I have been so blessed to have experienced the lives of my great grandparents and grandparents. So many people have not had the opportunity to share their lives with multiple generations. Recently, I realized that my grandchildren are enjoying the multi-generational experiences that I had, but they are also bridging all of our experiences together. They have me (their paternal grandmother), my mom (their great grandmother), and they also have grandparents and great grandparents on their mother’s side of the family. Up until 2007, they also had their great great grandmother, my mother’s mother. Each one of these generations have contributed a wealth of knowledge, perspective, and vantage points for this group of Gen Z’s.
To be honest I hate all the labels. Gen Z, Gen Y, Baby Boomers, Traditionalists, etc., but apparently we need them to distinguish and define the population. Sometimes these labels keep us from building the bridges that are needed to develop hope and character in the next generation. Where do we learn survival? Where do we learn perseverance? What do we we learn tenacity? Where do we learn identity? (Certainly, we can pick up a host of negative things too, but I choose to focus on the positive.) We can learn all these things from the generations that went before us.
The good news is, it’s not limited to relatives. In addition to all my ancestral family, their friends also invested in my growth. I fondly remember all the little old ladies from my great grandmother’s community and my grandmother’s church giving me some coins to spend on candy and a few lessons in modesty. I still have a beautiful handkerchief collection to remember many of them by along with their perspective on being a lady. (A perspective a born tom-boy needed, I suppose.)
When I lived in California, I was involved in a program called “Adopt a Grandparent.” The program was for first time juvenile offenders. The idea was to get them involved in community service that focused on something other than themselves and the issues that led to their legal troubles. The young people were assigned to spend several hours per week at a nursing home playing games with the elders such as checkers, chess, bridge, and bingo. Interestingly, most of the teens didn’t know how to play these games and had to be taught by the elders.
We learned so much as program leaders. One, our elders had no filters. They asked questions and made statements about the teens legal affairs that none of us expected. “What you in trouble for?” “Well, that wasn’t too smart, was it?” They also shared some of their own illegal dealings and close calls with the teens. The elders were one hundred percent committed to communicating with the young people they were assigned; not because they were in trouble, but because they were somebody’s children or could have been their child.
The young people (the majority, not all) became interested in the elders because of their stories about the bootleg era, number runners, big band music, and conk hairstyles. (If you don’t know what some of these things are, you need to spend some time with some elders.) Some of the teens actually showed up on days when they were not assigned to attend. Many brought presents to their elder counterpart. The relationships became intimate and long lasting in some cases. A generational bridge had been formed especially for those youth who never had grandparents around.
My grandchildren have enjoyed old-fashioned tea parties with real tea and crumpets. They have worn wide men’s ties with three piece suits. They have picked and ate blueberries right off the bush. They have danced to the boogie-woogie music of two generations. They have eaten tomato sandwiches while looking at pictures that date back to the first cameras. History has been stories told to them by relatives who lived it, rather than simple book information. Imagine what my grandchildren believe they can do because of their heritage. Imagine how their worldview has evolved because of their experiences and conversations with multi-generations. This is a bridge that continues to extend into the future.
Last week was a very difficult week for my mom. She lost three very dear friends, each from a different part of her life before the pandemic. They had made every effort to stay in touch over the phone and virtual platforms. Stricken with grief, my mom wanted to reminisce, sharing the memories of each one of her friends with me. Thankfully, I am active in my mother’s life so I knew them to some extent. Sharing those memories added to the bridge between us. It gave me new and different perspectives of my mother’s life, the things she enjoyed, and some of her post-pandemic dreams. Memories keep our friends and family alive for the next generation.
Our multi-generational family has made a consistent effort to build bridges with the elders in our community during the pandemic. The ties have not been just to offer some comfort or a social outlet to our neighbors and friends. It has been to continue building the bridges. Bridges that bind the beloved community together for all time. Bridges that will invest courage, stamina, and wisdom into the next generation. Bridges that will carry the living history forward even when the elders are gone and the next group of elders move into place.
You don’t have to be related to build some bridges. You just have to realize how important the connections are between one generation and the next.
Stay safe! Stay sane! Build bridges!