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December 6, 2013

What our Grandparents Knew.

 

Every fall, my grandfather liked to take a train up the California coast just to feel the cold beach wind on his face, which made him feel truly alive; so much different than the way he felt as an everyday man just getting by.

The shivered beaches seemed to know just who he was, and somehow, the waves that crashed and barreled against his legs echoed his thoughts, even ones he did not quite recognize.

“That’s it,” he would holler.

“Come on, bigger, you glorious beach, I am here!”

My father can still remember the  smell of my grandfather’s suits, how his pants were creased just-so at the cuff, the way his black gabardine coattails skimmed the wet sand, and how he tipped his hat for seagulls as he stood tall with his perfectly square jaw and movie-star good looks.

On long weekends they took these trips suddenly, dressed dapper in tailor-made suits and fedoras that lined their wide brown eyes that peppered and swifted with adventure.

My father would jump at the chance for these weekends, leaving his baseball bat and bicycle strewn against the side of the house for another day; a day when maybe his father might be too busy for traveling, too busy to set his young tie just right, or take the time to tell him “just what” the newspaper stories meant as they rode the sleek train that boasted of long sodas and beautiful women.

Each spring, my grandmother announced its weighty sweetness, while she kneeled knee deep in her garden, planting what would become bright hues of cabbage roses, tall leaning tulips the color of candy pops, and nasturtiums and lilies that nodded as you walked by.

“Oh come on and take some,” she would smile as she put freshly cut flowers into my arms as if they were bouquets of newborn babies, that smelled just as sweet.

No one knew or cared how old she was because she beamed all the time.

She was the youngest person I knew, even at her last birthday when she turned 96. I remember my last visit with her, when she gave me a basket of pink and yellow roses, a pot of beef and cabbage stew and placed a vintage silk scarf around my wrist as I beamed back.

“Have a safe trip,” she sang, “And don’t forget to call me when you get home,” after which I watched her disappear into her own home, covered in painted colors of mint and white and gleaming shadows of all that was her.

Maybe our grandparents knew the secret to happiness, all deep and fearless while they simply lived in the present.

And maybe they were teaching us each time they were around us—teaching us the secrets to life as they took the time to speak to us, in the sweet simple days when we didn’t have phones to interrupt their musings and stories that told of a million lessons and even more dreams.

Perhaps our grandparents knew the secret of how to live an authentic and fulfilling life, and if we can remember just what they said for a moment, we can also understand.

And because our grandparents did not email or text, perhaps they found long still moments in which to bask on how they felt or didn’t, and paused to take a breath because they were accustomed to doing so.

If you are fortunate enough to still have a grandparent around, perhaps you have the chance to see them open up their own mail slowly, or watch them use a letter opener while they say out loud,“I wonder what this is,” or“I wonder who is writing me”, while gliding effortlessly into a their favorite chair.

Maybe your grandmother once told you she did not care for your clothes, and suggested what you should wear instead. And perhaps she told you this while she speaking in a strange accent from oceans away, and from a world you should learn about right about now, while she brushed your shoulders with her strong, gentle hands that had more character than you can ever hope for.

Perhaps your grandfather wore a hat each time he left the house, even just to pick up the paper that hit his driveway each morning, a driveway that he proudly kept clean right up until the day he died.

Perhaps the very first wonderful and colorful story you ever heard was told by a grandparent, while you sat closely by and hoped your parents would never come and fetch you.

Maybe your grandfather looked just like you at the age you are right now, and when he smiled, he was already dreaming about your dreams, the ones that you are having here while you read this. And perhaps even though of you spoke up, you both secretly knew one another’s dreams.

There is a great chance that a grandmother of yours was once a beautiful, engaging young girl who danced a sultry dance while she enjoyed the glances of handsome suitors.

She might have even thrown her head gracefully back while sipping on a wide martini as she glanced sideways at a man with a mustache, who said to her,“You are the finest young lady I have ever laid eyes upon.”

I have a friend whose grandparents lived through The Holocaust and are grateful whenever they can sleep without nightmares about how they watched their siblings die.

I have another whose grandmother had to sell herself on the streets of New York in order to feed her five children after her husband was killed in World War I.

There is a chance that your grandparents knew all of the things that are worth knowing, so many years ago before you were ever a gleam in your parent’s eyes, before television and computers and phones and apps.

You know . . .  when they walked here and there amongst each other, in the stillness of crisp fall nights, under lopsided old trees of summer, and when they had hours each afternoon that were filled with looking at one another, without the empty bells and whistles of technology and empty noise.

Some grandparents, like my maternal ones, never attended school, but were as wise as anyone who could ever seek a soundbite or tweet. They grew up on farmlands, opened small businesses, sent their sons off to war, had the same friends for seventy years, didn’t care much for crowds and welcomed strangers into their homes for Thanksgiving and late night dinners.

