Harvard-Radcliffe Class of 1964
In this memorial service, we remember our deceased classmates. We read their names and recall the promising lives they shared with us. We mourn their premature deaths. And we remind ourselves that each of us is destined to take his or her place on this memorial list in future reunions.
We reminisce about the formative and formidable years we spent together. We confront ourselves and each other, who we once were and who we have become. Forty years ago, we were dreamy-eyed grandchildren with promising futures. That was only yesterday. Today many, if not most of us, have become gray-haired grandparents with interesting pasts. Let us this morning reflect upon our transformation.
I first became a grandfather a few summers ago. Indeed, for two precious months I was both grandson and grandfather. In June that summer, my eldest grandson was born. In August, my grandmother died.
From the day of my grandson Matthew's birth, I witnessed the miracle of new life unfolding before my eyes. Each day revealed a new spectacle of God's creation, as my tiny grandson blossomed into humanity.
At the same time, I witnessed the gradual disintegration of my Grandma Ida. From my mother, I heard daily reports of Grandma's decline. What had always seemed to me her inexhaustible body and indomitable spirit withered at the same time that my grandson flourished.
Isn't it remarkable how the achievements of life at the beginning and at the end parallel each other? Think about what we consider the momentous events. Did she sleep through the night? How did he eat today? How did she perform her bodily functions?
In As You Like It, William Shakespeare portrays this parallel.
All the world's a stage, and all the men and women, merely players. They have their exits and their entrances....At first, the infant, mewling and puking in the nurse's arms....[and in the]....Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness, and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."
Our religious traditions view life as a sacred journey. Alvin Fine writes, "Birth is a beginning, and death a destination; but life is a journey, a going -- a growing, from stage to stage."
Both in the physical and in the spiritual worlds, all that lives is destined to die. Death intertwines with birth from the beginning of life. My Grandma Ida's death will always link up in my mind with my grandson Matthew's birth. If death is unavoidable, why do we mourn death? If death is inevitably the end of the journey, why do we rejoice in birth?
Herbert Samuel imagines, "If some messenger were to come to us with the offer that death should be overthrown, but with the one inseparable condition that birth should also cease; if the existing generation were given the chance to live forever, but on the clear understanding that never again would there be a child, or a youth, or first love, never again new persons with new hopes, new ideas, new achievements; ourselves for always and never any others -- could the answer be in doubt?"
Although none of us lives forever, we take our places in the eternity of time by relating to grandparents past and grandchildren future. History readily becomes reality through our grandparents. Before the Wright brothers propelled the first airplane, my Grandma Ida milked her cows as a child in the Belarusian shtetl. It never seemed such a leap of imagination to fantasize that Grandma Ida must have stood with Abraham on Mt. Moriah, or with Moses at Mt. Sinai.
Our grandchildren connect us to the distant future. Many of you recall the insight of the anthropologist Margaret Mead about the secret of the common bond between grandparents and grandchildren. The secret, Mead maintains, is their common enemy: the parents in between them.
Universally, grandchildren and grandparents do share a common enemy. Contrary to Mead, however, the common enemy is not the parents in between them. The common enemy of both grandparents and grandchildren is amnesia.
Grandchildren need grandparents to keep them from forgetting the past. Grandparents need grandchildren to prevent forgetting the future. As the link between my grandmother and my grandsons, I may be personally involved in two hundred years of history.
From the twin perspectives of history and future destiny, priorities take on greater clarity. From the perspective of a grandmother who lived through World War I, what are we doing in Iraq? How much more crucial is protecting the rain forests, from the perspective of the future, as embodied in my grandsons?
The sense of history personalized through grandparents and grandchildren transforms decision-making. Their accents and old world ways marked many of our grandparents as "greeners," greenhorn aliens in a foreign land. Despite our native English and unchallenged modernity, we are no less greenhorns, in comparison to the future world in which our grandchildren will live.
Fads of the moment fade into antiquity, a shooting star in the galaxy of eternity. Like many of you, I get excited with technological wizardry. How did human beings ever live without blackberries and cell phones? From our grandparents, we know that they once did live without, often much better than we live with them. What nonsense we worry about, compared to the eternity of values embodied in our grandparents and grandchildren.
