What’s Your Story?

There's a story about Abraham Lincoln growing up dirt poor--wanting to study but not having enough money to buy candles which would allow him to read after the sun went down. Gas lamps were also out of the budget and Mr. Edison's electric lights were a generation away. So instead of waking up at six o'clock in the morning to chop fire wood, milk cows, and plow fields, Lincoln would get up at five a.m. so he could read for an hour by morning light. It is my understanding that Lincoln did not enroll in an SAT preparation seminar. In my family, we tell the story of my grandmother who, in 1910 at 14 years of age went to work in New York City. Having completed a secretarial course, she typed envelopes--one thousand envelopes each and every day. Her salary? A dollar--of which two nickels went to "car fare" (modern translation: "subway,") one nickel paid for lunch and another nickel bought a soda pop. What did she do with the "net" profit--some 70 or 80 cents? See if you can determine what became of the funds from the following distinguishable choices: a) She spent the profits however she darn well pleased. She earned it; the money was hers. She probably bought some "Hello Kitty" merchandise (she was, remember, all of 14 years old) or some frozen yogurt. b) She bought a video game and some pot. c) She returned home, cheerfully gave the money to her mother and thanked her mother for allowing her to go out of the house into the city to work. The alternative--carrying water for cooking and cleaning up five flights of stairs, making baby food from scratch for her seven younger siblings, washing diapers (both electric washing machines and disposable nappies were generations in the future)--were less preferable. Work was a privilege. My grandmother, after whom my oldest child is named, continued working as a secretary for the next seven decades. She even worked for FDR when he was assistant secretary of the navy. (OK, so did dozens of other young women and my grandmother and FDR may not have spoken more than a few syllables to one another, but still: FDR!) She worked well into her 80s even after she tried to quit. Repeatedly. Her boss at the mortgage company, whom she had known for half a century, wouldn't let her retire. "You're the only one who knows where everything is," he would say. "Just come in for one more day." This scenario--"C'mon; Just work today"--went on for some years. I like to think that had my grandmother been born in 1986 rather than 1896, that she might have been a college professor rather than a secretary. Her grammar, mechanics, and usage were perfect. She could proofread like nobody's business. You could throw a legal document across the room and before it hit the floor, my grandmother could tell you that there was a semi colon missing on page three. But there was no money for school--not for girls anyway--so she got along with what she had. Interestingly enough, all four of her children have graduate degrees and all four of them have taught college. Even though she's gone 20 years, my grandmother is still a frequent topic of conversation in my family. *** What are the stories that are the fabric of your family's life? Do you talk about the lives of great men like Lincoln and good women like my grandmother? Do you emphasize for your kids stories of resilience and sacrifice, of people overcoming hardship and making a life for themselves and their families? Do you feed your kids the "meat and potatoes" so that they know who they are, where they come from, and whom you admire? Or do you feed your children potato chips and ice cream instead? Are the "heroes" at your dinner table those folks who have made a quick buck or been successful at the expense of someone else? Do you communicate to your children that you admire "winners" who use steroids and business people who have committed fraud to make their fortunes? Are the sentences that narrate the stories of our families woven together from the strong thread of tales about good people doing the best they can? If not, tonight might be a good time to have your kids put down their video games and put down their homework worksheets so they can hear about the adversity that their great grandparents overcame so that your kids can have a fridge full of food and a roof over their heads. Go ahead--turn on an electric light. There's no reason to wake up at five in the morning to tell your kids these stories about these good people. And next time you think about giving in to your child's wants rather than focusing only on your child's needs, think about whether Lincoln and my grandmother worked hard and succeeded in spite of or BECA-- USE OF the hardships they faced.

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