By Barbara Falconer Newhall, The Oakland Tribune, Sunday, September 27, 1987
“Move,” said Peter. “I want to get by.”
My mother looked up from her book and gave my 6 1/2-year-old a hard look. She was sitting on her sofa, in her house, feet up on her coffee table. Reluctantly, she moved her feet to let Peter by. He squeezed wordlessly past.
Something was wrong, very wrong, with that exchange, said my gut.
But what? The chilly glare my mother threw at my son? The pleases and thank yous he left unsaid?
It isn’t easy to think clearly after a few days under the same roof with one’s mother and father. When I was a young career woman living in New York City, I discovered the three-nights-and-four-days-at-home rule.
That was all I could take of living eyeball to eyeball with my mother. I could be her kid again for four days, max. After that, it was flight – or fight.
I broke my own rule last summer and inflicted myself and my children upon my parents for an unprecedented stay of eight nights and nine days.
It was not until I was safely home under my own roof in the Eastbay, my feet tucked up on my own coffee table, that I could see what had gone wrong during that exchange between my mother and her grandson.
Peter had no respect.
It was more than a mere forgetting of his pleases and thank yous. It was downright presumptuous of him to think his grandmother should interrupt her reading to accommodate him at all. He should have walked quietly, respectfully, around the table the other way.
Had it been another child, a peer, in Peter’s path, squeezing past with a quick “excuse me” would be okay.
But around grandparents, children should show some respect.
Respect. The very word sticks in my craw. Question authority was the motto of my young adulthood. Challenge it.
There was no place for blind respect for one’s elders during the ’60s. We were equals under God and the U.S. Constitution. Every creature – adult, child, rhinoceros or whooping crane – was to be treated with respect.
Children, the clean slates of the future, were held in especially high regard in those days. As innocents, they possessed a unique wisdom lost to their time-sullied elders.
And today, the young child, the person of the future – not his parents and grandparents, the person of the past – continues to command unusual respect, even awe.
This small bundle of nerve endings is a miracle of creation, the child-rearing books coo. It has needs and feelings that deserve our utmost attention.
Little Samantha, but a fetus, can hear in utero. We should play her Beethoven.
She has feelings in utero. We should think nice thoughts about her as we experience morning sickness.
Unless, of course, we are planning to abort this particular fetus, in which case it is better not to think.
Through all of this, a stubborn something deep inside me has persisted, insisting that it is the grandparents, if anyone, who deserve the extra measure of unconditional respect.
Not because our elders have earned it. And not because our elders are in any way better, smarter or kinder than their descendents.
But because they are the elders.
My mother deserves Peter’s esteem because of the life she has led as a mother and wife. Because of the potatoes peeled, the casseroles baked, the dustballs chased and the
corporate VIPs entertained.
Because she holds the office of grandmother. Because she has done her do.
Peter won’t even clean up his room and he thinks he is on a par with my mother, who has cleaned up his bottom?
My friend Claudia sends her two small children to Chinese school every Saturday morning. “I want them to learn about their culture. I want them to learn that respect,” she explained.
“Your parents live in Michigan,” she went on. “So far away. I would never want to be that far away from my mother.”
The Chinese culture, thousands of years old, venerates the people of the past. It is not unique in this.
The elderly are held in high esteem in her native Belize, according to my friend Miriam.
“Old people are the root,” she explains. “If grandparents come to your house, they don’t sleep on the floor. You give them your bed or your hammock.”
Today’s Western culture, with its silicon chips, videocameras and interplanetary probes, venerates what it still to come.
It stands in awe of the future and its citizens – our children – as though our children possessed a hot line to the truth or, as the Chinese ancestors of yore, to Heaven.
The fact is, we and our forebears created the world into which our children are being launched.
We have done our best, sorry as it may be. We have done our do. And for that we deserve some respect.
Published by permission, The Oakland Tribune