When I was a boy, one of my favorite destinations was my Grandmom Parker’s house in southern New Jersey.
You could never step foot into Grandmom’s house without being asked: “Would you like something to eat?”
At that point the answer was superfluous, and the question of whether or not you were hungry was not asked — it was totally irrelevant. You were at Grandmom’s house, and you were going to eat.
And this was no haphazard bowl of fruit or bologna sandwich. No. The mere mention of a snack would draw out a full ham, leftover pot roast, a pan of fried chicken, side dishes galore, an entire cake and the ever-present glass dish filled with candied fruit slices.
To depart from Grandmom’s house you needed to budget an extra 15 minutes to pack up any leftovers, along with previously unseen delights from the back of her refrigerator, for the trip home. To see us pack food into the Datsun hatchback, you’d think we were preparing for a 19th-century trek across the Rocky Mountains, not a short jaunt across the Delaware River.
For anyone whose parents or grandparents came up during the Great Depression, this is probably a familiar tale. Like most in her generation, my late grandmother grew up knowing what it meant to fear for your next meal. And, having survived the deprivations of the Great Depression, so many in that generation learned to express love with the one thing that defined that time in their lives — food. They celebrate its abundance as a way of reminding themselves and others we should be thankful. And we should remember, it can become scarce again.
Go back a little further in my family’s maternal line, and you arrive at the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-1800s, which reverberated through the family, to my grandmother from her grandmother.
Most families have stories like this. Great events of hardship, pain and suffering leave an indelible mark that is passed from generation to generation. But, great generations find ways to take all that darkness and deprivation and pass it on in ways as loving and comforting as Grandmom’s table.
We now live in one of those defining times. What we must decide, with great intent, is how we will pass on the effects of this time to our children and grandchildren.
As I write this, more than 85,000 Americans have died from this pandemic. I fear a great many more are yet to follow. This is a dark and defining time. But, we need not pass darkness on to our children.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, the darkness that surrounds us, I have seen so many of you daring to shine light into our world.
In a society that has long been defined as a culture of “me first, last and only,” the pandemic has given rise to beautiful displays of compassion and empathy. Let us pass that on to our children.
During the lockdown, many have rediscovered art, music, literature and the benefits of having a creative hobby. Let us pass these on to our children.
As many of us have been stuck at home, we — a society that has long looked down on “menial” service jobs — have elevated to heroic status grocery store clerks, janitors, delivery drivers and many other people who are truly essential to civilization being the least bit civilized. Let us teach our children to see the worth in and respect all honest work.
As neighbors have lost jobs and bread lines have grown, people from all walks of life have stepped forward in unprecedented numbers to volunteer and donate, to meet the need. Let us continue to always make sure the hungry are fed, the poor clothed and housed. Let us teach our children selfless charity is not just an occasional nicety or an emergency response, but an everyday, essential part of what it means to live in community with our neighbors.
What other ways can we take this dark time and pass it on as love and light to our children? I am sure I have only scratched the surface. I invite you to reflect on this, and to put into action those small things that will transform crisis into the balm of compassion.
None of us yet know how long the pandemic will continue. I pray it truly is tending toward its end. But, whatever lies ahead of us, and however it ends, I pray we will use it for good. I pray we will use this experience to make all of society, for all people, as welcoming and loving as my Grandmom’s overloaded dinner table.