The Family, A School of Compassion

 

“Good Lord.  I’ll never, ever let that happen to me.”

Thoughts along those lines used to cross my mind quite a lot when the Booths and Daytons and Birchards and Balls were all still alive—these would be my mother’s parents and their cousins.  They had been born before the turn of the last century and spent much of their lives on dairy farms, the men awake at four every morning to milk the cows, the women awake not much later to chop the wood, start the fire in the stove, and cook breakfast. (My grandmother refused to permit my mother to touch an ax. She wanted my mother to have an easier life than she’d had, and she believed that if she never taught my mother how to chop wood, then my mother would never have to chop wood. It worked. More than a dozen young men proposed to my mother before she married my father, but none was a farmer.)

oklahoma6 By the time I knew them, many of these old people had developed a peculiar hitch in their walk or stiffness in their hips. Instead of walking erect, they all bent at the waist, leaning forward a couple of degrees as if making their way into a good strong wind. Why didn’t they pay more attention to their posture? I knew, of course, that they had all led hard physical lives, but still. Didn’t they ever look at themselves in front of the mirror? Couldn’t they stand up?

You can see where this is going, I suppose. Meeting a friend in downtown Palo Alto for breakfast just yesterday morning, I got out of the car, and, halfway to the bagel shop, caught a glimpse of myself in the plate glass window of an adjoining store front. There I was, bent at the waist, leaning forward a couple of degrees. I stopped, drew myself up, getting the kink out of my back, and walked especially erect for the rest of the day, so much did that glimpse of myself in the storefront startle me. I’d turned into a Booth or a Birchard. I’m still young enough to shake myself out of it and correct my posture. But for a moment I’d become one of them.

MorganFamilyIf only in a small way, that realization represented a moment of enlightenment, of increased understanding. Although I’d never made a big deal of it—I’d never actually spoken to any of those old farmers about standing up straighter—a little voice in the back of my head had judged them remarkably harshly. Now I could replace that harshness with a certain compassion. A lot of stuff just happens to people, I saw, and in our family—who knows why?—we seem to have a certain predisposition to an odd walk. If the predisposition shows up in me—I, who have done desk work all my life—then to those old people it must have represented a kind of inescapable genetic sentence. Work on a farm all your life, inherit the genes they’d inherited, and by the time you’re in your seventies you’ll have lost any ability to straighten out that hitch in your giddy-up.

Because of that brief moment of reflecting on my family—of grasping that, as I put it, I’m one of them—I think I’m a slightly better person. I’m slightly more—well, understanding. And in this difficult world, even tiny improvements in character and compassion count for something, don’t they?

Which brings me to a holiday question.

As we gather with our families for the holidays, in what ways—small ways, perhaps—has your own family served as a school of compassion? In what ways do you understand better, now, perhaps, what your parents went through raising you—of what your grandparents went through raising your parents? How has family life made you a better person in ways that surprised you?

Published in General
Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Join Ricochet for Free.

There are 33 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Petty Boozswha Inactive
    Petty Boozswha
    @PettyBoozswha

    I remember the first time I caught my reflection out of the corner of my eye and my first instinct was to wonder why was Homer Simpson walking next to me. Very disconcerting.

    Sometimes when I reread my comments here at Ricochet I realize how mean spirited they sound without that being my intent — I used to judge my father pretty harshly on his Teutonic temperament, but I guess it’s my genetic inheritance too. So much for white privilege.

    • #1
  2. Eric Hines Inactive
    Eric Hines
    @EricHines

    My wife is the product of a failed diaphragm.  I’m the product of my mother’s persistence–she’d had two miscarriages before she had me.

    I never really appreciated the fortuitous confluence of those events until we had our daughter.  And it really came home when our daughter had two babies of her own–each by C-section.

    Life is precious, especially when you can see it somewhere besides a mirror.

    Eric Hines

    • #2
  3. Concretevol Thatcher
    Concretevol
    @Concretevol

    Thank you for this Peter. Brought a tear to my eye thinking of the “old timers” and farmer types in my family that are gone now. Just like your grandmother they all wanted better for the next generation. They were damn good people.

