Friday, May 20, 2005

Bridging the Generation Gap

When I spot the bumper sticker with the darkly humorous invitation "COLLECT DEAD RELATIVES" I know that the genealogists are busy doing something at the church near Central Park. Yesterday the Tarentum Genealogical Society had a large crew of volunteers working together: five people who were diligently organizing into binders their latest treasure trove of data. They had been given the records of a New Kensington funeral home, and were putting each page into a slip cover, sharing with one another any interesting things they noticed on each page they handled. Of course, they weren't just talking about the papers as they worked. They joked and teased one another, and talked about various memories, having a lot of fun. But all the while they were carefully organizing these newly obtained records so that some unknown visitor who might appear many years from now, searching for information on dead relatives, would be able to find some useful data.

These genealogists have a fascinating hobby, often spending hours searching simply for a lead they can follow to find new information about their ancestors, looking back as many generations as possible, exploring their roots. They search for this information without regard for whether they'll discover that this ancestor was hung as a horse thief, or that another ancestor invented something that makes a difference to this day, or whether still another ancestor led a fairly ordinary life for people of her generation. The search for truth leads these folks to reach backward over many generations and to try to understand the lifestyles, values and activities of people who were born in a different age.

The genealogists could each work alone, but they obviously gain something from working together, from being together. Not only do they get suggestions for strategies for further research, they like being able to share the joy of a newly discovered fact with those who can appreciate it. Through the day the genealogists were at work, the pleasant sounds of their laughter and conversation floating down from their rooms off the balcony.

In the late afternoon I picked up the day's Valley News Dispatch and sat down at Central Perk to enjoy a fresh cup of coffee. While I read my paper, a number of young people were working hard on their homework in various places around the room, their paperwork spread out on the available tables. The cafe was providing a valuable workspace for learning after school hours. No stern librarian sat behind a desk ready to shush anyone, and none was needed. Although music systems were clearly present for playing CDs and MP3s, these devices sat on the tables largely unused, not even with headphones. Those who did not have homework assignments to complete were talking among themselves about important life issues, but not in a way that would distract the others. The atmosphere was relaxed and respectful. Those who were studying were in an environment where they could get up and stretch when they needed a break, but they quickly returned to their tasks after gaining some inner strength from knowing their friends were nearby.

The side conversation turned to the generation gap. Some of the young people feel that they are viewed with suspicion because their appearance is different. They wonder why those who criticize them don't remember that young people in earlier generations dressed or wore their hair differently, whatever the current fad was. I suspect my genealogist friends could come up with examples for many of the generations they have researched. One young man made the observation that there was always a generation gap. I think he's right, but I also think the gap does not need to be there.

The young people began doing some brainstorming about things they could do to make a difference for the senior citizens in the community. Some of the lists were quite long. They began to think about organizing a day for cleaning up the community. I briefly mentioned the house Habitat for Humanity is building in West Tarentum, and immediately heard a voice from behind me saying, "I'd love to be part of that." The dreaming and planning continued with positive thinking about what contributions they could make to Tarentum.

People reach across generation gaps all the time. It is easy to focus our attention on the times when those attempts fail, but much more valuable to recognize each time a new attempt is made. In the next few days we'll get an invitation from these young people to join them in cleaning up the town. I hope there will be people of other generations ready to accept the invitation.

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