The Wisdom of Grandparents
When my children were much younger, they would spend about a week every summer with their cousins at my parents' home in Vermont at a gathering called Camp Caldwell. Because my two brothers, my sister and I had two batches of children, each group about the same age, my parents hosted two sessions of Camp Caldwell, one for the older batch of five who were born within ten months of each other and one for the second batch of four, who were born within three weeks of each other.
My parents live in a small town in Vermont. They have vast vegetable gardens, fruit trees, lawns, shrubs, a sugarhouse, and a fresh water pond. Basically, there is a lot of work that needs to be done on the land, especially in the summer. With ten grandchildren, my dad knew he had a great opportunity for Camp Caldwell...although another word for this concept might be “child labor.”
In June, the five older cousins would arrive. It was a good time of year to repair from winter damage, clear brush, stack wood, and clean up from sugaring season if it wasn't already done. June was also strawberry season. It only took a year or two for my father to realize he was missing out on a second labor force, so when the second batch of kids turned six, he started a Camp Caldwell for the younger cousins, which would take place later in the summer.
Every year my dad would have brightly colored t‐shirts made so that the children would think that they were attending something special. Each year was a different color scheme. “Camp Caldwell” was written on the front, and the grand kid's first name was written on the back. As parents, we were never exactly sure what "fun activities" would happen at Camp Caldwell, but at the end of every session we would always hear about camp in great and enthusiastic detail from our kids. They loved it.
Each day that camp was in session, Grandpa posted a schedule on the wall by the wood stove in the kitchen. Before the kids were allowed to eat breakfast at 7am, they were required to swim in the pond, which is
spring fed and always cold. Grandpa felt that this daily dip ensured hearty living. After the swim, it was breakfast, a chore, Milk Lunch at 10:15, Chore, Lunch at 12, Nap Time (for grandpa), Chore, some fun activity, Dinner at 6:00. My dad likes a routine.
One example of an item on the list of chores might be "wake up the chickens and feed them." I don't know why grandpa included the directive "wake up the chickens" on the list because the chances were very high that the chickens were already awake, but he did.
This job was tricky for the little laboring children. They had to take the heavy compost bucket from the pantry, walk it out to the chicken house, and hoist the contents over a five‐foot chicken wire fence. There were often cornhusks or pea pods stuck in the meshing because of the difficulty the three and a half foot kids had getting the bucket over the high fence. The next part of this task was collecting the eggs. Even though Grandpa had shown them how to get an egg out from under a sitting hen, as we later learned, the grandkids were scared to death to swipe the eggs when the chickens were sitting on them or even roosting near them for fear of getting pecked, so usually the pair of grandkids who were assigned that task would scheme up some way to distract the chickens so they could run and get their eggs unscathed.
One year when the older grandchildren were eight, Grandpa decided that Camp Caldwell was a great time to get rid of the watercress that was overtaking the south side of the pond. Watercress is a fast‐growing, semi‐aquatic plant that grows in huge clusters in the silt, or mud, that is on the bottom of the pond. Grandpa's idea was that two of them would wade into the mud and, with rakes or their hands, uproot the watercress and pull it over to the banks so that the other three kids could drag the slimy and smelly weeds off into the woods.
At the end of that summer, we heard about the watercress escapade in great detail. The kids drew straws to see who would have to wade into the mucky water. Alexa, the tallest girl with the longest legs, and Anya, the shortest girl with the shortest legs, both drew the short straws. Although Alexa's legs came up to Anya's neck, both had the gamesmanship required to plunge into the swampy section of the pond
while the other kids giggled and felt very lucky not to have to get into that cold, muddy water.
When a friend remarked on Grandpa's ability to get his grandkids to do such dirty work, he said he was preparing them for dealing with adversity in the future. “Who knows,” he speculated, "Maybe they will be playing sports in the mud and rain some time and have to battle the adverse conditions." Considering the fact that 9 of the 10 ended up playing Division I sports in college, he might have had a point.
Each session of Camp Caldwell always ended with a hike. The kids would always hike in a line: Grandpa first, the five grandchildren in the middle, and Grandma in the back, all of them wearing Camp Caldwell T‐ shirts. Each year the selected mountain was bigger and bigger, and the final hike of Camp Caldwell in 2005 was Franconia Ridge in NH. They created quite a spectacle, as you can imagine. My dad, who is now 84, wants to hike that ridge one last time.
About five years after the last gathering of Camp Caldwell, my oldest daughter ‐‐ then nineteen years old ‐‐ decided that she wanted to continue to help my dad with his chores. She had fond memories of Camp Caldwell and because we have a home about 1⁄2 a mile away from my parents, she was able to work with him every Christmas and summer vacation for the next four years.
He is getting older and she is young and fit, so she was a great help. He would instruct, and she would do the heavy lifting. So for the past four years, she has been his steady companion working around my parents' home.
In her own words, my daughter said this about her grandpa: "He taught me how to weed, split and stack wood, shovel dirt and snow, move hay, weed‐whack, clip saplings, pick berries, build up the compost, set the runners for the strawberries, dig potatoes and horse radish, tend the carrots, thin beets and onions, transplant tomatoes, paint a roof, move, climb a ladder correctly, chain saw, use a wedge, sharpen the chainsaw, rake, taste test his homebrew, bottle wine, make horse radish and apple sauce, back up a pick‐up truck in snow using only a rear‐view mirror,
make maple syrup, bomb woodchuck holes, blast NPR, drink with the locals, and appreciate productivity, work, and improvement. "
Although the list is impressive, it is perhaps his approach to his work that has taught her the most. He has passed on to our children, and most specifically to Alexa, a philosophy of life that will always guide her. For this, my wife and I are thankful.
I hope that all of you had time over Thanksgiving, or will have time over the upcoming holidays, to spend with members of your extended families. I urge you to spend time with the oldest and wisest members of your family, who have a lifetime of experiences to share. Do not underestimate how much wisdom your older relatives have to pass along to you. Seek them out. Learn their stories. Get their advice while you can. Find out where you came from. Knowing your family's past history can be very helpful in your journey to self‐understanding.
Last summer my father and Alexa were working together in the garden when he said to her, "Some say efficiency is the name of the game, but it's recognizing and valuing every gain, big and small, that makes this outdoor lifestyle fun. You see, Alexa, who needs those fancy gyms? You've just improved your balance and core strength painting that roof. Now pick those gladiolas for Grandma—they're her favorite."