My grandfather turns 91, today. I love that picture of him because his expression captures the whimsical combination of surprise and joy that is rarely, simultaneously found in anyone else I know. That same face so capable of spontaneously brightening has been weathered by many storms. He’s witnessed the Great Depression, World War II (firsthand), the death of a child, and the loss of his love, Ruth, his fiery counterpart.
Grandpa is a contemplative man and if you ask for a story, he’ll often lean back in his chair, stretch out his legs and fold his arms, letting out a deep sigh. You can almost hear a tangible acquiescence. He’ll deliberate over a careful response–one that honors every detail of the story. He’ll share a line or two, pause to recalibrate, and then slowly continue. The stop-start cadence of his stories develops a lulling rhythm, supported by his even, robust tone.
There is one type of story, though, that interrupts the usual rhythm with a grand departure into mischief: a story about Ruth. In the rare event that he shares one of those stories you’ll see his face brighten to the tune of that same surprise and joy, enlivening the experience. Add to that a hearty laugh that could make a curmudgeon smile, and you’ve got a winning combination.
The stories he shares about Grandma Ruthie will always play in color in my mind. Her fiery persona, quick wit, and hearty character meant she was a force to be reckoned with. Add to that a propensity for mischief, and you have quite a woman.
One of the legendary stories about the two of them came on the heels of my grandfather’s company moving to a new building. For years he ate in a cafeteria, a creature of habit, routinely taking lunch at the same time every day. The new building didn’t have a cafeteria, so he decided the most sensible option was for Grandma to make him lunch every day. Now, after packing lunches for her kids year after year, she was determined not to acquiesce. They bantered back and forth until she put her foot down and said “I’m not gonna’ make any cotton pickin sandwich!” By the next day, however, she had given in and he triumphantly took his lunchbox to work. When it came to lunchtime he took out his sandwich and bit into a mouthful of cotton balls, nicely seasoned, of course, with a slab of mayo, and delicately sprinkled with salt and pepper.
So, to say she was a worthy opponent is an understatement, but there was a wiser goal behind her decision. Grandpa could get lost in his work. He went 17 years without a sick day–a testament to his commitment and ethic. Grandma secretly knew that if she made him lunch every day, he would take all of 5 minutes to eat it, interact with no one, and hurry back to work. But if she didn’t, he would be forced to walk down to the deli for a much needed, mid-day break.
I was always fascinated by the interplay of my grandparents’ personalities, and how they were so different but strangely well-suited to challenge one another. There’s much I’ve learned from watching and listening to that dynamic, including the wisdom of choosing to surround myself with people, of all ages and personalities, who sharpen my character.
I recently asked Grandpa to resume his storytelling with me by writing letters chronicling different aspects of his life. He has an earned wisdom. He’s earned it in many ways, including through the development of his character in hard times, and the active choice of a mate who was as much a worthy opponent as she was a doting partner.
Do you pursue opportunities to learn from the wise? Our own blind spots can be better identified by those who have developed a broader picture of life through age, or experience, or an uncanny, intuitive sense for the tangible and intangible things.
We can’t expect to develop character without making the humble decision to listen, and listen well, to those who have earned wisdom. We can’t expect to grow without issuing invitations to worthy opponents to challenge us.
I regret that I didn’t ask for those letters sooner. When and if they come they’ll be a tribute to wisdom. When and if they come, I’ll be humbled, surprised, delighted by the weathered storyteller in him that’s still relevant to my world today.