioning and a new car in the garage and cupboards full of food and clothes, society suggests he is supposed to lie back, go to water aerobics, use his senior-citizen card for discounts, and try to lower his cholesterol.
No Cruise Control
What is my point?
Individuals from these circumstances have no idea how to retire! They find it difficult to drop into a lower gear and just cruise. They should celebrate the early-bird special at Denny’s? Miki does not read well, write well, or take vacations--he doesn’t even know how to be good to himself. All he ever knew was that if he worked his body hard, there would be a reward for everyone else, so he did it.
Miki knew how to survive and provide, and while he doesn’t have to do it anymore, he can’t just stop. How does he go from carrying the world on his shoulders to letting the world now care for him? The fact is he doesn’t, and it’s natural to resist it.
Chewing The Fat
While Miki looked shakily at the picture, inches away from his one good eye, I saw it all so clearly. What is the one thing that makes him and seniors like him feel better? What is it that lessens the pain? It’s the ability to share stories with those like him, those who have their own stories to tell.
You see it all the time in coffee shops and fast-food restaurants--older men, clustered in groups, regaling each other with the stories and adventures of their youth. They commiserate, for there is safety in numbers and comfort in getting lost within other people’s problems.
My Italian ancestors all talk of their love for the piazzas in Rome and of other outdoor eateries and waterfront cafes--places where the young and the old meet, live, laugh, and love.
Places where the onset of “what-might-have-been” can be easily ignored and replaced with other important things: a good cup of coffee, an ice-cold beer, a delicious piece of pie, the punch line of a friend’s joke, the shriek of laughter from a grandchild, and most of all--a peaceful family that now thrives because of the sweat and toil from an old-timer’s brow.
I’m setting some money aside from this year’s tax return to spruce up the backyard--some shade structures, umbrellas, a few more tables, and a filtered pool. There is already a nice sound system and a handsome fire pit and grill, but I want everyone to be outside this year instead of inside with the air-conditioning blasting.
I want to replicate that piazza, keeping a couple of chess and checker boards set up on tables and the driveway clear so Miki and all the other elders in the family can drop by any time this spring, summer, or fall and fill the air with their stories, memories, and histories.
“Yes, Miki, I’ve heard you tell this one before, but please tell it again. I don’t think my son has heard it.”
Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.