    • #3
  4. Casey Inactive
    Casey
    @Casey

    I’d like to respond but I’m having a very hard time articulating. I know what I feel but there’s no adequate way to express it. I have an answer in my heart but not in my mind.

    So I’ll just say thank you for bringing it up.

    • #4
  5. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    Peter Robinson: And in this difficult world, even tiny improvements in character and compassion count for something, don’t they?

    Yes. They count a whole lot.

    Peter Kreeft likes to quote Leon Bloy:

    “Life holds only one tragedy: not to have been a saint.”

    Family is the nest from which saints emerge — and sometimes walk oddly.

    • #5
  6. Rob Long Editor
    Rob Long
    @RobLong

    “School of compassion” is a lovely, perfect phrase.

    I don’t know yet how to answer your question, Peter, but I thank you from the bottom of my heart for asking it, and for making me think.

    Families aren’t the only schools of compassion.

    • #6
  7. PHCheese Inactive
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    I just returned from burying one of those fine people. Four generations were spoken about. In my mind this is what has made America great. It is all about family and tryin to have your children to be better than you. I heard a phrase to day that I love, ” it’s not what is on the menu it is who is at the table”. RIP Agnes Duffy.

    • #7
  8. HeartofAmerica Inactive
    HeartofAmerica
    @HeartofAmerica

    Thankfully and gleefully, I am a compilation of my parents, warts and all. Two harder working people cannot be found, even in the 80’s. I hope that even with the stooped back and slow step I shall follow in their footsteps and make it that far myself.

    • #8
  9. kennail Inactive
    kennail
    @kennail

    My parents – in their last years – lived lives of chronic pain and some loneliness – lonely for old friends no longer alive and lonely for grandchildren that they never quite got enough of.  Now that I have arrived at the age when my father’s health issues began, I can understand more about the times he was irritable and hard to connect with.  My mother’s health was mostly good till she reached her 80’s, but in the last five years of her life she taught her children to lean of faith and to endure.  I love them enormously.

    • #9
  10. user_432921 Inactive
    user_432921
    @JimBeck

    Evening Peter,

    So this summer mom was in the hospital getting scanned and echoed all day long, I was repeatedly ask how my wife or my sister was doing. Well perhaps my 67 years were a bit more adventuresome than my mom’s 93. The idea that tripped me up was not that we grow up shaped as our parents and grandparents, but that your grandmother wanted her daughter to have an easier life than she had. This is such a universal desire.  In the sense that mom’s gradfather drove a horse and carriage in Spencer, Indiana, mom’s parents did not have a car, and she had a car when she was 32, I owed a car when I was 17, life has gotten easier, many folks don’t even mow their own grass, yikes, but is the world we have staged for our children better?  We have all wanted to improve life for our kids, but looking back makes me think we have failed.

    • #10
  11. Peter Robinson Contributor
    Peter Robinson
    @PeterRobinson

    kennail:My parents – in their last years – lived lives of chronic pain and some loneliness – lonely for old friends no longer alive and lonely for grandchildren that they never quite got enough of. Now that I have arrived at the age when my father’s health issues began, I can understand more about the times he was irritable and hard to connect with. My mother’s health was mostly good till she reached her 80′s, but in the last five years of her life she taught her children to lean of faith and to endure. I love them enormously.

    Yes, I think often of my father these days–both of the burdens he bore and the satisfactions he felt, all of which I understand much, much better now that I’m experiencing them myself.

    • #11
  12. jzdro Member
    jzdro
    @jzdro

    My Dad was in China fighting the Japanese in the first half of 1945.  They apparently moved north enough to meet up with some Russian units.

    At discharge, he was told not to divulge military details – so he never divulged military details.  But he did stand there once, in the kitchen, and tell his young daughter that one of the Russian soldiers managed to get him alone, and begged him, begged him, Take me with you! Please take me with you!”

    And all he could do was weep with the man and say “I can’t.”

    The only time I saw my Dad weep was that day in the kitchen.  He wept for that man, and for all of them, all people who suffer like that, for the rest of his life.

