What We Can Learn from the Greatest Generation

May 12, 2011
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With 1 in 2 first marriages ending in divorce, with millions of gym memberships being bought, and billions of Apple products being sold, with the outsourcing of household chores, the complicating of human interactions, sometimes it is important for us to take a step back and learn from previous generations. Given the recent collapse of the economy, the BP oil spill, the ridiculous things (No gun licence or background check required to buy and conceal a weapon in NH!) being passed in State and Nation Congresses - all systems headed by the Baby Boomers - it's pretty clear we can't look to them for inspiration. But Baby Boomers have parents, and perhaps there is something to be learned by Generations Y and Z from the lessons of the Greatest Generation.

Baby Boomers are the sons and daughters of the Greatest Generation - categorically, those born between 1901 and 1924. My grandparents, born in 1921 and 1923, belong to the Greatest Generation, categorized by their struggle through the Great Depression and their contributions to World War II. When I think of how I would define the generation, I think of my grandfather, aptly nicknamed "Gran," who resides in what he defiantly calls a "community of retirees," and what we affectionately refer to as "The Place You Go to Die." Gran represents nearly exactly the culture of the Greatest Generation.Firstly, Gran takes responsibility for his actions; when he was my age, attending the University of New Hampshire, he arranged to live with an acquaintance he knew through drama in a local woman's home for free, as long as the household chores were finished by each evening. Unfortunately for Frank, Gran's real name, the local woman had allowed just ONE young man to come live with her, and when she learned about Frank, she banished both men from the house. Frank called up UNH's housing offices. "We're very sorry, Mr. Graham, but all the halls are full - but we have good news for you. There are two elderly women looking for a student to help with yard and house work, nothing too much of a hassle, and the rooming is free." Frank accepted and met his two housemates later in the day.

"Lights out at nine o'clock sharp," said Mrs. S, the widow of a professor at UNH.

The other woman, Misses G. added, "And the mail fetched from the Post Office by eight a.m.... Oh, and you mustn't shower in the house."

To which Frank replied, "But Misses, even in the winter?"

"Even in the winter, Frank. The field house is just around the corner." (When retelling the story, Gran always reminds us that the field house was more than a mile away.)

But Frank did his duties. He turned the lights out at nine, he did not bring guests home, he showered at the field house. One morning in December, as he was preparing to return home for Christmas, Frank returned with the mail at 8:01 and Misses G. had already left to catch a train to Plymouth. Misses S. smirked in the front hall, "Well, boy, you better run down to the station and give her the mail!"

Frank sprinted to the station and gave her the letters and, it being finals week at the university, walked breathlessly to the library. He arrived still sweating, "Been out for a jog, Frank?" asked a studying friend. Frank told them the story of the strict, old women and about the university's halls being full. "They lied to you, Frank! There are three empty rooms just on my floor!"

The next day, Frank packed his bags while the women ate breakfast, and left the house for his friend's dormitory while the women went shopping. The university was not happy (Frank was threatened with expulsion for his "Actions Prejudicial to the Reputation of the University"), but Frank finally was.

When he tells this story, he always begins with this: "One tiny mistake can get you, Michela. It can get you and then you're stuck with it, unless you can make it better. I made the mistake of trusting someone I only knew casually, and I had to live with the consequences. When your friend tells you he has somewhere for you to live for free, it's too good to be true. You have to be wary. But you have to live with what you got yourself in to, you have to take responsibility."

Gran took, and has always taken, responsibility for the choices he made, but this is not the only way he embodies the values - responsibility, frugality, humbleness, loyalty in love, willingness to work hard, the embrace of challenge, and simplicity - of the Greatest Generation. Gran is frugal: living through the Great Depression as one of seven sons born to Polish immigrants, Gran learned to waste not. As my mother grew up in his household, Gran cut coupons, rarely wasted gasoline driving, and taught his children the value of a stick in a playground. Gran refuses to buy (or, really, to even go near) "those ipod phones" or a computer. He still writes on his fifty year old typewriter and, though it has broken many times, would rather read a pamphlet on fixing typewriters than buy a new one.

