Honoring the Veterans of Life

Posted on November 10, 2010


In a recent post, shoreacres wrote about her father and the long-ago influence he had on her views about rights, responsibilities, and what it means to be a citizen in a democratic society. Her wonderful essay got me thinking, again, about my own father. For many years, I had been unfair in my memories of him. He was sick from the self-inflicted ailments related to an unshakable smoking habit. I filed that under “Inexcusable” and rarely thought any more deeply about it, or about the thoughts and emotions that may have been behind his actions. I saw my father the way most children do, not as a complex human being, but as my parent. What I thought of him depended almost entirely on how his life affected mine. In the process I had carelessly forgotten the lessons he taught me — before and during his illness.

My father’s teachings weren’t about civic obligation or the values he had nearly died for in Normandy during the Second World War. At least I don’t remember them that way. And so, as Veterans Day approaches (Remembrance Day in Canada), I find myself thinking not about his exploits in the military, but his lessons in the kitchen, and in the car. At last I can appreciate the morsels of wisdom he served up. It was not always so. What he tried to instill in his children were the things that inspire one-word grunts and a good deal of eye-rolling among pre-teens and teenagers — then and now. His words always sounded familiar because he seemed to be saying the same things, telling the same jokes, giving the same advice, over and over. Was there any reason to listen?

And yet I must have listened, because his words stuck.

One of the more lasting lessons was this: Respect your elders. It seemed at the time to be shorthand for “Shut up and do what you’re told.” A quick and convenient bit of propaganda designed to put children in their place. The respect was reserved not just for parents and grandparents, but for aunts, uncles, and teachers. It included the dentist, his receptionist, the doctor who sometimes came to our house clutching a black bag, and the man who sold fresh vegetables from the back of his truck once a week. It was to be paid to our neighbors, as well as to strangers. And it was a lesson I learned the hard way.

On the afternoon of my very first day of kindergarten, I was playing in the street in front of our house. Betty, a small woman who lived down the block, was walking home. She stopped a foot away from me and told me to get out of the street. Barely looking up at her I said, “I go to school now. You can’t tell me what to do.” One second later I felt a sharp pain in my left ear as Betty used it like a leash to yank me up onto the sidewalk. That night, when I told my father about the incident, there were no angry phone calls, threats of lawsuits, or appeals for help from the police. “Did Betty tell you to get out of the street?” he wanted to know. When I replied that she did, he said only that I should have listened to her the first time. And that I’d better listen the next time.

Respect your elders. A phrase that sounds quaint, antiquated, and nearly obsolete. Yet it has rung in my ears all this time, far longer than the ringing Betty caused that late summer day, five decades ago.

When I was sixteen I went to work at a local supermarket. Most of the part-time employees were high school students, while the full-timers were department managers in their forties, fifties, and even sixties. These older people had been with the company for many years. They worked with sleeves rolled up, a red apron protecting their clothes from the over-ripe fruit, the bloody meat, the broken eggs. This was their career. They were diligent and dependable, did things right, and pushed the part-timers to do the same. So it was always a jolting experience when one of the regional managers would show up for a surprise visit. Typically, they would be in their early thirties, which meant they were half the age of some of the store’s employees. These young hotshots would walk around in their three-piece suits, clipboard in hand, looking for reasons to criticize. Inevitably, they would find something.

And then they’d pounce.

They attacked the older managers, like lions preying on the weak and defenseless. They reprimanded in harsh tones, not in the privacy of an office, but out on the floor, in front of younger staff and customers alike. The managers took it without fighting back. This was their job, after all, their only hope of earning a living. They’d ride it out, just as they had the last time, and all the times before that.

I watched, amazed and confused. How did this fit in with what my father told me? Did the rest of the world follow the rule, or didn’t it?

Apparently not. Almost forty years later, I see the same treatment. I hear and read about it all the time. Much of it is subtle, ephemeral, hard to pin down or document. But it’s there. The young hotshots are always around, eager to prove that aggressiveness can more than make up for lack of experience. And when that doesn’t work they’re just as willing to use cruelty, if that’s what it takes to humiliate their older subordinates, to put them in their place, as though they were children. And always I wish the perpetrators had been taught, or had listened. I wish their fathers had demanded that they always respect their elders. I wish they’d had a Betty in their young lives to pull on their ears, and open their eyes.

I don’t worship older people. Sometimes they can be cranky, arrogant, rude, and mean. But I afford them the respect they deserve. I hold the door for them, say hello, let them go first. It isn’t that I’m such a great person. It’s just one small way I see the world. And I guess it does have something to do with rights, responsibilities, and what it means to be a citizen in a democratic society.

Respect your elders, he said. It’s one of the lessons my father taught me — before, during, and long after his illness.