    • #12
  13. Skid McBrick Inactive
    Skid McBrick
    @SteveMcCormick

    For my family, the “schooling” was in the faith department. It was not until I was in college that I found out about my great grandfather in Eastern Kentucky. He went to a church to hear a traveling preacher. The one room building was packed, so he went around to the side, opened a window, crawled though and sat in the front, dedicated his life to Jesus.  And after that, I uncovered, through my great aunt’s on both sides of the family, the faith lineage that was passing on down, or up as the case may be.

    • #13
  14. Peter Robinson Contributor
    Peter Robinson
    @PeterRobinson

    jzdro:My Dad was in China fighting the Japanese in the first half of 1945. They apparently moved north enough to meet up with some Russian units.

    At discharge, he was told not to divulge military details – so he never divulged military details. But he did stand there once, in the kitchen, and tell his young daughter that one of the Russian soldiers managed to get him alone, and begged him, begged him, Take me with you! Please take me with you!”

    And all he could do was weep with the man and say “I can’t.”

    The only time I saw my Dad weep was that day in the kitchen. He wept for that man, and for all of them, all people who suffer like that, for the rest of his life.

    Heart-breaking–beautiful, but heart-breaking.

    • #14
  15. She Member
    She
    @She

    Big realizational moment:  that my mother’s cruelty towards the rest of us, particularly my dad,  and  her ‘difficultness’ as she descended into dementia, were not her fault, and were beyond her control.  And realizing that neither railing at her, nor beating myself up for responding every time she ‘pushed my buttons,’ were helping any of us.

    Little realizational moment: coming to believe that my mother’s well-known, lifelong, even to the end, obsession with spreading the butter all the way to the edges of the toast, something that we all chuckled, and sometimes teased her about, probably stemmed from years of privation during the War, during which she often went hungry, ate maggoty potatoes, and probably had nothing to spread on her moldy bread, if she even had any bread.  Once butter re-entered her life, by gum, she made good use of it!

    Hardest thing to acknowledge that I couldn’t fix: how miserable she made my father, who didn’t have a shred of self-pity in his nature, and who remained constant and steadfast to the love of his life until his death.

    Sometimes, indeed, the greatest lessons can be found closest to home.

    • #15
  16. PHCheese Inactive
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    She, I am happy that you have found some compassion for your Mother. It is so hard to be inour parents shoes.

    • #16
  17. raycon and lindacon Inactive
    raycon and lindacon
    @rayconandlindacon

    Thank you Peter.

    For about seven years we visited an elderly woman at a convalescent home.  Alice became like a mother to us.  We watched her as she passed into her late 80s, remembering her childhood and her husband in their rural farm in Arkansas.  She loved God enormously, and spent her day praying for and singing praises to God with the others in the facility.

    Alice died a few months ago, and left a lasting impression of what God will do with a life dedicated to Him, and lived joyfully.

    • #17
  18. madpoet Inactive
    madpoet
    @madpoet

    It’s not only in our parents that we learn this.

    My daughter was diagnosed with celiac disorder last year, and it’s been a difficult adjustment for her at fifteen, and she has had a particularly hard time at things like family birthday parties because she can’t have cake, and seeing the disappointment in her eyes has been at times just gut-wrenching. That was made worse at least in part because my wife and I have once or twice been so caught up in the rest of life that we forgot to make sure that she had something gluten-free that she could eat.

    So, about a week ago, she turned sixteen and to celebrate, we took her and a couple friends out to the fanciest restaurant we could think of – a Brazilian steak house – and I’m sitting at the table, staring at the rolls and the other things that they’ve set out for us. The rolls were delicious, but I couldn’t really enjoy them, because my daughter wasn’t able to eat them. And we had some questions about the other things that were on the menu, so I grabbed a gentleman who was passing who happened to be the manager, and explained that we had to know what had gluten and what didn’t.

    And the first thing he said was “Well, the rolls are gluten free.”

    And I saw my daughter reach across, very slowly, to the roll basket, and take one, and tear little pieces off it and start eating it. Turns out, that particular Brazilian steak house had only a couple of things that we had to watch out for because of seasonings, and everything else was just fine for her to eat. (Including some VERY tasty cuts of meat, and a creme brulee.)

    The look of happiness on her face for the rest of the night was priceless.

