Life lessons my grandpa taught me
It’s impossible to recall the subjects of countless essays I wrote throughout my college career. Most of them I tossed aside after seeing my final grade. Most, but not all.
There is one essay that has been recycled in part three times. Once for a celebration.
My final semester at California State University, Sacramento, I found myself in Professor Campbell’s History 161. It was one of five history classes I crammed into my schedule to finish a semester early. I was given two options for a final project: 1) Redesign the national seal to be politically correct; 2) Weave my family history into the historic timeline we covered in class. Since I majored in journalism and not art, the choice was pretty easy.
While I had to gather information long distance from my dad’s family, Mom’s family were all within driving distance, including my grandparents. After sharing lunch, my grandparents took turns telling me stories of living during the Depression, plugging cracks in the wall with mattresses, surviving Kamikazes in World War II, and moving across the country. It seemed all too spectacular to be real and surreal that someone I actually knew had gone through it.
I shared a few stories with my mom as I started putting together the first draft. She stared at me. She had never heard most of the memories my grandparents — especially grandpa — had shared with me. I’m not sure if it’s because I had asked for family history to help with a class assignment or because it was easier for them to talk to a grandchild, either way I had tapped into memories heretofore unknown.
Although my professor was not overly impressed with my writing skills, I wove a tale worthy of a passing grade. I tossed all my notes and drafts aside, but found myself rummaging around for them about six months later.
My grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary was quickly creeping up and I had no clue what to get them. It may be a tad arrogant — or perhaps the easy way — but as a writer I feel words are the best gift. I figured if some of the stories were new to my mom then they would also be new to her brothers and sisters. I reworked my paper to reflect my grandparent’s lives.
My first — and only — self-published product was distributed Nov. 14, 1993, at the anniversary party. It received a passing grade from my family members. As with my final, I tossed my copy of the family history in the back of my closet. The stories themselves slowly migrated to the back of my memory. Until January of 2015, then they all started streaming to the forefront of my thoughts once again.
My dad called me the morning of January 28 to let me know my grandma had died. Heartbroken, I tossed some clothes in a suitcase and drove north. I called home at a rest stop halfway between Los Angeles and Sacramento to let my mom know I was doing OK. During our conversation, she told me that as the writer of the family I had been tagged to write Grandma’s obituary. Over the course of the next two hundred miles, my mind replayed every memory from that lunchtime interview.
Sadly, I was reaching for those notes again in December of 2015 with news of my grandpa’s passing. As I wrote Grandpa’s obituary, those same surreal feelings washed over me. Even more so than before. Since I’d first interviewed Grandpa and the day I wrote his obituary, my worldview and understanding had expanded exponentially.
During the interview, he told me stories of serving aboard the USS California in World War II and engaging in battles in Saipan, Guam, Palau, Leyte Gulf, Okinawa and more. At the time, I had heard of Guam, but would be hard pressed to find it on a map. But then I moved overseas and found myself vacationing in the Philippines. I took a ferry through the islands and passed by Leyte. It was a wondrous moment realizing that my grandpa and I had been in the same place, more than a half century apart. In addition, I watched HBO’s “The Pacific,” which followed a similar course to Grandpa’s, and I gained whole new appreciation for him and his generation.
I reread my original paper with fresh eyes and a major dose of pride. I realize my memories are colored by grandkid glasses, but they’re mine. I will never have a full understanding of my grandpa and why he did and said what he did, but I think I have a pretty good idea.
Grandpa didn’t talk about his childhood much, but when he did it was as if Mark Twain threw in some plot twists. When Grandpa was seven years old, his dad was killed in a work accident. To help relieve his family of some financial strain, Grandpa left home and moved in with other adolescent boys on a house boat on the Kanawha River. He talked about working outside the mines and accidents that left men crippled or dead. He quit school altogether in the tenth grade and joined the Civil Conservation Corps.
I didn’t need to read between lines to realize why my grandpa was a huge supporter of various workers’ unions. It never failed to be a topic of conversation at every family gathering. Unions saved America. People were dying. People would still be dying. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes, but they’re not the same as when you were a member. My union interaction was answering the phone when they were calling to tell my dad who he should vote for in the election. It annoyed me greatly, and I’m sure sometimes I voted for the other guy “just because.”
The only hotter button than unions for Grandpa was Republicans. He voted Democrat his entire life. A large chunk of this went back to unions. Politics was never a quiet conversation in the house. There were times I’d explain that some Democrats tend to be more Republican and some Republicans had a Democrat leaning; this was met with a head shake and heavy sigh. For Grandpa it was better to vote for a bad Democrat than a possibly OK Republican.
Grandpa had a lot of jobs throughout his life, most of them in construction and sheet metal. While most of his work consisted of the status quo, he also had a hand in some pretty impressive buildings. He helped in the construction of The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. At the time, no one knew it was a top-secret bunker. Now, the secret is out and it’s a major golf resort.
One of my favorite childhood stories was that my grandpa and I were hanging out before we were even family. Grandpa was putting sheet metal in at the University of California, Los Angeles, while my birth mother was having me. Two-and-half months later I was adopted by grandpa’s oldest daughter.
Easily my favorite — and most told — stories is how Grandpa helped with the duct work in Los Angeles’ City Hall. It has always been one of my favorite buildings and shot to No. 1 when I learned Grandpa had a hand in it. I now work in downtown L.A. and see the statuesque building on a regular basis. It’s like having Grandpa nearby.
My grandpa took great pride in his work and his cars. I’m sure he took pride in his kids and grandkids but it was harder to see sometimes. It was easier for him to show it to his grandchildren, especially the girls, and as the oldest granddaughter, I feel luckiest of all.
The first car I ever bought was from my grandpa. I drove a hard bargain, created an amortization schedule and paid it off early. I loved that Jeep — remember buy American — and felt super grown up. My next car was a supped-up Honda Accord, aka mid-life crisis. Grandpa still talked to me, thankfully.
I’m sure there are numerous things I did and said that annoyed my grandpa, just like he caused me to shake my head and sigh on several occasions. But more importantly, I know that he loved me and I loved him. In the end, the only labels that matter are Grandpa and Granddaughter.