Like many people at my stage of life, most of my grandparents/great grands/uncles/aunts are no longer living. We’re a tenacious, belligerent lot when it comes to survival, however, and so we make it pretty far along; we’ve had several centenarians and most of us live past 90. This without the comforts of dementia against, what appears from the vantage point of my forties, to be an insulting cadre of physical ailments that accompany old age. My grandfather, age 93, just had a pacemaker put in and gets winded on the dance floor, but he can give you a detailed report of the weather on every day of the several decades he farmed. He also recalls random things, such as what my dad wore to his college graduation, including the name of the salesman who sold him the suit and how much it cost, and what kind of car everyone in the store drove: make, model, color, year and how many pounds of air pressure they had in their tires.
Well, maybe not the air pressure part, but you get the idea.
And it’s not that we’re particularly solicitous of our health, either; my Great Aunt Marge, for example, smoked like a chimney from the time she was a teenager and, predictably, succumbed to lung cancer a few years back… AT AGE 94. What a poster child for antismoking she made.
Anyway, I think of these people often, not in any immediate sense as I do the folks I see day in and day out, but as I do past experiences, ones that resulted in a new perspective, or caused me to make pretty big changes in my life. In retrospect, I understand how all my “grands,” via what seemed like disjointed interactions at the time, created a collective identity for me, one specific only to my family and one that formed the basis of how I think about everyone and everything around me. They had, without intending it, a profound impact on the kind of human being I’ve become.
I’ve come to consider this issue carefully since I’ve had my son, who will never know these people, much as I wish it were otherwise. In an effort to give him the same familial context I was given, I’ve done what I presume everyone does, which is show pictures and tell stories I think he might find interesting. And, as I suspect all parents who make this effort realize, I know how hollow and flat my descriptions of dead relatives really are.
This makes me sad, that my little boy will never know what it’s like to giggle so violently (and often) through mass with your grandmother that people regularly ask both of you to leave; that he will never have to come to grips with the fact that the grandparent you adore is widely regarded as the town sourpuss, and watch neighbors veer away if they see you coming; or witness the vitality of people in their sixties and seventies who love to dance, so much that they sweep the tabletops in public so they can dance on them for the hell of it.
The other day, I put myself in my son’s shoes and came up with a resolution that formed the germ of the idea for this posting. Here it is: I was no different as a child. Just as Jack cannot know the grandparents and great aunts and uncles I had, I cannot know the grandparents and great aunts and uncles of my parents. The fabulous thing about this is that it does not mean I do not have anything from them, that they are not a part of me. They are.
I have one grandmother whose death still brings me to my knees if I think about it. I miss her every day, even now, fifteen years after we lost her. Interestingly, she’s the one I have the most difficulty describing to my son, because she was a little introverted, and in the scheme of the great, wide world, didn’t live a remarkable life. Oh, but Jack, if you knew her. If you knew her, she was extraordinary, in her loyalty and her devotion to the people she loved. I was lucky enough to be one of them, and I know I learned to love my family from watching her do it.
I have clear memories of lengthy conversations with my grandmother (I liked to talk and I think she was the only one who could tolerate me at times) on topics she couldn’t possibly have had any interest. She would quiet herself and sit with me as though there was nothing else she’d rather be doing. She encouraged our conversation when she had to get dinner on the table for 25 people or had eight loads of laundry piled up in her basement. I remember how she used to score me cookies I wasn’t supposed to have, and how smug I was about her preference for me until I learned she did this for all her grandkids.
I’ve come to realize that the gift I’m left with is the effect of all these interactions, not the interactions themselves, and that the result is a particular sense of the world we wear in my family like common facial features or eye color. Because of all that past affection and teasing and encouragement, I know with complete certainty how to show my son that who he is and what he does matters. I know how he will feel if he makes bad choices for himself and that he will understand he must treat himself as someone good and worthy. I know that he will be loved no matter what, and he knows this, too.
I find this so comforting, and so much better than old pictures or labored descriptions that miss the mark. Instead, we get to have each other and different laughing fits and public embarrassments that show us we belong.
Not as fun as getting kicked out of church with your grandma, maybe, but an honest, real legacy, and a darn good one.