One of the first memorable things I learned studying anthropology was an idea called "alternating generations." The theory was that in societies where parents are held responsible for disciplining their children, grandparents could be indulgent playmates. I remember, too, reading in Ruth Benedict's The Chrysanthemum and the Sword that the Japanese envisioned life as a great shallow arc, in which pre-school children and the elderly are seen as much alike, innocent, indulged, free from the workday grind to which school is an initiation. 


I don't recall this sort of thing being at all true of my relationship to my grandparents, who mainly seemed austere and distant figures, models for their own children's handling of their children. My paternal grandfather was a patriarch in a near-Roman mode. I was told that he kept his six children in line by liberal application of a piece of Model-T Ford brake lining when they broke his rules. Grandmother was a bit softer. She changed my life when, one day when I was moping about, she said "You'll like this" and handed me a copy of The Sword in the Stone.


So, I'm not making any big claims here. But "alternating generations" just snuck up on me again. In Granta magazine, to which I have access via Flipbook on my iPad, I stumbled across a poem by Jill Osier. 



Across the street, two boys begin to bury 
a girl in leaves. Kneeling at her side 
they show her how to cover her face - don’t 
for get to breathe, I imagine they tell her, 
when what they really should say is, Try 
to remember the smell of sun through it all. It’s 
a rare courtship. I watch her help, 
gathering the leaves to her like love, 
hiding her self. No matter how many, it’s 
the same heavy. One leaf will find its way 
beneath her shirt, another will tickle her lip. 
What she’ll hear is almost like breathing, 
and it must be the leaves. Sounds beyond love, 
sounds beyond love… Remember, I would tell her, 
there are such things.



By coincidence I had just had a similar experience, captured in the following lines.




My five year old grandson

covers his three year old sister

with pillows and cushions.

Sometimes it's a house.

Sometimes it's a castle

from which one or the other of us

will try to steal pillows,

a monster vs superhero game

of which he never tires.

Grandad? He does get tired.

Granddaughter? Loves being a princess.

But today it's a dinosaur egg.

It's cracking.

The first small claw has appeared.

In this dark and crazy world, there are, if only sometimes, moments like this.

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Comment by Eugene L. Mendonsa on August 18, 2011 at 7:07pm

The patriarchal sternness of my great grandfather had cross-generational implications.  My grandfather and father did not get along and although we lived in a 3-generational household and they ran a business together, they fought bitterly.  Furthermore, my father beat me and never said “I love you” to me even though he lived to be 94.  I can only remember 2 things we did together in all those years – we climbed a mountain and we to the movies.  Emotional coldness is something I understand.  It began long ago before I was born.

Comment by John McCreery on August 18, 2011 at 5:11pm

Eugene, thanks for the strokes.


Have you ever wondered about how many of our younger colleagues are able to empathize with people who have grown up in patriarchal families headed by men like the grandfathers we remember? 

Consider, just speculating here, the possibility that more and more young anthropologists grow up in families organized along the lines of George Lakoff's liberal-nurturant model? How do they feel about what is going on when they do research in places (still most of the world) where the conservative-patriarchal model is still the status quo?

I take it for granted that they will be shocked or angered by the inequities of the hierarchies, emotional coldness, and harsh corporal punishment that they observe. What interests me is how they will understand, not only the coping strategies that women and children develop in these sorts of families but the strengths they may also develop.


Obviously, I am just brainstorming a bit. I wonder how, not only you but other members of OAC, will respond to these musings.

Comment by Eugene L. Mendonsa on August 18, 2011 at 1:17pm

nice poems and sentiments.  The rustling of the wind in the pines is another.

John, watch the Brazilian video clip called Como se dança o merengue...

(how to dance the meringue).  It is a different kind of unique moment but one that surely will make one smile.  With regard to alternating generations, my father’s grandfather was a strict Portuguese disciplinarian and would not let any of his children or grandchildren speak at the dinner table.  If they did, or spilled anything, he would rap them on the knuckles with a bone-handled knife.  My grandfather told me that he never saw the man smile.


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