Unabridged from my Bonus Years column in the Lifestyle section of The Sunday Capital, Annapolis, Maryland
December is a good time of the year, especially in the world’s Judeo-Christian cultures. For those of the Jewish faith, these weeks mark the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah, a time of joy, renewal and thanksgiving that commemorates a revolt by the Jews in the Second century BC when they regained control of Jerusalem, restored freedom of worship and rededicated the Second Temple where they could publicly renew their faith.
For those of the Christian faith these weeks in December are important because they are a time to observe the Advent that celebrates the hope, love, joy and peace that marks the birth of Jesus, the Lord and Savior of the faithful.
The cheer and good will of the season spills over to the rest of the culture – both believers and non-believers. Speaking personally, I am always cheered by the sight and sound of Salvation Army “bell-ringers” who stand beside the red pots encouraging young and old to give a little as they pass by.
Among my memorable Christmas experiences is serving as a bell-ringer, one of the service activities of Annapolis Rotary. It is a terrific experience to ring the bell and greet passers-by with a hearty “Merry Christmas.” Nearly everyone gives you a big smile and most drop a coin or a dollar in the pot – sometimes even more. Scrooges are few and far between. Most memorable and rewarding, for me, are the parents who give their small children some money for the pot. For many of the little ones, I’m sure, it’s the first time they have acted as an “agent” of the family – and for all, it’s an early lesson in good stewardship.
But more than anything else, this is a season when I think most about family. Like many others, our inter-generational family assembles in one place. It’s a time to honor parents and grandparents. It’s a time to acknowledge and celebrate the growth and development of younger ones. But, for me it is a time of year when I always think about my grandparents, all of whom have, in Billy Graham’s phrase, “gone home.”
I’m learning from friends that becoming a grandparent is a major, life-shaping experience for those in their bonus years. Of the many blessings in our life, Mary Sue and I have yet to be blessed by grandchildren. But there is another side to grandparenting – and that’s when you are a kid, on the receiving end of the grandparent. And that’s something I always think about during this special time of year.
My grandfather on my father’s side was a quiet, reflective man. He was an immigrant from Canada and his father an immigrant from Scotland. He loved to go fishing. I was not a fan of fishing, especially when I caught one. The whole process was always a little discombobulating – removing the hook from a startled fish and putting him (or maybe it was a her) on the stringer. Achhh.
But I loved going fishing with my grandfather, especially if we didn’t catch any. We would sit on the bank of Sugar Creek (pronounced “crick” in Hoosier-speak) outside of Lebanon, Indiana. And we would talk…and talk…and talk. I should say, Pampa (as I called him) would talk. He would talk about fishing. He would tell me stories about my father’s growing-up escapades. He would talk about his days working in the factory where they manufactured “stokers” that burned coal to heat homes. In fact, my grandfather would sometimes talk so much that we didn’t catch any fish. Looking back, I think the noise or vibrations of the talk probably scared the fish away.
One day we arrived at one of his favorite fishing holes and discovered we had left the stringer for the fish in the car. It was a long walk back, so I told my grandfather, “No worries, Pampa, I’ll run back and get it.” My grandfather said, “Don’t worry about it. Just stay here. We don’t need a stringer. You know, son, for really good fishing you don’t even need bait – as long as we’re here together.”
That is a day I have never forgotten. That’s the day I learned that our conversations were not just idle talk while waiting for the fish to bite. That’s the day I learned that the fishing was just an excuse, that my grandfather enjoyed his time alone and that he enjoyed his time with me. For the first time, it hit me that our time together was a two-way street, that he, too, wanted to share the stories that I valued so much, stories that, today, I now know, were packed with character-shaping wisdom and keen insights into life.
In 1980, at the age of 75, Robert Penn Warren published a collection of poems. It was dedicated to his grandfather. After the dedication came a brief dialogue:
Old Man: “You get old and you can’t do anybody any good any more.”
Boy: “You do me some good, Grandpa. You tell me things.”
The title of Warren’s book – “Being Here” – says it all. While so many of us are focused on “doing” and “having,” the bonus years provide a unique opportunity to provide what one writer has called “a comforting presence” to those coming behind. It also gives you the opportunity, simply, to “tell them things.”