Dear Future Grandkids,
Once upon a time there was a fairy godmother named Momow. Like all fairies she was magical, but Momow was special because she only used her magic for good. Her most powerful spell was love, a spell she shared with friends and neighbors, but most of all she shared it with children. I am one of them, and each day I try to remember that magic so that I can share it with you.
Every trip to visit Momow was magical. She cast her spell by listening...sometimes for hours. When she listened she made you feel important. She made you feel special. Her tenderness created feelings of love that also gave you strength. Strength to say "I'm sorry". Strength to listen. Strength to feel like everything is going to be OK.
Momow was no pushover. She always made you do your chores and never let you get away with a lie. She would patiently wait for you to come around to admitting your mistakes. She was loving-but-firm...never cursing or yelling unless she stubbed her toe.
Her home was always wholesome. Her food was always healthy. She made beautiful fires on the back porch that warmed our toes while we rocked in Amish rocking chairs. No one ever drank alcohol or played video games. No one stared at their phones or their computers. Everyone helped prepare the food and wash the dishes. Everyone shared their struggles and listened with understanding.
We never talked about fancy cars, brand clothes, or buying bigger houses. When she wasn't listening to our stories, Momw would talk about helping those in need and protecting the environment. Momow taught us to feel empathy, respect the animals, care for the soil and love the planet. She showed us how to plant trees and prairie grass. She showed us how to prune the trees and burn the prairie grass so they grow back stronger. We would go around town cutting branches away from stop signs to make our community safer. We read books about sustainable farming, and practiced what we learned on the farm.
When I was a little boy I used to hate doing my chores. Then one day I saw my uncle, painting my backyard trellis. No one asked him. It wasn’t his yard. It was hot and humid. He walked toward the house all dressed in work clothes and dripping with sweat, but he had a twinkle in his eyes. I had seen that same magical twinkle before...in Momow's eyes.
Later I saw my Aunt scrubbing the bathroom floor. She looked up at me with a smile...and that same twinkle. I saw the same twinkle again in my sister's eyes as she washed dishes. The same twinkle Momow had as she pointed out the branches for me to cut that blocked the stop signs around town.
Years later I saw the same twinkle in my Popow's eyes as he read my dissertation...staying up late into the night making edits and asking me helpful questions. During the Great Recession I lost all three of my local job offers, so my wife and I started looking in Washington DC. No other city was hiring economists. I was worried, but then I saw that twinkle again in wife's eyes as she sat in front of me, pregnant with our first daughter, helping me write my first resume.
Twenty years after watching my Uncle paint that trellis I finally understood why those who sacrifice for those they love are the happiest people on earth.
Love the Action
As I get older I hope I never lose sight of what made Momow's love so magical. The word "Love" can mean many things, but the most magical kind is "Love the action".
Young people need someone to give them love. The greeks called this "Storge" (στοργή storgē) which means tenderness, love, and affection ... especially between parents and children. Storge is about showing and feeling empathy. Sometimes the word is used in reference to love for one's country or a favorite sports team, but that is not what I mean here. Momow's Storge came from her deep understanding of what all people need...something grownups call the "human condition".
People are like trees 🌳 . When we feel loved, valued and accepted...we are like a tree with deep roots. When we receive negative feedback, are criticized, or fail...it’s like the wind 💨. The wind blows and it forces our roots, trunks, and branches to become stronger. But if we have no roots...if we don’t feel valued ... we can’t face reality. Our courage breaks when we fail or are criticized. We can’t use the wind to grow stronger.
Momow dedicated her life to helping those around her grow deep roots...especially young people in difficult circumstance like me. Her love helped us find courage to be honest with ourselves and face our weaknesses. In time, this helped us overcome challenges...which helped us transition our source of confidence from her love to ourselves and our own inner strength. Momow understood that this process is easier for kids that feel unconditional love...a gift that takes tremendous inner strength.
Service to Others
Here is a quote from the movie "Mary Poppins" that I have come to appreciate. It's from the scene just after the kids run away from their father after causing a run on the bank. Jane and Michael are convinced that they are the ones in trouble, but Bert (Dick Van Dyke) points out that at least they have someone to go to when they are in pain.
Jane: Father's not in trouble. We are.
Bert: Oh, sure about that, are you? Look at it this way. You've got your mother to look after you. And Mary Poppins, and Constable Jones and me. Who looks after your father? Tell me that. When something terrible happens, what does he do? Fends for himself, he does. Who does he tell about it? No one! Don't blab his troubles at home. He just pushes on at his job, uncomplaining and alone and silent.
To me, the "Father" is a metaphor for all the grownups in the world that lost (or never had) a Momow. If we are lucky we have a caring family, a loving spouse to share our lives with, and close friends...but even when we have everything we need, life can feel like it is mostly suffering.
It's clear to me now that the most anyone can accomplish in this world is to help someone, like you, to feel love, feel valued, and grow confidence. To help someone grow deep roots so they have the strength to reach outside of themselves and take responsibility for making the world around them a better place.
I'm not my Momow. Her magic was rare and special. I wish you could have known her. I wish I could channel her love like a magical spell so you could feel the way I did those many years ago ...sitting on that Amish rocking chair in front of the fire...warming my toes...locked in by the twinkle in her eyes...filled with calm, peace, confidence, and a desire to help those in need, protect the trees and animals, and share my gifts with my community.
I'm not my Momow...but I will love you the best I can.
Your future Popow
Ways to make family reunions magical
Listen. Give everyone a chance to share recent successes and struggles since the last reunion. This would also be a great way to help the next generation get comfortable speaking in public.
Create a safe and wholesome environment. Kids are obviously going to be very sensitive to the world around them. Unfortunately, some people and environments are not kid friendly. These other suggestions become very difficult without a safe and wholesome environment.
Work on a project together. My family would often play music at the church and local nursing home. We kids learned to love sharing our gifts with the community. My wife says that listing to my family sing at the church is a big reason she married me.
Promote shared learning experiences from inspirational movies, books, and speeches. My grandparents would always be saving videos and articles to share. Usually the topic would relate to things their kids had an interest or that related to our shared interest in protecting the environment.
Serve healthy home cooked meals and have everyone sit around the table. We also had a tradition of singing, "The more we get together the happier we will be". It's a simple tune with a powerful message kids can appreciate.
Avoid alcohol. Mom and Dad occasionally enjoy a glass of red wine. Sometimes being around family can be stressful and having a beer just seems so natural in those situations. But something about alcohol removes our natural tendency to find comfort in deeper conversation and connection.