For reasons that are not clear to me and probably for no particular reason, I was thinking about my grandparents this morning, all of whom are now sadly deceased. It occurred to me that much of who we are is an echo, or facsimile of the people they were. There’s a little bit of our grandparents in each one of us.
The best gifts your grandparents give you are not actually gifts. They’re characteristics.
I don’t know whether traits are inherited genetically, or osmotically, because family life was always conducted in a particular way and it was a standing assumption and expectation that you would behave the way the rest of the extended family behaved and thought. However it happens, it’s undeniable that some of the characteristics of your grandparents pass down to you, via your parents and it can be a nice act of gratitude to pay attention to the distant influences of your grandparents, when you think about yourself, your life or look at yourself in the mirror and catch glimpses of their essence.
That’s not to say every characteristic was outstanding or positive. You also inherit some of their flaws somehow. My grandparents were not well known or in any way out of the ordinary, except that some of the things they achieved in their lives were truly extraordinary. I think that those ordinary extraordinary achievements were in large part thanks to their characters. They grew up in different times and so some of the beliefs they held dear would be out of place in the world today, but their inner strengths are timeless.
One recognises that one’s own existence is entirely thanks to their struggles and triumphs. Were it not for them, you wouldn’t be here at all. In saying that, I think you always hope you can do them justice and make all the sacrifices they endured worthwhile. It would be nice to think that you can take their best characteristics and hand them on to subsequent generations, unsullied.
Here are some of the characteristics I most admired in my grandparents:
My paternal Grandfather – Matthew
- Cleverness – My grandfather was dead clever. His three sons, all of whom were very clever fellows themselves, looked up to him as the master. He could do practically anything, make things and fix things. He was also a strategic thinker, looking for and finding the best way to survive any situation he was in. He did this without crushing anybody else, or elbowing anybody else out of the way. He wore his intelligence lightly, in a matter of fact way, as if everybody was intelligent. I believe he was schooled in the same technical school that Nicola Tesla graduated from.
- A hard work ethic – This was a man unafraid of rolling up his sleeves and digging in. He worked long and hard, physically and with his head. There was no task too great for him to attempt. His particular talent was in transforming an unpromising piece of land into a wonderful market garden, abundant in produce. In times of food shortage, this was quite a talent to have.
- Practicality – If paint was needed, he made paint. If you needed a shovel, he would forge one. He knew how to do so many things. Clearly, he loved tools and technology and was adept at transforming the world he found into something better.
- Improvising – If it was the case that you didn’t have what you needed, to get some job or other done, then he would find a way to do the job with what he had. If that involved making tools, or changing the approach to the task, he would come up with the flash of insight and complete the task, using whatever jury rigged or improvised method he needed to use. Today, those are called “life-hacks”.
- Surviving – He survived two world wars, Stalin’s famines and purges and managed to keep his family alive – all seven children. He was tortured and had to flee bombs and the loss of everything, several times. Each time, he started again and rebuilt anew.
- A tendency toward melancholy – He went through a lot, including being captured as a POW, so it is perhaps understandable that he suffered deep depressions and sought solace from the bottle, from time to time. These days, they might diagnose somebody like him with PTSD, having been conscripted, captured, imprisoned, refused permission to return home, tortured, starved, persecuted, forced to flee his house and home from advancing armies not once, but three times and finally coming to live in a foreign land, with nothing, on the opposite hemisphere. I can understand the depth of feeling he must have felt. Sometimes, he was unreachable in his sadness. I somehow feel he hoped for more from life than simply surviving and enduring, but that’s not to take away from the achievement of even doing that, given his circumstances. His melancholy showed that he cared and felt deeply, even though it was hard to accept and deal with for his family. The homesickness alone must have been unbearable.
- Loved to be loved – My grandfather loved people and loved to be loved by people. He liked attention and liked to pay attention. He was a people person.
- A love of nature – He didn’t so much conquer nature as coax it into giving up its riches generously. Some of his horticultural ideas are now called “permaculture”. He was adept at turning lifeless, barren soils into abundant, productive soils, through the careful application of compost, manure, lime, loam, ashes and through turning the soil at intervals. He intuitively understood what the soil needed to be fertile. As a consequence, his market gardens yielded bountifully. Artificial fertilizers and pesticides were unknown to him. He knew how to cooperate with nature, give it what it needed and in return, reap the riches that nature returned. This is a very different idea to the industrial method of growing that the world is in thrall to today.