Other grandparents, like my paternal ones, visited live theaters in fancy town cars while they sang loudly along, dressed in flapper dresses with ostrich feather coats, drank too much because they liked to, and spoke about travels to Europe on large fancy ships that never slept.

My earliest memories are of my grandparents, held faceted in my mind’s eye like an old Polaroid photo, eternal and never-shifting, and part of every thought I still have.

The photos never move, as I can still feel the weight of my grandfather’s heavy winter coat and the way he smelled when he picked me up into his arms. I thought he must have been the strongest man I had never known, and yet gentle in an assuming way.

I try and tell my children stories about my grandparents whenever I remember.

Here are just a few memories I have shared:

Walks to the corner grocery store just to say hello to the cashier who loved to line my dress pockets with coffee candy.

Reading Hans Christian Anderson and Rudyard Kipling on the longest of orange winter mornings.

Learning how to embroider my own name in colors of reds, browns and greens with fancy needles and pins.

Stirring homemade fudge atop my grandfather’s stove who told me I would make the best chef one day, this side of the Pacific.

Showing my grandmother how to set up her voicemail, every time I saw her.

Listening to stories about moving out West during The Dust Bowl, and how life seemed to begin wonderfully in an instant.

Walking to the Santa Monica Pier to ride the antique carousel while holding a large paper bag filled with shiny quarters.

Visiting the fabric store and picking out patterns and fabrics and buttons to make back-to-school dresses.

Riding in my grandfather’s silver vintage Rolls Royce on Sundays in the countryside just to watch the grass grow, so he said.

Singing love songs by Cole Porter from the 1930’s while trying on different shades of red lipstick.

Looking through moth-scented albums of old photos of people I did not know but dreamed I had conversations with.

Hearing the whistle and roar of a teapot and then steeping large cups for my grandmother to sip slowly with shortbread cookies.

Listening to the sound of my grandfather’s laugh while he jumped up to show off his latest coat and its fine stitching.

The look in my grandmother’s eyes when she first laid eyes on my daughter, who looked right back at her with her baby blues.

If you can remember what your grandparents knew, speak of it loud, speak of it here and speak of it often.

For although their physical presence is no longer of this world, your world can begin again and again through their memories, emotive passages, visual imagery, musings of wisdom and tales of yesterday, that always has a place in today’s light and darkness.

Share especially with your children and theirs.

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Editor: Catherine Monkman

{Photos: Courtesy of Author.}

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Chantelle Dec 8, 2013 10:05am

My paternal grandmother, bless her, was a stern woman with rough hands that planted so many seeds. She was a teacher and never let you get away with bad grammar. Oh yes how she would comment on the hideous attire her grandaughter wore and why in god's name would you do that to your hair. But then she would make that fancy rice salad and a roast and everything would follow its routine.
My maternal grandma was from Quebec, outspoken, caring beyond belief, she still is the cleanest person I've ever known. She taught me how to make french onion soup and to this day she adores watching and eating whatever I create in the kitchen. She left my abusive grandfather in her sixties and has lived independently since. Now she's in her seventies and has a new beau who adores her and she'll be the first to tell you how amazing and full of surprises life truly is. Soon she'll be a great grandma and I feel truly blessed that she is still around.
I never really knew either grandfather, my paternal one passed before I was born and my maternal grandfather I met sparsely as a young child. He hated how I made faces every time a photo was taken.
Thank you for your article, it's truly a great representation of what our elders can show us.

Francesca Biller Dec 7, 2013 11:06am

Thank you everyone for your moving and heartfelt stories about your grandparents. I am touched beyond these mere words, and I am thinking of all of our families, here and there . . . and then and now. Have a blessed time during these holidays of here, and know that your loved ones are all around you.

Shoya Warrington Dec 7, 2013 10:01am

I remember helping my grandmother make biscuits in the wood stove. And being fascinated with her cookoo clock that predicted the weather. And my grandfather’s missing middle finger he had lost in the war. And his wooden leg. Grandma taught me how to milk a cow. I still see the frothy warm milk in that bucket. I remember the huge unfinished quilt stretched out on the rack waiting to be completed. She didn’t have much time for sitting around but I learned so much from watching and ‘helping’ her. Wonderful memories, those are.

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Francesca Biller

Francesca Biller is an award-winning investigative journalist who has written, reported, and covered news and features about politics, culture, race, family issues, and culture for more than 20 years. While her career began as a print reporter and columnist for newspapers and magazines, Biller turned her passion also to news broadcast reporting for public radio, wherein she produced documentary reports for which she received The Edward R. Murrow Award, two Golden Mike Awards, and three Society of Professional Journalists Awards for Best Series Reporting, Documentary Series, and Live Radio Reporting. Currently, she is writing two books for publication with Zorba Press which includes stories and prose about her Japanese and Russian background and cultural identity discoveries.