6: Generation to Generation

6: Generation to Generation

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

Generation to Generation

A healthy community is one in which the elderly protect, care for, love and assist the younger ones to provide continuity and hope.

~Maggie Kuhn

A stack of construction paper cards covered with bright drawings caught my eye as I entered Dad’s assisted living apartment. I picked up the top card. “What’s this?”

Dad glanced up. “Oh, those are from my pen pals.”

“Pen pals?” A medical condition made his hands so numb he could barely sign his name. How could he write to pen pals?

“It’s all Barbara’s fault. She got me into this.”

Barbara coordinated activities for the elderly residents at the facility. A group of teachers from the local primary school had contacted her and asked if their first grade classes could write to the residents and have them write back. She agreed and recruited several she thought would participate, my dad among them.

How she convinced Dad to join in I’ll never know. When he first moved into the facility, I was thrilled they offered such a variety of activities. Maybe they would help keep him occupied after losing my mom. I knew some of the pastimes would not interest him — you’d never catch him painting birdhouses — but they offered a lot of other choices. Dad joined the weekly bingo games for a while, but tired of them. I encouraged him to stay fit with exercise classes, but he considered them silly. Being outnumbered by women six to one didn’t help. He eventually withdrew to his room where he read and watched TV, coming out only for meals and weekly trips to Walmart. The staff expressed concern that he seemed depressed, but I knew my dad. He’d always been a solitary soul, happy with his sedentary ways.

And now he was going to write to first graders?

The teacher who chose my dad for her class wisely found a connection from the start. Her last name was Kirk, the same as my dad’s. To start things off, Barbara had Dad dictate a letter about himself. Then the children’s letters started coming. Their questions were sweet and insightful. What is your favorite book? What do you like to carve? (My dad had been a whittler with a wild imagination.) Do you like the “nursing home?” Individual letters required individual responses, and Dad dictated twenty-five replies to poor Barbara.

Christmas brought a bundle of red and green cards. The kids wanted to know what their pen pal was getting for Christmas and told him what they wanted. Many mentioned their elves and the mischief they’d been up to. Dad had never heard of Elf on the Shelf and wondered at the sudden fascination with Santa’s helpers.

I looked through the cards and smiled at the crooked writing and occasional misspelled words — “What cind of wood do you carv?” — but it amazed me how well they wrote for first graders. Some filled their cards with artwork, but others wrote long missives and tackled big words — “I play dynasty warriors. Do you?”

Then February rolled around, and the teachers invited their classes’ pen pals from the assisted living facility to a Valentine’s Day party.

Dad didn’t exactly jump up and down at the news. “What am I supposed to say to them? I’m eighty-eight, and they’re six. I don’t even get along that well with kids.”

I wondered what the children’s reactions would be. I remembered instances at that age of being afraid of “old” people. They have all those wrinkles and hair in funny places. They don’t see well or hear what you say. They’re just… different. At 6’7”, my dad was already an intimidating guy. Add a motorized chair, and I could see him terrifying first graders.

I needn’t have worried about the kids accepting Dad. They had a great time. But no one was prepared for Dad’s reaction.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” he told me the next day. “I took some of my carvings with me just to have something to show them. On the ride over, two of the women complained about going. They said things like ‘I wish I’d never agreed to this!’ That was about how I felt.”

“So how did it go?” I asked.

Intensity I’d seldom seen since we lost Mom shone in his eyes. “I… I can’t tell you what it meant to me.”

The kids came up one at a time to hug Dad and present him with Valentine’s cards. He read each one. Reed’s card pictured a “hrat filled with joy!” One little girl’s card said, “I have a big smile,” but she looked sad. Dad soon had her laughing. Luke drew pictures of his school and wrote about the video games he liked to play. His card ended with “P.S. I love you!” But the child who impressed Dad the most was a tiny girl with an innocent face and big brown eyes. Her expectant look melted his heart. She wanted not one hug… but two.

“Those children made me feel popular, like a hero or something.” My normally reserved father paused, his eyes filling with tears. “When I left there, I felt full of love.”

I wasn’t the only one touched by Dad’s story.

“If I don’t accomplish anything else the rest of the year,” Barbara said, “your dad’s reaction was worth it all.”

Dad later learned that three of his fellow seniors refused to go for the school visit. Their classes cried when they didn’t show up. Dad shook his head. “I’m sure glad I didn’t poop out on them!”

So am I.

Little did we know that a month later, Dad would be gone. This time, it was his pen pals who cried, along with the faculty.

I’m not sure a group of primary school teachers knew what they were starting when they invited elderly people to become pen pals with their classes. Or maybe they did. The bond the kids and my dad formed through writing back and forth overcame any differences in age or race or ethnicity. It linked the generations in a way nothing else could.

Teachers teach their students many things, but this may have been the most valuable lesson of all.

~Tracy Kirk Crump

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