Friday, May 20, 2011

Would you rather...

I recently took a general business class and the instructor was pretty fascinating, actually - one day he mentioned an ice breaker that he is familiar with for business meetings: Would you rather meet your great grandfather or your great grandson? Of course, my first reaction was wanting to point out how one might be interested in meeting their great grandmother or their great granddaughter as well, but let's put that aside for now. He said that most often, people would choose to meet their great grandfather because they'd be too afraid to see what they'd created. I would definitely have to respectfully disagree with his theory though.

It got me thinking about who I'd rather meet, an ancestor or a descendant. I would absolutely choose an ancestor, but I think and hope that it's not out of fear. It's for a few reasons, actually. One is that I have a pretty good feeling that an ancestor has greater wisdom than I do and, while a descendant might as well, I feel like an ancestor would have more wisdom to share that could make sense in today's context, whereas wisdom from the future may not be as applicable.

Today, I was curious after seeing an commercial and decided to go online and check it out. I typed in my paternal grandfather's name and found his burial information (which I already knew), but it was really cool to see his name online like that. And then I looked for my mother's maternal grandfather and I didn't find as much about him (he was born around 1870), but it definitely was pretty fascinating. There are a lot of people who are very, very interested in genealogy and I guess I can kind of see why.

For me, as cool as it is to see their names online and on old census forms and stuff like that, I wish there was a way to hear about who they really were. I remember my grandmother (whose 89th birthday would have actually been today) telling me a story about her father once. He died when she was very young (he would have been 54 years old when she was born in 1922, which was pretty darn old then, I think) and my mother never knew her grandparents. But my grandmother remembered or had been told a very beautiful story about him that she told me when I was younger. He used to own a grocery store in small town Saskatchewan (I guess this would have taken place in or near Kinistino). A family that they knew who was disadvantaged had purchased a stove from him. Knowing they needed it, he included a full set of dishes in the stove for the family. When this family opened the stove and found the dishes inside, they had assumed that it was an error and, not having paid for the set of dishes, returned them to my great grandfather. I don't exactly remember the end of the story but the idea is that he told them that he had meant to include the dishes and for them to keep them. It's an absolutely beautiful story of generosity, community and respecting the dignity of one's neighbours.

My dad told me once that his dad sent him to get change for their grocery store (I come from a very long line of small grocery store owners). My dad came back with the nickels he had been sent for and when my grandfather counted them up he found one extra, which he sent my dad back to the bank to return. I realize that we tell stories to others, specifically our children and grandchildren, to instill in them the values and social norms by which we intend for them to lead their lives. I love those stories because they give me a feeling for who these men were and why their children (my grandmother and my dad, respectively) had so much love and respect for them.

I am very lucky that I get to have the kind of parents about whom it's really easy to say a whole bunch of nice things. And my dad and my grandmother seem to have felt the same way about their fathers (they did feel the same way about their mothers as well, these are just 2 stories that kind of stick with me and are easy to share). I love how these things can help shape who we are, even though in some cases they are about people far removed from us by generation and time and even location in many cases.

There are such riches in the stories of our parents and grandparents and I fully realize that many times we miss out on the chance to ask what those stories are, probably out of the hubris of youth. I often thought that it would have been wise to ask my paternal grandmother about her stories. She was born in Poland and came here, well to Winnipeg, at the age of 12 in 1926 (I think) with her mother, maybe to start over. She had a lot of painful experiences in her lifetime but I have to believe that there were a lot of good times as well. Even the stories of the challenges she faced though, would have shed so much light on who she became, who she was (and who I knew). Unfortunately I never got up the courage to ask her for her stories.

Also, I realize that I'm very, very lucky to have a family that I know, love and respect. A lot of people don't. I don't think that this is limited to family, though. I think that the stories about your friends are stories about the family you choose and reflect the kind of people with whom you elect to associate.

This long, rambling blog post does have a point, I promise. To me, there is something very valuable about knowing where you come from. I am who I am because of the generosity of my mom's grandfather, the honesty of my grandfather, the tenacity of my grandmothers, my parents' rejection of the way things "should" be and their wild intelligence, my sister's challenging questions, my roommate's love for animals, and (of course) many, many other things I connect with or admire about others (and all of the thoughts and experiences in between). I realize that the sphere of influence of one person is vast and that many people's influence overlaps in one viewer such as myself. Identity is complicated and unique for each person.

I also appreciate that the things I believe in now didn't start with me. I am a feminist because I believe that all people should be equal, regardless of things like gender; ethnic, cultural or religious background; sexual orientation; mental or physical ability; income level; gender expression; and any other factor by which others wish to separate human beings. I am this way, in part, because I know that my grandmothers were both working mothers at a time when that would not have been very popular (from the 40s - although there is definitely an argument that that still isn't popular) and the fact that my dad says that his father opened a grocery store in part because people weren't interested in hiring Jews so he owned his own business. My concern for the environment may come, in large part, from my mother's very conservation-based actions when we were young like growing vegetables and composting; as well as the influence of living in a beautiful natural setting like Bragg Creek, AB when we were little.

I am very thankful for the efforts of my parents and their parents and their parents to create new generations who are better off than they were because I would offer that I have had multitudes more opportunity than any of them. I hope I can make the best of it, to make their efforts worth something to the rest of the world as well. I hope that people of my generation can recognize that the world is unlikely to end with us and it is our responsibility to do whatever we can to make this a richer world economically, socially and environmentally for those who will come after us than it is now. I also hope that that recognition will lead to action on a large scale.