Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The counsel of elders

Saturday night, we took Jay to the Hartford Volunteer Firehouse for a benefit concert featuring a band called The Tennessee Mafia Jug Band. It was bluegrass and country music at its true finest (there is PLENTY of not-so-fine country music out there, but this would have made Patsy and Hank Sr. proud). The fiddle player was fast and silky smooth, maybe the best I have seen in person. Banjos, stand-up bass, slide guitar, mandolin, washboard, and yes, a moonshine jug. It's my music, in my blood, as my mom grew up in eastern Kentucky coal country. We are Scottish-Irish, the very roots of mountain music hold us together. And, ya gotta love a band that closes out the night with a parody of a western classic, "Ghost Chickens in the Sky."

It's Jay's music too. He loves anything with a beat (Jewish reggae or rap a la Beastie Boys or Matisyahu make him snap), but mountain music moves his whole body from the inside out. It's a joy to watch. I can't wait until he's old enough for a trip to Ireland.

However, I think the best part of the night came when my friend Stephen and I were sitting together at a cafeteria table, listening and nodding to the music. Our wives were outside with the boys, Jay and his friend Rowan. Stephen saw someone he knew, nodded, and shouted "How are ya?" over the music.

I looked up. A man, maybe in his 80's (?), with a very broken body, weathered face, and incredibly engaging smile, nodded back. He wore work pants and a blue work shirt with two patches- "CRS ( don't remember the exact initials?) Dairy Systems" on the left, and "Phillip" on the right.

They chatted for a second until they remembered where they had met, and settled into a discussion of just about anything imaginable. Phillip had worked in the dairy industry his whole life, and his body showed the wear. His mind was sharp beyond what I could ever hope for myself. It was fascinating to listen to his stories, to enjoy his company, to marvel at his ingenuity.

Not one single part of this man was waiting to die. He had several irons in the fire, and plans to expand a couple of business enterprises. A written transcript of the conversation might lead one to believe that the speaker was in his thirties, established but still building. I was enthralled.

The next evening I found myself on Long Island with Laura and Jay. We introduced Jay to his great grandfather Pat for the first time, on the celebration of his 90th birthday. Somehow I ended up with the honor of sitting next to Pat and his "younger" brother, who was in his mid-80's. A few seats away was a third brother, the big brother, 92 years young. The brothers and their friends shared stories from World War II, from their early days in Long Island City, about their father who died young, and their mother who raised the youngest while the older three left to fight the war in Europe and Africa.

I was transformed more than once this weekend to a child, sitting at the feet of the elders, taking guidance in their counsel. Their stories were so much more than reminiscence; they were about the power of family, about never slowing down even while looking back. They were history.

There is a history in our world, and more of it dies off every day. It lives while, and where, our elders live. It inspires us when it is drawn from them into our lives. It is our duty to call it out, to ask the questions, to carry it forward. To Phillip, to Grampa Pat and your brothers, to my parents, you still matter so very much. Your stories guide us, your history has molded us and built a world for us.

Talk to me. I want to hear more.

I need to hear more.

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