- Knew when to bend the rules, when not to – We, in our family, are all here today because Poppy knew when to conform and keep his head down and when to push the boundaries and take a few significant risks. They were often life or death situations, with no second chance. Perhaps this knowledge was hard won. However he came to possess it, it was highly effective.
My maternal Grandfather – Terry
- Inventiveness – My mother’s father was a remarkable inventor. He found a way to put magnetic sound onto film stock, years ago. His private work space was a real laboratory of mechanisms, audio equipment, chemical processes and optical equipment. It was a like a den, but with a hint of secret experimental science and the latest technology about it. I was welcomed into it at a very young age. Naturally, I was awestruck and amazed, as a small boy, but soon learned that it was no big deal. Inventing was just something we folk did. It was our comfort zone. One of my earliest memories is seeing a demonstration of colour television at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry with him. This was when we only had black and white, back in Australia. I played tic-tac-toe with a rudimentary computer, back in 1966. These were the things he encouraged in me. If something doesn’t exist and you can see a need for it to exist, then make it exist.
- Precision – My maternal grandfather’s last job was as a quality control inspector, but he is the only man I know that could grind a lens to prescription by hand. In his inventions, his machines and processes had to work and work reliably. There was nothing done in a rough or shoddy way. It had to be good. If you take the time and trouble to make something, make it a good one.
- Optimism – It didn’t matter how bleak and hopeless things got, grandpa always looked to the future and with relish. As a child, he had lost his comfortable upper middle class existence in the Russian Revolution and was reduced to fleeing for his life, eating potato peelings and grass to survive. Nothing ever seemed quite as bad as that, from then on. Even the threat of nuclear war didn’t seem to depress him. Knowing the Russians as he did and being an avid American-o-phile, he never thought either side would be ultimately stupid enough to actually push the button. I always hoped he was right.
- Charm – He could charm the birds out of the trees. He was likeable and well liked. One of his best talents was in knowing how to say just the right thing to people to make them feel good about themselves.
- Passion for interests – Grandpa’s passion was for old movies. He had been a professional projectionist and loved handling film. At one time, he had the most complete collection of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton silent films that existed, on 16mm. I used to love to watch the funnies with him in his private projection room. We loved comedies best.
- The ability to see through propaganda – During the cold war, we were lead to believe, in the West, that Russians were rabid, lawless, totalitarian, automaton Communists hell bent on destroying the planet’s wealth and way of life. My grandpa lost everything to the Communists, including almost his life and wasn’t trying to take anything from anybody. At the moment I was first able to compare and contrast the two things, I knew that Russians were not all as they were portrayed. I could see the stories and lies told on both sides, as if fact. I also saw how willingly and blindly so many people believed what they were told, uncritically. You can never see the world the same way ever again, after an epiphany like that.
- Kindliness – He was unfailingly kind and encouraged kindness. I liked that a lot about him. He always bought or sent us special, exotic gifts for birthdays and Christmas that were unobtainable locally.
- Emotional openness – Unafraid of showing his feelings, whether happy or sad, angry, frustrated, or relaxed, he was a man that was open about how he was. There was no embarrassment to laughing like a drain at something funny, making funny jokes about various aspects of Australian culture, or feeling like crying in a really sad movie. If he felt love, he expressed it. There was no holding back.
- Warmth – My grandfather was unfailingly warm to me and to other people. Nobody felt ignored or cold shouldered. He was always willing to listen, to answer the incessant questions of a curious little boy and to indulge my “probably because” theories and explanations that were my attempts to pre-emptively answer my own questions. Never once did he not take my questions seriously and give them a thoughtful answer. I never felt I had ever asked anything stupid, though undoubtedly I had. The slight smile of amusement gave it away, but he was careful to never ridicule or belittle.
- Encouragement – Whenever I became interested or fascinated in anything, be it photography, audio recording or playing guitar, a very welcome gift from my Grandpa (my parents didn’t have much money) and unfailing encouragement to follow my interests with vigour always followed. He taught me how to make decent recordings, how to make sound on sound recordings, how to overdub, how to take pictures, how to thread a projector, which guitarists to be amazed by (Les Paul, Tommy Tedesco), who the really funny comedians were and so on, all before I was in my teens.