So much of our lives we spend in pursuit of the world's honors and material goods! From the perspective of grandparents and grandchildren, all that the outer world offers is transitory and superficial. Temporary satisfactions, not eternal values; band-aids, not real solutions come from without. The real, the crucial, the profound come from within -- that's what our grandchildren and our grandparents teach us.
No matter how I feel about a new program, or a sermon preached or an article published, when I sit with one of my three grandsons, all fades into insignificance. When I smile at him and he smiles back, I care much less what the outer world offers. What he needs most from me is love and encouragement, direction and values.
Nothing we accomplish in our professions, nothing we do in our lives, nothing we do in the world, is more important than our parenting and grandparenting. What we accomplish through our children and grandchildren contributes more powerfully to the future welfare of humanity than anything else we do.
Grandma Ida taught me to learn from my children and grandchildren. Yaitzee Koorie Utchet -- "The egg teaches the hen" -- was her favorite Russian proverb. As much as we teach them, children and grandchildren can teach us life's most important lessons.
Our grandchildren teach us to project ourselves into the future. They force us to focus today's solutions through the prism of tomorrow. Some citizens without children and grandchildren wonder why they should continue to support the education of all our society's children. To save a few dollars in taxes, the misguided undermine the foundation of our country's future. Further ignored and marginalized, the rejected classes of America's inner cities will fester and erupt with even greater violence in the future world of our children and grandchildren. Unless positive steps are taken to break the cycle of poverty, we will not leave a better world to our children and our grandchildren than that which we received from our parents and grandparents.
My grandmother immigrated to America in 1911 to fulfill dreams of freedom and comfort. Born in 1898, to a life of poverty and oppression, she worked hard in America to secure the education and the achievements of her children and grandchildren. Despite her lack of formal education, Grandma never stopped studying. Her special interests were Russian, Yiddish, English, Hebrew, mathematics, politics, and driving. She was endlessly fascinated with whatever her children and grandchildren learned in school. Yaitzee Koorie Utchet -- "The egg teaches the hen."
As was the case with so many immigrants to America, election day was a sacred event. Knowing the positions of the candidates, making careful choices among them, and the act of voting itself took on religious significance. Grandma never took America for granted. The vision of freedom and justice symbolized by the Statue of Liberty required constant vigilance to nurture a society dedicated to its ideals.
Grandma Ida contributed powerfully to my strivings for excellence. It was essential to her that whatever I did in the world would be the best of which I was capable. As the eldest child of poor immigrants, Grandma had begun full-time work to help support her family after the eighth grade. Since that was the end of her formal education, she took particular delight in going with me to visit colleges.
Despite her commitment to academic achievement, Grandma understood that education cannot teach common sense and that honors cannot confer security and that money can never purchase love or happiness. Years after I finished college and graduate school, she often set me straight with her common sense wisdom. Through a slight Yiddish accent, she would enunciate carefully, "Of course, Markele, I didn't go to Harvard, but.." The warm-up put me in my place.
Grandma continued to teach to the day she died. She taught all of us to live with courage and to face death with equanimity. She spoke about her death with her two daughters, with her grandchildren, and with her great grandchildren. She gave me explicit instructions about her funeral, as her grandson the rabbi.
Grandma was only 44 when I was born. I began my grandparenting at an older age. When we treasure our grandparents' memories, and when we share our lives with our grandchildren, the significance of our religious traditions come into focus. Life cycle events and holidays, celebrated in traditional ways, give our families a sense of unity and purpose.
Many pay lip service to family values, while their parents and grandparents move to retirement cities in the Sun Belt. Grandchildren and grandparents live in different states and in different states of mind. A recent study in New York indicated that many grandchildren believe that their grandparents live at LaGuardia airport, where they pick them up. Some grandparents decry the decline in ethics and values, but are too busy to spend quality time with their grandchildren, teaching them by precept and example.
Grandchildren learn so much from grandparents, grandparents learn so much from grandchildren. Yaitzee Koorie Utchet -- "The egg teaches the hen." For all of us, both those with grandchildren, and for those without, let us see our country's children as the grandchildren of us all. May we learn to view our country's elderly as the grandparents of us all.
Within these few days of our reunion, we consider ourselves and our lives within the context of the inexorable march of time. Forty years ago we were the grandchildren of the past. We have become the grandparents of the future.