Author: Wayne Langley
For those fortunate enough to be blessed by memorable moments with grandparents, you will quickly recall conversations and experiences that remain with you. Artis, my dads’ father, whom we called “Big Daddy” was the patriarch that most influenced my views on family, work, and the larger world – which at the time, was limited to a small agricultural town in rural Alabama.
The experiences that connect me most with the Greatest Generation began at the breakfast table. One of my earliest childhood memories is gathering at Big Daddy’s house to partake of
a hearty Southern breakfast including fried eggs cooked in yesterday’s bacon grease, spicy Jimmy Dean sausage, thick slices of bacon, and biscuits from scratch. Artis awoke daily at dawn to prepare breakfast for everyone. Gathering for breakfast was not an option. If you spent the previous night at Big Daddy’s, you were expected to be at the breakfast table by 6:00 a.m. sharp – no questions asked.
As tasty as breakfast was, it was not about the food – it was about Big Daddy’s stories from the day before and his much-anticipated plans for the day ahead. Big Daddy’s livelihood was in the dirt whether it was growing crops, nurturing livestock, or a combination of both.
I learned two habits at Big Daddy’s breakfast table – the practices of reflection and
planning. A day never went by without discussing events of the previous day – those that went well and those situations that would present carryover challenges for today. Reflection was not just about words, it was about quieting our mind, our soul, and our mouth for a period, albeit brief. In those quiet moments, I sensed calmness, inner strength, and anticipation for the day ahead.
The second takeaway from Big Daddy’s breakfast table was planning. Artis consistently assessed lessons of the previous day to capture learning that would become foundational for today’s success. He intentionally built today’s plan with yesterday’s learning in mind. I recall being so impressed by Big Daddy’s plan, so much so that I began to plan out my days even though my agenda included mostly fun things. My days still begin with reflection and a plan.
Later in my childhood, my father accepted a job that required our family to relocate hundreds of miles from Big Daddy. I recall the immense disappointment around leaving family and friends. Even more so, I remember the sadness of thinking breakfasts at Big Daddy’s would be no more – at least so I thought.
Each summer as a young boy, our family traveled from the up-North to the Deep South for 3 to 4 weeks of summer vacation. At that time, vacation meant staying with grandparents – and always meant breakfast with Big Daddy. Destination vacations were not a thing for us – which turned out to be an exceptionally good thing. As the oldest grandson, I soon came to know the privileges beyond breakfast with Big Daddy.
During those extended summer visits, I recall jumping in the pick-up (complete with a 3-speed on the column) with Artis daily for a ride-along to the local market in the center of town where my grandfathers’ friends gathered most days to connect, partake of a little Prince Albert tobacco, and solve the agricultural problems of the day.
By that time, I was not particularly interested in the latest crop or livestock problems, but I was interested in the animated debates these fellow farmers would engage in regarding any topic with extreme passion, energy, and at times – anger. But they always ended those heated debates by shaking hands, speaking with a kinder, more gentle tone in their voice, and on most occasions, a fair amount of laughing would erupt before heading their separate ways. No one left angry, defeated, or upset in any way. Even as a youngster, I found this fascinating.
I would consider most of these gentlemen stubborn and cantankerous, but they truly respected one another and placed a priority on their personal relationships. Artis was the obvious peacemaker in the group. My grandfather never gave me a speech or lecture on how to treat people – he simply demonstrated it in the way he related to others.
Big Daddy was as hard-headed as any of the seasoned farmers who gathered on the steps of the grocer. He always ended our trips “downtown” by having one last smoke and asking me questions about school, church, playing ball, or anything else that came to mind. He would listen endlessly without distractions for as long as I would talk. And before we left the wooden stoop of the grocer’s store, he armed me with enough coins to purchase a cold Pepsi-Cola in a bottle – yes, that was a real treat.
He would often then ask if I wanted to join him in his work at some point during those summer vacations – my answer was always affirmative. We milked cows, plowed the fields, baled hay, and even picked cotton on occasion. I do not recall ever getting paid, but I do remember driving the tractors, tossing huge hay bales with the big fellas, walking through rows of briary cotton fields, and stomping through manure with my boots. It was honorable to sweat and contribute to the way of life on a farm.
Farming with Big Daddy taught me that challenging work was to be expected and that it was rewarding. But life was far more than the labor-intensive tasks associated with making a living by farming.
In his own way, Artis demonstrated the art of work-life balance by taking time to connect with others. Seldom did more than a day go by that he missed finding time to head downtown to debate, enjoy a hand-rolled smoke made with tobacco from his red Prince Albert can, and seek out knowledge.
Big Daddy taught me the value of curiosity. He often predicted what his friends would say, and then he would set out to help them understand why they were wrong. One of his favorite lines he would recite in the pick-up was “so and so does not know poop” – but he used a different word for poop). Yet, he never lost sight of the value of connecting with the relationships that mattered most to him.
I am finding that my experiences as a grandchild challenge how I go about transitioning my family to the next generation. As a grandparent now, I sense an incredible privilege and opportunity with the next generation and beyond. We are often free from the traditional parenting duties and available to focus on helping the next generations (children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren) learn from our experiences over time and thrive in new ways.
To that end, I frequently ask myself these questions:
What “breakfast” experiences am I creating to intentionally impart wisdom, values, helpful habits, and a sense of self-worth to the generations that follow me?
Is there “Prince Albert” in my life that allows me to invest time with generations to come?
Am I creating curiosity in younger generations that foster connections with older adults?
I have come to believe that connecting generations is less of a privilege and more of a responsibility, and the more experience I gain as a grandparent the more I believe this to be the case.
As prior generations fade and we become the oldest members of our family, what better impact could we have beyond investing time, engaging in conversation, and creating memories for the generations that follow us?
My message to you is - take time to make breakfast for all who will join you, identify the Prince Albert (no – I am not taking up tobacco use; you know what I mean!) in your life that forces you to invest time in relationships and establish your Big Daddy role wherever my circle of influence exists in life.