- Loved to collect technical things – Grandpa didn’t have a lot of money either, but he would prioritise spending on technical things, tools, cameras, movie projectors, tape recorders, microphones and all the paraphernalia that goes along with those. He treated creative tools as something important and something worth making sacrifices to have.
- Artistic – He always tried to steer me toward the crème de la crème of any artists that we were discussing. He had been an opera singer and dancer. His act included Cossack dancing and acrobatics. There is a photograph of my mother, then a teenager, doing a handstand, supported only by my grandfather’s hands. He knew what it meant to be on stage and to sweat under the lights, to entertain.
- Survival and Endurance – As a refugee of the second world war, he pulled a horse cart loaded with his three children, wife and survival possessions (I still remember a cast iron fry pan that we used when making pancakes, in the 1970s, which had survived the trip) across Europe, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. He walked, like a horse, pulling this cart, mile after mile.
- Diplomacy – Grandpa was captured and taken prisoner, during the war, but managed to talk the Russians that had captured them out of shooting them all. He did this using his charm and considerable wits. How many of us could talk somebody out of shooting them in the morning?
- Gregariousness – My grandpa loved to be with people, sometimes into the late hours, playing cards, if necessary. He loved to be around people that were having a good time, laughing, joking and enjoying each others’ presence.
- Sense of humour – Grandpa always loved making jokes and laughing about them. It was situational and observational comedy, before stand up comedians made it popular. We laughed so much, both when finding the fun the first time, but also in the many retellings. Life is basically quite funny.
- Musicality – I was introduced to classical music and the music of the golden age of Hollywood, through my Grandpa. He liked to share music that he liked with me. I liked hearing things for the first time. I still do.
- Culture – As a child, complete with double-barrelled surname (a rarity in pre-revolutionary Russia), my grandfather had been raised with the aid of a nanny and remembered distinctly being told by his nanny to salute the young Tsarevich, Alexei, who they encountered in the grounds of the St. Petersburg Summer Palace of the Emperor Peter the Great, where they were strolling. Sugar cubes were always served with silver tongs. We were expected to maintain decorum at the dinner table and to rise above the primitive behaviours of others, if they were behaving like rabble. His mother, my great grandmother, couldn’t abide what she referred to as “hooligans”, meaning Bolsheviks. One was taught to maintain certain standards, no matter what and to hold one’s cutlery correctly.
My paternal Grandmother – Olga
- Generosity – My Ukrainian grandmother was known as “Babushka” or “Baba” for short. The thing I remember most about her is that if you went over for lunch or dinner, every food she had in the house appeared on the table. You weren’t meant to eat it all, but you could if you wanted. The idea was that you were offered everything she had, so that you could choose what you wanted. That’s generosity. Offering every single thing you have. If it was all eaten and she had none left, that was not a problem. She’d make do. I wish I were half as generous.
- Caring – As a child, you always felt safe and at home in Baba’s house. It was a place of sanctuary, especially when your own parents were getting on your case. I always felt welcomed and included.
- Happiness – Right up until the end, my grandmother was a happy person, even when her hips failed and her memory faded. She was happy. Smiling. The world was ok. Nothing bad could happen in her presence because that was simply a sheer impossibility.
- Love – Baba had seven children, eighteen grandchildren and innumerable great grandchildren, as well as a few great, great grandchildren. She was our matriarch. Yet, each and every one of us received a birthday card from her on our birthdays and we all had hand-crocheted blankets made for us. I still have mine. They envelop you with love. Seeing Baba always resulted in hugs and kisses and lots of smiling and laughing. We always felt much loved. There was often cake.
- Making people feel special – Despite having so many in her matriarchy, whenever we went to see her, she would make sure that your special treat of the food you had shown a liking for was there for you. As a child, my treat was cheese slices and NutriGrain cereal (which in Australia, was a very different thing to the English NutriGrain, but still regrettably loaded with sugar anyway). No matter when we went to visit, there was always sliced cheese and NutriGrain there for me. She did this for every one of us. I swear she lived on foods that her grandchildren loved best, so that they would be available on the off chance that we showed up. Nothing makes you feel like you matter more than having your special treat offered to you, every time you visit.
- Intelligence – Baba was not an intellectual, but had been quite bright in her day, so could always figure out how to do things, fix things and make things. She taught herself how to crochet and could make the most wonderful Ukrainian foods. There was always a sparkle in her eyes and she caught onto things quickly. You never had to explain things twice (except when dementure took over, sadly), but by the same token you were expected to understand things she said to you first time. She didn’t suffer people acting like they were stupid around her, even if her instructions to you were delivered in Ukrainian, accidentally. You just had to figure out what she meant.
