This is the first in an occasional series where I will try and capture ten of the life lessons my Dad (Da to his grandchildren) taught me through the years, the goal being to preserve them for his children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
Lesson 1: “Every day over 50 is gravy.”
I first heard this lesson at a variety of wakes or funerals we would attend for older relatives when I was a young child. When you grow up Irish Catholic, you attend a lot of those things. At that time in my life, my Dad’s words made absolutely no sense to me. Gravy was something my Mom put on the table for special occasions like Thanksgiving or a Sunday roast. What it had to do with age was beyond me.
Later in life, the mechanics of what my Dad was imparting with those words made sense to me, but even at 20 and 30, the idea of being 50 felt far, far away. Not so much now that I’m 46. As I inch closer to that milestone that held such significance for my Dad, I understand in a much deeper way what his point was, even if it won’t exactly ring true for me or many of my generation.
When an older person dies, it is a loss, for certain, a sadness, but it is no tragedy. It is expected, the natural order, to be felt, but not dwelt upon. There is a practicality of feeling, an economy of emotion, inherent in Da’s words.
The point my Dad was trying to make would be best addressed to those who follow a traditional path in life. Childhood, education, marriage, career, kids — you know the drill. His belief was that if you were to die at age 50, which would seem early to many, but really wasn’t. By that point in your life, he believed, you would (or should, ahem) have accomplished much of what you were charged to accomplish, namely, raising and supporting a family. Once the kids were grown and out of the house, your greatest life’s work was behind you. The rest, as he would say, was gravy — unnecessary, but adding to the overall experience.
Wise words, actually, for those who assume that traditional path.
So for instance, retirement was gravy. Grandchildren were gravy. Travel and leisure were gravy. Raising kids, paying the mortgage, having enough money in the bank to cover Catholic school tuition for four kids, well, those things were the meat and potatoes of life — things that were necessary and obligatory and a man’s purpose in life. Once the kids were old enough to be on their own, assuming you were 50 years old by that point, that was the time to start enjoying the gravy of life — seeking out its different flavors, if you will.
There is a lot of wisdom in that idea. Following his own words, Da enjoyed 31 full years of gravy before he died. That’s a lot of gravy.
When I am 50, I will be mothering an eleven and six year old. I won’t even be close to enjoying that proverbial gravy until I’m at least in my early 60s. Ha ha ha, or should I say, sobby sob sob?
They way that I take meaning from my Dad’s words in my own life is a bit different. I apply his wisdom to the losses I have experienced. My Mom died at 70, my Dad at 81. Both my folks saw their four kids settled, for the most part. Settled enough, certainly. They lived full lives, perhaps not nearly as rich or interesting as some others, but full enough, as they say. There were hard times and heartbreaks and conflicts and scary things, but they stuck together, spent ten years of retirement together, enjoyed winters in a warm climate during that last decade, got to meet and enjoy some of their grandchildren. Their gravy boat of life wasn’t brimming, but there was enough to enjoy and appreciate and make the meat and potatoes of their lives better, tastier, richer.
His words, as I grow older myself, help me experience grief in a different context. When an older person dies, it is a loss, for certain, a sadness, but it is no tragedy. It is expected, the natural order, to be felt, but not dwelt upon. There is a practicality of feeling, an economy of emotion, inherent in Da’s words. Feel sad, yes, but know that the life that is lost once one’s major functions and obligations are fulfilled, is a life that was well lived, and at its natural completion.
It seems harsh and cold, as I type it out, but it doesn’t feel harsh or cold. It feels a lot like life. Life through Da’s eyes. Thanks, Da.