It’s January 2019 and a new year is underway. I have been busy doing all the things that are asked of us when a new year begins: I looked back, I reflected on my goals and how I succeeded or failed to meet them; I took down the tree and put away all the decorations. I also read again one of the essays that has been a favorite of mine for years. You may know it. It’s by George Bernard Shaw titled, “A Splendid Torch.”
This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.
I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”
I love his sentiments; it’s really a philosophy of life, and it has always spoken to me because it aligns with how I grew up. All four of my grandparents were Italian immigrants to America at the turn of the century; they left the “old country” because they wanted their children to have a better life, more opportunities, and a better chance to succeed. They struggled, they spent time with other Italian immigrants at first while they made their way to finding work, and a place to live, and to learn the customs of their new homeland. They all spoke “broken English” which I and my cousins and siblings thought was mildly humorous and slightly confusing, and they were each forward-looking people. They imagined a new life and made it a reality through their hard work, determination, and by keeping faith in themselves and in the goodness of others.
When Shaw writes that his life “belongs to the whole community” and it’s a “privilege to do for it whatever” he can, I am reminded of my grandparents’ examples: my grandmothers routinely helped their neighbors, cooked meals for people who were ill, and often sent us out to deliver foods, like a loaf of homemade bread, to families who were in need. My maternal grandmother took in boarders to help make ends meet, but she did something that went far beyond that: she took in an Italian widower with three small children, including a baby boy, whose wife had died. She opened her home and her heart and raised the kids while he went to work to earn a wage that allowed him to care for their material needs. He had a room of his own, and his children were so fully integrated into the family that when we kids were growing up, we simply called them our aunts and uncle. In the homes of both of my grandmothers, there was always love enough to go around.
My grandfathers worked at manual labor when they first came to America, and one of them eventually became a shoemaker, always repairing someone’s broken heels, replacing torn laces, and tending to shoes so that they lasted a long time, saving money for their owners. My other grandfather did all kinds of jobs until his two sons grew up and then he began a construction business with both of them that eventually lead to a very successful set of companies that provided good jobs for people in the community. One of my uncles became a town selectman and helped lead and serve the community’s government. In the towns where they lived, both of my grandfathers were known and respected for their contributions and their pride in America.
Of course, their children, including my Mom and Dad, were earnest people who believed that each generation was meant to improve upon the one before, so they made their mark, too. In the joyful mix of their siblings was a cornucopia of many different professions: nurses, business owners, entrepreneurs, a college professor, a drapery consultant, and salesmen. They were hard-working, had a sense of responsibility to look out for their neighbors and their fellow citizens, and they gladly met their obligations to their own parents and siblings.
My parent’s home was an energetic Party Central – it was not unusual for 20-30 relatives to show up for Sunday cookouts in the back yard during the summer. The food was plentiful, the music coming from the “45” records played on the turntable was a mix of show tunes, Italian opera, and pop favorites like Perry Como. My siblings and I learned the meaning of being charitable, and loving our family, as we saw our parents taking care of others, and making their home a welcoming place. It was just as likely for us to hear politics discussed in heated voices, as it was to hear someone spontaneously burst into song, waving a wine glass overhead, and smiling.
When my older sister was taking the exam to become a registered nurse, my mother welcomed her and about five of her friends for supper the night before. We had just had a hurricane a few days before that knocked out power to the whole area. My mother was unfazed and cooked a full spaghetti and meatballs dinner for all of them, in the backyard, on a small Coleman “stove” (two burners that resembled hot plates)! It was actually a fun event with candles lighting our meal, lively conversation, and a sense of fellowship filling our hearts along with her delicious food.
As you can see, I lived among people whose lives burned brightly; their reflections influenced my thoughts, and shaped my values. As an adult, I have strived to create a life that also burns like a torch and I hope to be an influence on the lives of my children and grandchildren that they, too, will carry their own torches into their communities, seeking to make the world a better place. These are noble ambitions, and worthy goals, and they foster passion and purpose.
As a new year gets underway, I am grateful and excited about my new goals, new adventures, and new people. I hope that my activities this year will contribute to my being “thoroughly used up when I die.” Welcome, 2019, I’m glad to meet you!