by Joanie Butman
When I was young, I was uncomfortable with old people. They smelled funny, were scary and boring, or so I thought. The closer I get to becoming one, the less intimidating and more fascinating I find them – as well as entertaining. Their age affords them a liberty to speak more frankly than the rest of us without consequence. Even so, getting a free pass to say whatever is on your mind seems to be a minor compensation for the loss of so much else – including your memory.
Last week’s blog about our family vacations got me thinking about my grandparents with gratitude and admiration. I regret not choosing to learn more about them while they were alive. From the view of a self-absorbed youngster, it just didn’t occur to me to inquire about their lives or that they even had one, other than simply being nana and papa or grandma and grandpa. The idea of them being individuals with hopes and dreams that might have involved more than tending to their children and grandchildren never crossed my mind. Sadly, much of their stories died along with them as even my parents don’t remember many of the details. That generation didn’t do small talk. They were too busy working to make ends meet and probably too exhausted at the end of the day to engage in idle chatter.
My parents couldn’t explain the lack of dialogue other than to say ‘We just didn’t talk about those kinds of things.’ Neither did we, come to think of it. It’s only as an adult that I’ve learned about my own parents – probably because my dad always liked to edit history a bit so you never really knew where the truth lay. He used to tell my younger sisters he was a famous opera singer but he gave it up for my mother. Of course, when they volunteered him to come sing for the class, he had to admit the truth. He also told us he was captured and tortured by the Japanese during WWII, which was why he had one leg shorter than the other. Little did we know he never saw active duty nor did he ever leave the East Coast, but it was much more interesting than a genetic quirk. Yes, we all knew my dad’s funny stories, but they did nothing to reveal the ones he held close to his heart. What I learned since I started writing is that if you choose to ask the right questions, most elderly people are happy to share stories about their life. The trick is asking them while they can still remember them.
For example, the story of my grandfather’s immigration to the U.S. has always been a little sketchy when it came to the details. As best I can surmise, his father disappeared under suspicious circumstances, and his mother made arrangements with the captain of a cargo ship to smuggle my grandfather from Italy to America. The first version had him as a stow-away and jumping off in NY harbor. I believed this well into adulthood until I learned he couldn’t swim – minor detail. Regardless, whether he swam or walked, the truth is my grandfather arrived in NY alone at the age of 12 without knowing how to speak English. He was taken in by a cousin and became a fruit and vegetable vendor at the Hunt’s Point Market in New York rising everyday at 4 AM to load and unload produce. In fact, he taught himself English by reading the crates he moved. He remained in that business for his entire life. When he saved enough money, he sent his mother the fare so that she and his brother could join him. He and my grandmother had an arranged marriage. I don’t remember much about her as she died when I was young. The only story I recall is one my mom shared. My grandmother was explaining that I was Italian to which I replied, “I’m not Italian, I’M CATHOLIC!” Even at a young age, the nuns had already worked their magic on me. Despite my grandfather’s lack of education and modest salary, he raised his four children and offered them opportunities he never enjoyed – like an education.
My grandparents on my mother’s side immigrated from New Foundland with their two oldest children and barely an elementary school education between them. My grandfather built his own boat at 12 and started fishing as was expected. By the time he was a young father, he realized that fishing wouldn’t support his growing family and chose to seek opportunities elsewhere. He brought his family to Brooklyn and became a carpenter. My grandmother cleaned houses for $1 a day to supplement his income. Oddly, given my opening statement, the strongest memory of my grandfather was the comforting sawdust scent of his flannel work shirt. To this day, the smell of fresh cut wood brings his image to mind. My grandmother, though tenderhearted, had a more imposing presence starting with her considerable girth. I remember my brother getting his head caught in a wrought iron fence and while everyone else panicked, she walked up and effortlessly pried the stiles apart to release him. She was a force of nature with an iron will for sure. No wonder the women in our family are so strong-minded.
As I sit in my comfy rocker overlooking the ocean, I feel guilty for my cushy life and wonder how I got so lucky when so many in this world have not. I certainly don’t deserve it so am overcome with gratitude and admiration for my grandparents’ courage, determination and for the many sacrifices made so many years ago—sacrifices that brought each subsequent generation a much improved lifestyle, a plethora of opportunities and the gift of choice, something in limited supply for them.
The idea of choosing to do something you love to earn a living wasn’t a luxury my grandparents enjoyed. They did whatever they could to survive and provide for their family. They faced each day with hard work and no expectations from life. Even though they may not have been viewed as ‘successful’ by worldly standards, their success was measured by the life of opportunity they created for their families. What their children and grandchildren chose to do with those opportunities was now up to them.
Truth be told, I’ve been blessed with lots of things in this life I don’t deserve: my freedom, my husband, my children, my large extended family, my health, my home, my seat here by the ocean, but most of all my salvation. I don’t deserve what Christ did on my behalf and too often neglect to express my gratitude and appreciation not only in words, but in the manner in which I choose to live my life. Even though I often fail miserably to honor that sacrifice, I choose to continue to ask questions and seek answers about His story because even more than my earthly family, it defines WHO I am, WHERE I came from and WHERE I’m going. Yes, I am thankful for the opportunities my grandparents provided but even more so, I am grateful for the privilege to be part of an ongoing legacy of love that Christ created through His sacrifice. How can I not choose to honor that legacy in the way I live my life?
My grandparents’ choices are a reflection of their character. They had no idea what their children and grandchildren would do with the opportunities they presented. The same can be said about Christ. He didn’t make the sacrifice because I deserved it. He did it because of who He is, not because of who I am. Neither one had control over what I would do with the gift, but both offered it lovingly and unconditionally. And that’s a story worth telling over and over and over…..