Consider for a moment, if you will, the peanut butter sandwich.
Universal staple for a child’s mid-day meal for generation. And maybe something more.
I was about to make one for Sis, my six-year-old granddaughter, at lunch time on a recent visit. Before I could say “jelly or honey with it,” here came the most frequent question of our current phase. “Can I help?” she asked. There followed a deep, yoga-inspired inhale for G-ma, as I considered the implications. This task involves a knife, of course, and something extremely gooey and sticky, and at six she can’t really reach the counter easily yet, and she is really hungry, and we are due somewhere soon….it is ever thus. When, oh, when will we have more time?
On the other hand, clamored an alternative self, from somewhere deep down and usually far away, here was a tiny, shiny little chance to teach her something. Her future success in life would, of course, not rise or fall on this outcome. But if I can encourage her to master these simple steps, with patience, might she come to me for something else? Remember that I trusted her? Gain confidence because someone gave her a chance?
And these thoughts were crowded by something else a bit more personal, G-ma should confess, a little voice of ego. Let’s face it, if you are old enough to be a g-parent, try to remember the last time someone asked for your opinion or guidance or teaching. Can’t recall? I bet you have lots of company. Maybe you are a guru in your field or an actual teacher by profession—but how about the rest of us? In the space of a single generation, the importance of older people transferring knowledge to younger ones vanished with the pulsating signal of an internet connection. Poof.
When I was starting out on my own, I turned first to my parents for the fundamentals of daily life. What gets strawberry stains out of a white shirt? Will geraniums bloom more than once in a season? My mother was as near as the phone, and I wore her out with questions like those, her practical experience and coaching a gold mine I could not imagine replicating elsewhere. How do you service your lawnmower after winter passes? I called my dad for that stuff.
Those habits are hallmarks of another time, so recent yet now invisible. Today’s younger generation trusts a YouTube video for instructions, the purportedly authoritative voice of an unmet stranger above the advice of nearly anyone they actually know. Whether in the family, the workplace, or the community at large, global information sources available at the touch of a finger make counting on our elders for advice a cultural more about as relevant as calling cards or pickle forks. (In full disclosure, I should note that I own both of those relics of anthropological evidence, though I freely admit I haven’t used them in at least a couple of decades.)
And then a new generation appears. In that ever-shrinking window of time between grandchildren emerging with two hands eager to learn to navigate the world and the arrival of the dark forces of screen time leeching away their conversation skills and relationships, there lies a golden age. They think the adults in their lives actually hold the keys to important information. And they want it. Standing there with the peanut butter jar open and merciless clock ticking, it occurred to me that we are now standing in that window. Here was a chance to prop it open, if I had the sense, and let in a breeze of shared accomplishment.
Sure, say I to Sis, forcibly rejecting the compulsion to exhale in impatience. Let’s get you a stool so you can see what you are doing. Let’s make a deal, ok? You do the peanut butter and I’ll do the jelly. Here’s that small knife that you like (with a blunt end and short handle, it’s really a cheese spreader, but she thinks it’s a knife, and hoorah).
PB Sandwich Command Control shifts instantly, as Sis digs deep in the jar for a huge dollop and hurls it like a volleyball spike onto the innocent, waiting surface. Routinely, her first instinct is to apply effort at the rate of about 175 percent. Her spreading looks more like the pounding of bread dough, threatening to shred the whole wheat slice from sheer pressure. Easy, easy, I coach. Not quite so hard.
“How do you get it out to the corners?” she asks, having only flattened her dollop slightly via the pounding stroke. Slide your knife sideways, not up and down, I indicate, that’s right, back and forth, and you’ll spread the peanut butter out to the sides. Gently, gently…there! Finally, we have an even application of PB with only minimal gashes. She crowns my jelly-coated slice with her creation and looks up for my approval, radiating triumph.
Ta-da! I proclaim, Great Job! Just like that, for a moment, we are teammates and partners on the journey toward lunch. Suddenly, she seems about six inches taller.
Looking back in time, I am sure I didn’t take time enough to teach my daughter much when she was small. As a constantly stressed, single mother, overwhelmed by the dynamics of managing career and home on my own, I am certain I was too naturally impatient, too many, many things. Yet here the universe has brought me another chance to pass on something that just maybe, somehow, might matter–even if that something is not some highly prized life skill, but only trust and encouragement and the respect that comes with those. And surprise, surprise, I gain something in return. If I can slow down long enough and keep my eyes open, I might see that my guidance may have meant something. Even if it was just peanut butter.
What a deal. I take my PB with pickles, by the way.