Gran is humble. Instead of telling the trying tales of his life, he prefers to talk about his mother, "the strongest, greatest woman who ever lived." He just finished writing a three-hundred page book (and yes, he wrote three-hundred pages on a typewriter) on his mother and her journey from Poland to America, where she settled in New Hampshire. Gran much prefers telling her journey - her arrival here with her husband and their young son with no money to their name - because, in Gran's mind, his story is nothing when compared to hers. Gran does not see this as being humble; he does not think there is anything for him to be humble about, he sees no major struggles, struggles that his mother went through, in his life. But I know Gran's story, and I know when he talks about his mother, as incredible a woman as she was and is, still, in his heart, he is embodying the humble spirit of the Greatest Generation.

Gran married Gigi when she was twenty years old. In 2005, we celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary at the same church where they married in the 1950s. Gigi and Gran stood at the altar, renewing their vows, and as they read aloud to each other beautiful words expressing their love, their audience began to tear up because we could hear their love in their vows and see their love as they stood, for the second time, on the altar, gazing with the love of fifty years into each other's eyes. The loyalty of their love is beautiful and inspiring, and may be the virtue that needs passing on most to Generations X-Z.

Gran was accepted to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. But Gran knew he would be competing with thousands of other actors in New York. He loved to act, but Gran loved his mother more, and he did not want her to offer to pay, with the money she so deserved, for his education there. He declined, and instead attend UNH, where he studied hotel management. He graduated university and immediately took a job at a well respected, independent hotel in a small town in New Hampshire. He worked tirelessly at the hotel, and he was quickly offered a job as a resort manager in Massachusetts. Once again, Gran put every ounce of effort in to pleasing his guests and making sure the hotel and resort were immaculately clean. But as things got tougher and he had his first child, Jeff, with Gigi, Gran took a new job as an insurance salesman to support their now growing family. His background in customer service served him well in the insurance business; Gran was always accommodating to his clients. One night he drove from southern New Hampshire all the way to Maine so a family could sign their new car and life insurance agreements. The parents let their young sons take the car out for a celebratory drive, and the next day Gran got a phone call from them. The sons had crashed the car and died. His work was intense and difficult, especially when cases like the dead sons arose, but Gran never quit, and he was loyal to the company until he retired in his sixties.

Gran was Polish, and his maiden name was Grabowski. As Frank Grabowski, he found it difficult to get a job, to show his ID, or to walk anywhere without hearing whispers, or sometimes yells, of "Polack!" Gran made a decision to forsake his last name in lieu of "Graham," as boring and as accepted as the cracker. Did Gran back down from society's prejudicial challenge? Or did he adapt and face the challenge in a new light? Either way, Gran did what he had to do, and making the choice from Grabowski to Graham was a challenge in itself.

And finally, Gran has always kept things simple - excepting the times he took his family on vacation and planned every minute of the trip on decks of note cards. Today he uses his familiar typewriter instead of the many-applicationed computer because all he needs to do is write, not play World of Warcraft or play solitaire - which, by the way, he would rather play with real cards, anyway. Gran does not diet, except when it is required because of his medication, he has just always eaten right. He goes on walks with Gigi around the grounds of his retirement community, but when he was younger he didn't need to go to the gym - he did his own household chores, like chopping down wood, cleaning brush, and building swing sets for his kids. He did not try to find a Playboy Bunny who was well read in Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky and also had the antidote for aging. Instead he found Gigi, the woman he has loved and devoted his life to for more than fifty years now, a beautiful, young, Irish Catholic girl, who might not have the antidote to aging, but certainly knows a secret or two. Gran never tried to over complicate things. He doesn't need a MacBook when he has his typewriter. He didn't need a gym because he did his own housework, instead of outsourcing it to a cleaning company.

Gran lived the hard life that he shared with the rest of the Greatest Generation, and from his life, he has brought us seven lessons that everyone should follow. Accept responsibility, be frugal, be humble, love loyally, work hard, accept challenge, and keep things simple, and your life will always be a happy one.

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SkyDeerThis teenager is a 'regular' and has contributed a lot of work, comments and/or forum posts, and has received many votes and high ratings over a long period of time. This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
May 28, 2011 at 11:24 am
This is an amazing article! I actually have a book called memories of the greatest generation that my grandfather loaned me. (his parents were born a bit before the greatest generation but still very much like the greatest generation.  On the other hand my grandmother's parent's were both members of the greatest generation and very similar to your grandfather. . This article made me think about my great- grandfather Tony alot . He was born in 1914 the son of two italian immmi... (more »)
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