    • #18
  19. user_1938 Inactive
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    My mother is a saint. She devotes nearly all of her time to serving others without neglecting family. She smiles for others even when she is in physical or emotional pain, which is all the time because of bad joints and a big heart. She never gives up on anyone. And she instinctively tries to defend anyone being criticized. Her tireless charity is a hard act to follow, but constant inspiration.

    I also think of my grandmother, who dutifully cared for her husband as he succumbed to Alzheimer’s. When I saw him at the funeral, he didn’t even look like the same man because he had lost so much weight. He didn’t remember even his wife in the end. But she stayed by his side and never complained.

    • #19
  20. user_554634 Moderator
    user_554634
    @MikeRapkoch

    Extended family is a big school of compassion. Too many examples to describe, but one I remember vividly was the time my sister and my cousin, age 4 both of them, got a hold of a bottle of aspirin and downed 50 tabs or so between them. Both were rushed to the hospital for stomach pumping. My cousin did well, but my sister had a very bad reaction and fell into a near coma. My uncle and aunt were visiting at the time, as was my grandmother. Because Mom, Pop, and uncle, aunt had to be at the hospital pretty much nonstop, my grandma had charge of all 11 kids.

    My granddad was back home in California. He was a tough old guy and we kids were terrified of him. Then, a morning or two into the crisis, up pulled a cab and out stepped granddad. The plane ticket must have cost a fortune, but there he was, and would remain, until long after my sister and cousin returned home.

    In addition to giving grandma some much needed rest, he took over the cooking, which was great because he always cooked in Olive Oil.

    • #20
  21. user_536506 Member
    user_536506
    @ScottWilmot

    Peter Robinson: A lot of stuff just happens to people, I saw, and in our family—who knows why?—we seem to have a certain predisposition to an odd walk.

    Haha – that line brings back a memory. I herniated a disk while living in Jakarta in 2009. As part of my physical therapy, I had private yoga sessions in my home and the first time my wife and I met the instructor she asked what was wrong with me and my wife said: “he walks like his Dad”.

    Peter Robinson: In what ways do you understand better, now, perhaps, what your parents went through raising you—of what your grandparents went through raising your parents? How has family life made you a better person in ways that surprised you?

    My father’s relatives came to northern Ohio in the 1800’s and settled on an 89-acre plot of land. Every time I return to our farm and enter our barn, I marvel at the work they did without power tools to clear the forest for crop and livestock fields, cut large sandstone blocks out of the hillside for barn and house foundations, and hew timbers for the barn frame. The hard constant work of a farmer was instilled in me growing up on this farm – and it remains in me to this day – I love nothing more than being outside all day long working on the land. I appreciate the patience it took for my father to force me to go outside and work when I was young – I would always moan and complain, but I am so grateful now.

    But perhaps the greatest thing I have learned of family life is of time shared together. My Dad now suffers from Parkinson’s disease and has great difficulty walking. In 2012 he lost his wife of 57 years and has lived alone since then. I took an early retirement this year to return from 10 years of overseas living to spend time with my Dad and live again on the farm. We were fortunate to have our 4 children and first grandson (all Texans!) join us for Thanksgiving in Ohio this year. As my children left to go back to Texas I told them that even though Grandpa can’t play with them like he used to and has difficulty talking now and telling them stories, that the greatest gift they just gave their Grandpa and us was the time they took out of their busy lives to spend with us. So I hope in my retirement my old selfish ways are put to rest and that my time can be devoted to those I love: God and family.

    • #21
  22. Nick Stuart Inactive
    Nick Stuart
    @NickStuart

    In that vein. I’m now into my second year of scanning and sorting family photos and memorabilia. Here’s a photo of my wife’s grandparents circa 1947.

    Digital Camera

    Tell me they don’t look like people who lived through two wars and a depression. There are a few photos of them with smiles, but this is definitely the default expression.

    • #22
  23. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    Re comment 22

    It’s a beautiful picture taken, I think, when there were still a few people left who did not automatically change their expressions when being photographed. Well, either that or the picture was taken at a funeral. Nice looking people though.

