Fact Check

Grandfather's Wooden Bowl

Feeble grandfather banished from the family table and given a wooden bowl to eat from?

Published Jul 12, 2001

Glurge:   Aged grandfather whose shaking hands cause him to drop things is banished from the family table to eat from a wooden bowl.

Example:   [Collected on the Internet, 2000]

A frail old man went to live with his son, daughter-in-law, and four-year old grandson.

The old man's hands trembled, his eyesight was blurred, and his step faltered. The family ate together at the table.

But the elderly grandfather's shaky hands and failing sight made eating difficult. Peas rolled off his spoon onto the floor. When he grasped the glass, milk spilled on the tablecloth. The son and daughter-in-law became irritated with the mess.

"We must do something about Grandfather," said the son. I've had enough of his spilled milk, noisy eating, and food on the floor.

So the husband and wife set a small table in the corner.

There, Grandfather ate alone while the rest of the family enjoyed dinner. Since Grandfather had broken a dish or two, his food was served in a wooden bowl.

When the family glanced in Grandfather's direction, sometimes he had a tear in his eye as he sat alone.

Still, the only words the couple had for him were sharp admonitions when he dropped a fork or spilled food.

The four-year-old watched it all in silence. One evening before supper, the father noticed his son playing with wood scraps on the floor. He asked the child sweetly, "What are you making?"

Just as sweetly, the boy responded, "Oh, I am making a little bowl for you and Mama to eat your food from when I grow up."

The four-year-old smiled and went back to work.

The words so struck the parents that they were speechless. Then tears started to stream down their cheeks. Though no word was spoken, both knew what must be done.

That evening the husband took Grandfather's hand and gently led him back to the family table.

For the remainder of his days he ate every meal with the family.

And for some reason, neither husband nor wife seemed to care any longer when a fork was dropped, milk spilled, or the tablecloth got soiled.

Children are remarkably perceptive. Their eyes ever observe, their ears ever listen, and their minds ever process the messages they absorb. If they see us patiently provide a happy home atmosphere for family members, they will imitate that attitude for the rest of their lives.


  • 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."

Origins:   Versions of this e-mailed heart-wrencher have been on the Internet at least
since 1999, but the story itself is centuries older.

Wooden bowl

"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 Tale #78 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:

A woman disliked her old father-in-law who lived with her family, and she insisted he be removed to a small room outside the house. One winter day the old man, who was suffering from hunger and cold, asked his grandson to bring him a blanket. The boy found a rug and asked his father to cut it in half for the grandfather. "Take the whole rug," the father said. "No," replied the boy. "I must save half for you for when you are as old as grandfather." The man quickly restored his old father to a warm room in the house, and from that time on he took care of his needs and visited him every day.

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 — they 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

Last updated:   11 March 2007


  Sources Sources:

    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   Too Good To Be True.

    New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.   ISBN 0-393-04734-2   (p. 323).

    Cerf, Bennett.   Good for a Laugh.

    New York: Hanover House, 1952   (p. 64).

    Maestas, Jose Griego and Rudolfo Anaya.   "The Boy and His Grandfather."

    Cuentos: Tales from the Hispanic Southwest.   Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1980.

    Zall, P.M.   "Tales and Quick Answers."

    A Hundred Merry Tales and Other Jestbooks of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries.

    Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1963   (pp. 316-317).

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