An unfortunate occurrence in our era is the isolation of age groups, the idealization of youth, and the neglect of both the elderly and the very young. By isolating the age groups, gratitude and sacrificial love fall out of practice. But when generations live together, life falls into proper perspective, which fosters receptivity to the joy of redemption, and indeed creates the best atmosphere for festivity.
We tend to have a laser beam on our own troubles, our own accomplishments or perceived good qualities. When one lives only among others of the same age or in the same stage of life, that laser may never shift focus. Fallen human nature needs virtue forced upon it sometimes, and no one does that better than family. The Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity which came out of Vatican II, Apostolicam Actuositatem, states “They (the laity) fulfill their mission also by fraternal charity which presses them to share in the living conditions, labors, sorrows, and aspirations of their brethren with the result that the hearts of all about them are quietly prepared for the workings of saving grace.” When we live among those who cannot help themselves, such as children, or the elderly it’s much harder to avoid self sacrificing love. You can’t remain entirely focused on self if you need to get up over and over again at night with a sick child, or administer medicine to a family member with dementia.
However, family does much more than force one another to be charitable. Rather, each generation has gifts to offer the other, and unique insights into the love God has for man. On one of many occasions he has spoken regarding the old, Pope Francis said: “It is beautiful to see the encouragement that an elderly person is able to transmit to the young in search of the meaning of faith and life. It is truly the mission of grandparents, the vocation of the elderly. The words of the elderly hold something special for the young.” Parents and Grandparents have the wisdom of experience. Youth has energy, zest for life. Children have innocence and unembarrassed joy. Those unique talents must be given to one another rather than isolated. When we live amongst one another, serving one another with love, all members grow not only in love for one another, but also towards God by being more open to his grace.
When I was ten, almost twenty years ago, my widowed Grampop came to live with us. My Mom and Dad opened their home to him so that he would not have to live alone and quite far away, and they sought to show gratitude and love and respect for an elderly parent. Amongst them—Mom, Dad, and GP, they have and continue to pass on to us kids so much wisdom, such an incredible example of love. GP is 94 now, and still lives with my parents. I can bring my kids over any time, and my 4 year old knows to talk louder than loud for Great Grampop (GGP) to hear. They love him, they entertain him, and they bring a joy and energy that only children can. Being with old people has shaped my life, and I want it to shape theirs too. The other day I found myself rushing through a grocery store only to stall at the checkout behind a very old lady with multiple coupons and as many questions. My instinct was impatience, of course. But then, I thought, what if that was Grampop?
I would be so angry if some young person who did not know him reacted with impatience toward him in the same situation. Because they don’t know that at 94 he still mows the 7 acre yard for my Mom and Dad. They don’t know he can make you laugh until you wet your pants, or that he’ll stay up past midnight for a cribbage game—especially if you make him a martini. They don’t know that he’s been widowed twice, or that he’s buried his only son. They don’t know he flew for the Army Air Force in WWII, or that his best friend died at Iwo Jima. They do not know my Grampop, just as I did not know this lady holding up the line at the grocery store. So I slowed down, I spoke with that old lady for a few minutes, and when we said goodbye, she had a big smile on her face. Living in community with both the old and the young allows for us to have real knowledge of their life, to recognize each person’s unique gifts and benefit from them.
Living in community with multiple generations extends through every sphere of life—in work, and in prayer, but perhaps most enjoyably in leisure and festivity. Wendell Berry recalls in his essay The Work of Local Culture: “There used to be a sort of institution in our part of the country known as ‘sitting till bedtime’ After supper, when they weren’t too tired, neighbors would walk across the fields to visit each other. They popped corn, my friend said, and ate apples and talked. They told each other stories. They told each other stories as I knew myself, that they all had heard before. Sometimes they told stories about each other, about themselves, living again their own memories and thus keeping their memories alive. Among the hearers of these stories were always the children.”
I’ll never forget visiting my Dad’s mom, Nana, on Sundays. We’d sit around her tiny kitchen table, and she’d tell stories, with her deep dark eyes, in her sweet Prince Edward Island accent. My favorite was about the unhinged couple who couldn’t have kids, but considered the boy pictured on their “John Tobbin” brand box of oats as their own, and cut out his picture to keep on the fridge. Whenever they got into a fight, one of them inevitably ripped the picture up, and when harmony reigned again, the husband would have to walk the 5 miles to the store to buy a new John Tobbin. Even as a little kid, those stories made me laugh, or filled my imagination with wonder. Without question, the time spent with my Nana not only increased my love for her, but for everyone with whom those memories of her and her stories are shared.
The love and respect which should arise from those who live in community with several generations naturally lends itself to great festivity. Josef Pieper, in his book on festivity, In Tune with the World, says “The inner structure of real festivity has been stated in the clearest and tersest possible fashion by Chrysostom: ‘Ubi caritas gaudet, ibi est festivitas,’ ‘where love rejoices, there is festivity.'” One of the best examples of this can be found in a fantastic scene from the movie “I Know Where I’m Going,” produced in 1945. This particular scene depicts a merry 75th wedding anniversary party taking place on the Isle of Mull, Scotland, among poor, war hardened folk. Young and old dance, the young navigate their dramas, while the frail old couple whose anniversary it is sit and enjoy the scene. A middle aged husband nudges others aside so that he can put his arms round his wife and watch the party. Each age contributes what is proper to it, but when the bagpipes and the dancers are stilled, all ages join together in a Gaelic song. It’s the sort of song which can only be executed by many people contributing their unique talents. The result is mesmerizing and robust. The love these rugged Scottish rustics have for one another—old and young—and which is fostered by their life in community, simply explodes with joy when given a reason for festivity.
Regrettably, such expressions of community are rarely seen these days. Though sometimes through necessity, more often for convenience we put our young in daycare centers and our old in nursing homes. We hasten to reach and then endeavor to stay 25-years-old forever, considering youth the perfect age. We no longer experience work or leisure, let alone festivity within our families or among our neighbors. Such days might be gone, but not irretrievably. Our elderly and our little ones will always be with us in some way shape or form, and we should strive to live in an integrated community—for everyone’s benefit. It not only makes people better, but parties better too.
Editor’s note: The image above titled “Visiting Grandma” was painted by Felix Schlesinger (1833-1910).