“In the longest run, I guess I will be remembered as grandfather. That’s the only hope I have. That’s what I am working on, maybe the most in a conscious way.”
– from “A Brand Plucked From the Fire: The Life of Rabbi Herman E. Schaalman”
Did you ever notice that grandparents and grandparenting are not mentioned in our dramatic Passover story of leaving Egypt? However, they seem to play a crucial, if brief, role in its prologue and epilogue.
The prologue to this story would include the ending of the life of Jacob, the father of Joseph. He called for the children of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh, blessing them and giving them equal rights to his other children. When we practically can, we cannot only bless our grandchildren in terms of such a practical inheritance, but also a moral inheritance.
The epilogue to the Haggadah story is the tale of how Moses led the journey to Israel over the next 40 years. That includes receiving the written Ten Commandments. After the Golden Calf episode and the construction of a new set of tablets, there is the passage that God does not remit all punishment, but potentially inflicts punishment for the parents’ iniquity upon the third and fourth generations, thereby the generations of the grandchildren and great grandchildren. Though I heard of some examples in my work with psychiatric patients, I suppose the most terrible example of this is conveyed in the new Star Wars movie, “The Last Jedi,” in which the grandson of Darth Vader has already killed his father and is trying to role model after his grandfather on the “dark side.” Now, there are often fantasies about killing a father to resolve an Oedipal conflict, but to actually kill one!? Then again, this movie is just a fantasy, isn’t it?
Each Jew has a scriptural commandment to “tell your son,” or child, about the Haggadah story of the liberation from slavery. Now that we are living longer, we grandparents also have even more of the opportunity to “tell your grandchild” our own stories, a story of one’s heroic psychological journey of freedom to become a better person.
Telling our stories
There are many ways to do so. My wife, Rusti, suggested one for me, a work memoir for the family, geared to our grandchildren and their grandchildren, and whoever will follow in our family. Of course, I listened and agreed. Soon after last Passover, I finished it. I had regretted not knowing much about the lives of my own grandparents. Tracing a genealogy is one thing, but knowing some of your ancestors’ stories is quite another and deeper thing.
The title of this multi-media memoir is Oethipal: Trying to Stay on the Ethical Way, or Is It Try to Get Off of the Oedipal Way!? As such, it focuses on my own Freudian Oedipal conflictual relationship I had with my own father, and worked to avoid with my own son. Doing so has had the side benefit of achieving more internal peace with my father, thereby stopping a potential intergenerational transmission of conflict. Paralleling that was the story of my own work relationships with authority figures as I tried to fulfill the value of tikkun olam. In my case as a psychiatrist, it meant trying to improve the service to the underserved as both leader and clinician, with all the trials and triumphs along the way.
This memoir may be an example of what grandparents can potentially convey so well to their grandchildren, or any elder can convey to that generation, including grandnephews, grandnieces, and, really, all children. We have lived long lives and hopefully overcome many internal and external obstacles, whether that is from the help of psychotherapy, loved ones, our faith, and even from our struggle with enemies.
Moreover, grandparents have a psychological edge in transmitting our values to our grandchildren. With our unconditional love and not needing to apply the discipline unless we are helping to raise them, we generally have a much less conflictual relationship with them than their parents do. So, instead of rebelling against one’s parents and their discipline, a grandchild may feel they have an ally in their grandparents. Grandparents have also lived a long life and can thereby look back on their experiences in order to tease out and share some wisdom. We naturally become moral models of how to respond – or not respond – to life’s challenges.
Leaving a spoken or written legacy can be invaluable, an inheritance worth more than money or work. The renowned Rabbi Herman Schaalman, as quoted above, knew that so well. That legacy can be a video summary of your life and your values. It can be a memoir, though perhaps one with a simpler name than mine! It can be an ethical will. It can be a letter to them. Whether you are leading the Passover service or not, it can even be in the form of a personal Haggadah so that, at the upcoming Passover story, you can briefly add a bit of your own prologue and epilogue. Besides supporting a positive psychological role for their own parents, parents can begin to do the same. The bonus is that, whatever you do, it can be a therapeutic process for you.
We can follow up these stories with producing new memories and stories with grandchildren. Some sample joint activities can include a philanthropic project, visiting the sick, fighting global warming, and, really, just having a heart to heart talk about life.
To life! And to morality tales that can enhance and outlive life.
Steven Moffic, M.D., is an award-winning psychiatrist as a clinician, administrator, writer and artist, including receiving the one-time designation as a Hero of Public Psychiatry from the American Psychiatric Association. He is now retired from seeing patients. He and his wife Rusti are co-chairs of Tapestry, the Harry and Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center’s arts and ideas programs.