I visited my parents over Christmas, and one day I walked past a picture in their home of my maternal grandfather (the grandfather who took many of the pictures I’ve featured on this blog).
As a child, I thought of my grandfather as an old man. I saw him as a dour businessman, always wearing a suit, and not given to playing with children. My mother, brother and I lived with my grandparents for a few months when I was very small, and I remember being told to stay out of his way when he came home from work – at least until he had had his cocktail and watched the news.
So I was surprised when I looked at his picture this time. My first reaction was “He looks so young!”
In fact, my grandfather died shortly before his 61st birthday – he was younger than my husband is now. The picture of him that I saw was probably taken when he was in his mid-50s – about my age now. He was young. Or at least, I see him as young with the perspective I have today.
With my new-found perspective, I started thinking about the family stories about my grandfather and the impact these stories have had on my life. For example:
- He was said to have remarked that he didn’t care whether my grandmother was Catholic, as long as she voted Republican. This remark says volumes about his political and religious attitudes. Was his philosophy the genesis of my own conservatism?
- He rarely went to church, but my mother always talked about how ethical he was. She told the story of how he received extra ration coupons for gasoline during World War II, because his business supplied the war effort, but he wouldn’t use them for family trips. As a result, I don’t associate ethical behavior with any particular religion. Am I more accepting of people who do not follow the same religion I do or who don’t practice any religion at all because of what I was told about my grandfather?
- I remember hearing that he retired in his mid-50s because he didn’t want to pay 2/3 of his income to the government. While I recognize that taxes are necessary, I try to pay as little as possible. Like my grandfather, I have more faith in me spending my money wisely (both for my own good and in my charitable contributions) than I have in the government spending it for me.
- After he retired, my grandparents moved to Pacific Grove, California. They traveled extensively, and he played golf – his passion – for the few years he had remaining until his death at age 60. Did I retire early in part because of his desire to pursue his dreams? Did his early death cause me to plan my life so I could spend time doing what I want after raising a family?
Like my grandfather, I am intelligent, introverted, and focused. Yet he was an entrepreneur who built a small Main Street company, while I was employed in a large company. And I had educational opportunities he never had. My life has had parallels and differences with that of my grandfather, but the family myths about him have lasted into my generation. Maybe they will continue into generations that never knew him.
Family stories are powerful, and make us who we are, even as our perspectives change.
Which of the stories about your ancestors have affected your life? How has your interpretation of the stories changed over time?