    • #23
  24. Annefy Member
    Annefy
    @Annefy

    My FIL getting out of a chair was a long, complicated and noisy event. For years my husband would entertain us all with a dead on impersonation. Which he refuses to do now that his own egress from a chair more and more resembles his dad’s.

    I used to tease my MIL for precisely folding a plastic bag. I have always balled up an empty bag and crammed it, along with hundreds of others, into an empty Kleenex box. Save a bag for sure, but there’s no reason to get obsessive about it.

    She died suddenly on Thanksgiving morning in 2013. My husband rushed off to be with his brothers, so all the phone calling was left to me. I was in a panic to get word to son #1 in Afghanistan before he saw the news from one of his cousins on Facebook. And in my agitated state I found myself on the phone, obsessively folding empty plastic bags.

    • #24
  25. user_3444 Coolidge
    user_3444
    @JosephStanko

    Peter Robinson: More than a dozen young men proposed to my mother before she married my father, but none was a farmer.

    Tangential to your point, but this comment struck me with just how radically dating and courtship culture has changed in a few generations.

    I know of two couples in my circle of friends who dated for more than a decade before they got engaged.  Another friend got engaged to a woman he had met “only” a year earlier, and it struck many of us as abrupt.  Do they know each other well enough yet to tie the knot?

    At the modern pace it would take a woman at least 12 years — and 12 “serious” long-term relationships — to rack up 12 proposals.

    • #25
  26. Scott Reusser Member
    Scott Reusser
    @ScottR

    As we’ve muddled through parenthood ourselves, my brother and I have come to appreciate the many things our parents got right and forgive their faults and mistakes.

    It’s all so understandable now.

    • #26
  27. Annefy Member
    Annefy
    @Annefy

    Scott R:As we’ve muddled through parenthood ourselves, my brother and I have come to appreciate the many things our parents got right and forgive their faults and mistakes.

    It’s all so understandable now.

    I didn’t have a long list of things I would do different than my folks, but I had a top-ten list.

    At some point when my kids were young and I was sitting on a deck in Big Bear CA surrounded by my brothers and sisters, brothers and sisters in law, my husband, my four kids and umpteen nieces and nephews and I had an epiphany.

    I vowed to forget about  focusing on what I thought they did wrong and figure out what they did right.

    • #27
  28. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    One of the great tragedies of modern life is the loss of intergenerational relationships. More and more of us have pushed marriage and family decades farther down the road than previous generations, the result being that both children and adults are being denied the joy of connecting the past with the future.

    My youngest son was a gift to me at age 44, but will his children know me? I remember my mother holding him when he was a newborn and weeping, openly acknowledging that she was never really going to be in this boy’s memory at all.

    I’ve made a conscientious habit of telling my children all the stories my parents told me and encouraged my wife to do the same. When my son graduated from boot camp last August and received his Eagle, Globe and Anchor my father-in-law poured out stories from his Army days, revealing things about himself that he had kept hidden for decades. He needed that connection and his grandson provided it.

    • #28
  29. Sandy Member
    Sandy
    @Sandy

    My paternal grandmother, with whom we lived in an old two-flat house, was a difficult woman.  She was an abusive mother, and almost no one got along with her, but as many such people do, in her old age she softened a bit and she tried to be a good grandmother, so I was sympathetic to her in a way that her children never could be.

    Born into a Sicilian family that had emigrated to Louisiana, she had been pulled out of school after third grade and made to work as a seamstress, and she never got over that.  At 13 she was married against her will to a man more than twice her age, after which she had many children (we never quite knew how many), most of whom died in infancy or early childhood, one in adulthood, and whom, of course, she never stopped mourning.

    When I, the oldest grandchild, graduated from 8th grade, she spent a lot of money on a watch for me because in her view that graduation was a huge accomplishment for a girl, and she was proud and hoped I’d grow up to be a secretary, or something equally genteel. She would never know how as an adult I came to appreciate her struggles and to value her accomplishments and to mourn her life.

    • #29
  30. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    Re: comment # 28 and 29

    I’m thinking we don’t always feel or know our needs. So sometimes we have no idea at the time, but realize much later, how much the connection with a grandparent did for us.

    • #30
Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.