Friday, August 07, 2009

Knowing Grandparents

We overestimate how well we knew our grandparents. We have a picture based on memory we can attach a lot of things, even true things to, but we often didn't know those things or understand them very well at the time. Much of the shared time was when we were quite young and/or they were quite old. Our young selves have much they do not really understand, and our old selves are not always our most representative.

Few of us spend much time with even one grandparent after we are adults ourselves, for obvious reasons. One of my grandfathers lived until I was thirty, but I didn't see him more than once or twice a year over his last decade. Most of what I know of him is what my own father told me. That wouldn't have meant much if I didn't have some relationship with Grampa myself, plus some concrete memories of his house and the things he owned. But it still remains that on the day he died, I couldn't have told you much about him that I learned on my own.

I could tell you more now. When we become adults and have jobs, bills, wives, children, cars, and so forth, we can fit the pieces that we have into something more solid. Yet it's a retrospective exercise. I was very close to one grandmother, who lived nearby and whose house I went to for lunch every school day from 2nd-6th grade. I lived with her when my mother went into the hospital. Nanna died while I was in college - I probably know four times as much about her now, not least because the things I learned later - that her marriage was unhappy, that she lost her first child a few months after she was born, that she had to go to work after finishing 8th grade - were not the things we tended to share with children.


Gringo said...

I got to know one of my grandmothers when I was an adult, thanks to her living to age 95, and because during the final years of her life I lived only 400 miles away.

Not only did I get to know my grandmother a lot better, from her telling her history, I was able to infer some reasons why my mother was the way she was.

I recently finished Willa Cather's My Antonia. One thing I liked about the book was her reproduction of the speech of that time and place. I recognized a phrase, "batching it," that I had heard my grandmother and her friends use. When I mentioned this to my sister, she didn't recognize the phrase, nor that our grandmother used it.

I consider myself fortunate to have had those adult level conversations with my grandmother.

David Foster said...

The British General Edward Spears (best known as Churchill's personal representative to France during the debacle of 1940) wrote a beautiful description of finding the letters his grandmother wrote when she was young--much younger than he was when he found them in a picnic basket. In his book of essays "the picnic basket."

Donna B. said...

I was fortunate to get to know my grandmother after I grew up. I spent some memorable times at her house before then, but it was my grandfather that sticks out in those memories.

Those memories of my grandfather were of him playing games with me. Many other cousins were there too, but it seemed to me that he always wanted to play with me the most. I thought I was his favorite grandchild -- and he had a lot of grandchildren.

Later, when several of my cousins were talking about grandpa, one of them mentioned being his favorite. Turns out he managed to make us all his favorites.

At this point, Granny chuckled and said, "I hate to burst your bubbles, but he'd have rather been inside playing pitch with the rest of us grown-ups, but y'all pestered him so much to play with you. He was your favorite, you never pestered the rest of us.

Of course we all left there that day knowing deep down, we were still his favorite.

I wish he'd lived long enough for me to know better, but he died when I was 16.