- Open mindedness – Although she was Orthodox, she married a Roman Catholic. As an older widow, she remarried outside of her Orthodox faith again, to a Jewish man and when that gentleman died, she lived openly with another chap. At their age, it was all companionship, but it took a certain disregard of judgemental people to make the choices she made. Good for her!
- Indomitability – How do you keep seven children from perishing, under both Hitler and Stalin, emigrate as a refugee with nothing, to a country whose language you didn’t speak and still make a successful and comfortable life and home for all? Beats me. I wish I knew the secret. She kept smiling. They all survived and prospered. Live long and prosper? She did.
- An ability to keep it all together – During their flight from the Communists and the Nazis, her family could have disintegrated so easily. Uncle was almost shot by the Nazis. Aunty was with her husband in Poland for a long while. Eventually, they all came to live in the same house, on the other side of the world and for decades, lived within a radius of no more than ten miles from one another. How do you even do that, under conditions of world war and flight?
My maternal Grandmother – Emily
- Over optimism – Nana could see the best in any situation, even if it wasn’t realistically a possibility. There was a fervent belief and faith in her that she would be protected by higher spiritual forces and that since this was the case, without question, there was no sense in worrying about worst case scenarios. Those simply could never happen, even when they actually did. Even in the midst of bad situations, she held onto the idea that it would all turn out well somehow, almost in a Micawberish way, but somehow things generally did turn out ok, or at least in a way that we could carry on. What it saved was on the worry, though she obviously experienced worry. She was just sure that most difficulties were temporary and she had the evidence to back that idea up. Quite a lot of evidence, actually.
- A love of books – Nana had been a university librarian in an old, established university in Estonia. She loved to read. Nana encouraged me to read, especially encyclopaedias (remember those) and bible stories. My dad was not really much into books (preferring knowledge gained by doing or watching, over book learning). My mother liked books, in a modest way. I think it was my Nana that really got me into finding things out from books.
- Having time for people – Another thing my Nana would always do is drop everything to chat with me and talk things through. She lived with us when I was a teenager, so coming home from school with one concern or another weighing on my mind, it was such a comfort to have somebody that would just hear you out, offer words of sage advice and comfort you when you were troubled. There was never a time when she was pre-occupied with something else or too busy for you. Listening to you was a priority. I loved that about her.
- Laughter – Being married to my grandfather, who loved to laugh, it was inevitable that Nana did too. She had her own sense of humour, also observational and loved nothing more than to share a laugh with us.
- Morals – There was a very strong sense of right and wrong and about how one should comport oneself in the world, so that we did no harm and hurt no-one. Because of her faith, she believed in standards of behaviour that today seem lost.
- Acceptance – One of Nana’s favourite phrases was “What will be, will be”. She was a very live and let live kind of person. Even when her family members were making ill advised choices, that didn’t stop her loving and accepting them. She might not have agreed with their life choices in every case, but she never stopped anybody from making their own mistakes and finding their own way, even if that meant watching her dearest relatives make train wrecks out of some situations. That refusal to interfere and step in to control took a lot of courage, on her part, but she knew that it was the only way we could all develop and grow.
- Strength – Both strength of character and physical strength, in the sense of robust well being, characterised my Nana. She looked much younger than her years and enjoyed fairly good health, though her heart gave her some concern in later life. Lucid until the end, she looked like she could have raised a young family of three (one still a baby), during war time, in refugee camps, with her husband conscripted by the enemy to fight against his own country and presumed either dead or missing. In fact, she did and he wasn’t. They were all reunited, several years later, again by sheer happenstance. None of us knows how.
None of my grandparents flourished, in the sense of becoming wealthy, well known or realising their deepest dreams, but they made the very best of their situations always. They all taught me to be a citizen of the world (all four came from different countries), that conflicts are manufactured by profiteers and that patriotism is a feeble thing, when you have lived on three continents and sincerely adopted each country as your home, only to be uprooted and torn from them, due to war. All things considered, that’s not such a bad life’s work. I miss them all and I’m grateful for everything. I hope I have retained at least a sliver of their very best characteristics.
What are the best things your grandparents gave you?