My family had what you might call a non-traditional Thanksgiving this year. My wife and sons and I joined my parents and went to Aunt Lee’s home. She is 92 and recently broke her pelvis and was in significant pain. Plans unfolded at the last minute and she was unable to cook, so we ordered in some delicious Chinese food. Not a scrap of turkey to be found but we were all happy Aunt Lee was working hard on her physical therapy to help the healing. Being together was the best part.
An injury like Aunt Lee’s can often result in death at that age. She has been perfectly clear that as a German Jew who lived through Hitler when she was growing up in Germany, she knows survival and is “not ready to close my eyes just yet!” Her doctors and therapists have been amazed at the tenacity and willpower she has shown.
Due to the severity of the injury, she hired a live-in aide, Anna, who grew up in Liberia and is amazingly patient and sweet.
During Thanksgiving dinner, between spring rolls and sesame chicken, we engaged in our family Thanksgiving ritual of going around the table and saying a bit about what we are thankful for. I volunteered to start off and my sons, 18 and 15, offered their obligatory eye-rolling. Teenagers… I get it.
I expressed my appreciation for the little box on the wall that allows me to control the temperature of our home winter or summer, the fact that we have safe, drinkable water, hot or cold, coming out of faucets and even potable water to shower with! We have an amazing level of physical safety and opportunity in America. I reminded everyone that most people in the world do not have toilets and of the prevalence of homelessness at home and abroad.
Anna loved our ritual and was excited to participate. She gently and lovingly told my sons that she understood they have other things on their minds as teenage boys, and implored them to listen to everyone else and share their own gratitude. She reminded them how fortunate they are in a way that can be difficult for parents to convey without being seen as lecturing. Anna went on to tell of her teen years in Liberia amid violent civil war. She had to run with her family from their home and hide in the forest. They witnessed horrific acts of violence I will not even share here (they are etched in my mind in a way that is disturbing.) Aunt Lee connected with Anna as they both spent significant time when younger hiding in forests with family trying to stay alive during periods of genocide.
Aunt Lee told of her experiences in Germany in the late 1930’s and 1940’s, and Anna of Liberia in the late 1980’s. These stories hit us all hard. Both had examples of people coming to their aid despite significant personal risk and both had been betrayed by neighbors. While we had heard Aunt Lee’s stories many times over the years, they never lose their power to captivate us; together with Anna’s experiences we were all riveted, even disturbed, by man’s inhumanity to man.
Our sons were quiet. And they listened.
What is the Lesson?
Enterprising Families: Family stories are an incredibly powerful way to put a comfortable, safe, financially secure life into context and engender appreciation. Stories relate important values, impart great wisdom and do so in a way that engages the rising generation while avoiding “lecturing.” Often, family members much senior to parents can have powerful and positive influences that complement what parents can convey to their own children. And trusted non-family members (like Anna) can be invaluable storytellers.
Consider your family’s history and find the untold stories (large and small, high-drama and mundane) and share them with the rising generation with an eye towards the great lessons held within them.
Advisors to Enterprising Families: Listen and listen well. Be open to hearing the stories your clients hold, encourage them to share them with you and remind them of the power within these tales to mold and shape the minds and hearts of next generation family members.