Aged grandfather whose shaking hands cause him to drop things is banished from the family table to eat from a wooden bowl.
- The boy fashions a wooden trencher for his ailing granddad instead of a bowl.
- The story is sometimes set in China. The grandfather’s breaking of a valued porcelain bowl is the act that sets in motion his banishment from the family table.
- In an Asian version, the father makes a basket for the purpose of throwing Grandpa into the river because he’s become a drain on the family’s resources. One of the kids pipes up, “When you dispose of grandfather, bring back the basket, because we will need to use it for you someday.”
Versions of this heart-wrencher have been on the Internet at least
since 1999, but the story itself is centuries older.
“The Old Grandfather and the Grandson” (attributed to Leo Tolstoy) describes the degree to which an elderly grandfather has become an outcast in his own family through a rendition of this tale, and the Brothers Grimm’s “The Old Man and His Grandson” is also a recounting of this story. (It is presented as in Grimms’ Fairy Tales, volumes of which were variously published between 1812 and 1822. These fairy tales were folktales painstakingly collected by the Brothers Grimm, stories which had been part of the oral tradition of those days.) And a compendium of tales from fifteenth and sixteenth centuries lists this tale as being in circulation around 1535.
The story continues to surface as a current folktale in a variety of cultures, as evidenced by this Hispanic version collected in the American Southwest:
Similarly, the “give him only half a rug/blanket” fable turns up in Irish lore.
The fable can be interpreted in a number of ways and will be said to mean different things by different people. Its current Internet-driven popularity is perhaps due to the identification of many with its “plight of the elderly” element. With more of us fated to live longer, a stronger incentive to think ahead and picture those days exists now than ever did before. The dependent grandfather banished from the family table becomes a symbol for where we ourselves might end
Others pick up on the “do unto others” admonition, a reminder that depends little upon the age or infirmity of the one wronged in the tale; it merely requires that someone be mistreated in a manner that could later befall the one doing the wronging. The injustice is thus perceived as such only when another very innocently offers to do it to the oppressor once the tables are turned.
Yet others will perceive this fable in a “and a little child shall lead them” light, seeing it as an example of how wisdom falls from the mouths of babes. The adults in the story fail to recognize the heartlessness of their actions until a child unwittingly points it out, proving that the young and unspoiled often have a clearer view of the world than the grownups around them.
Still more will see it as a “little pitchers have big ears” warning, taking it as an example of how easily small children will learn what they see and will grow up to repeat parental acts in their own lives. Bad behavior is thus discouraged in parents who might otherwise feel free to let loose and “be themselves.”
Others will take it as a “people versus material goods” tale, a reminder that those we love are infinitely more valuable than any possessions, no matter how prized. Does a dropped bowl or a dirtied floor matter so very much when measured against the worth of a cherished member of the family?
The continued popularity of this fable likely derives from this multiplicity of interpretations make “The Wooden Bowl” a story of the times no matter what year the calendar says it is. Even when some of those interpretations fall from favor (societal mores do shift over time), some will always remain in play, leaving the story eternally applicable to current conditions.
Barbara “the story’s got more legs than a bucket of chicken” Mikkelson
11 March 2007
Fact Checker:David Mikkelson
Published:11 September 2008
The Old Man and his Grandson is a short tale that proves a powerful point.
Once upon a time there was a very old man who lived with his son and daughter-in-law. The man was so old that his hearing and sight had diminished. His hands trembled when he tried to eat. The couple did not like it when the old man sat at the table to eat because he would spill his food on the tablecloth. They finally relegated him to a corner to eat his food.
The old man would sit in the corner with tears in his eyes trying to eat his food, with trembling hands. One day he dropped his bowl and it broke on the floor. The wife scolded him and they gave him a wooden dish to eat out of instead.
One night, they were sitting together and the four-year old grandson began to gather together some bits of wood. His parents asked him what he was doing. The little boy told his parents that he was making a trough for them to eat out of when he was big.
The man and his wife were shaken by this statement and began to cry. They let the old grandfather come to the table to eat his food and they didn’t say anything even if he spilled something.
This is sad. It’s sad how someone would try to hide away a member of their family because of health reasons, but it happens all the time. I used to work in a nursing home, I know people hide members of their families away. While I worked there, I always thought it was so disappointing how these people would force their relatives to live in this terrible place and then never come to see them. They were ashamed of grandmother and grandfather. They assume that the withered and health problem-ridden person they see is not the same person they once loved, but trust me, it still is. No matter what state your grandmother or grandfather gets to mentally or physically, they’re still in there somewhere.
This family does not respect their elders, but they also don’t realize that their behavior is rubbing off on their child. Their son sees how they are treating his grandfather, so he assumes that the same thing must be done to his parents when they are that age. You really do teach children how to act by how you act. That old saying that actions speak louder than words is true in more ways than one. We are great mimickers and if you’re doing something not so desirable in front of your children, they are sure to notice. How you treat your elderly parents, in actions, is almost for sure how your children will treat you when you reach that age.
Like I said before, it’s a short tale, but it says a lot.