A lot—maybe too much—has been written and philosophized about the effect of our parents on our lives. But what about their parents, Dr. Freud? Once upon a time, Oma and Poppy, Gramps and Gramma were the loving/hateful monsters that our own parents would have discussed to pieces with a therapist—so why don’t we ever stop to wonder how Nana or Grandpere have influenced our own lives?
They’re just stories. That’s why.
The last AARP Grandparent Study was in 2002 and at that time the average age of becoming a grandparent was 47 with eventually, an average of six grandkids… Now? Merely ten years have gone by and the average age of becoming a first-time mother is climbing every year. In 2010, the American Fertility Association (AFA) reported that 20% of American women wait to have their first child until after age 35; meanwhile the average death age in 2010 was 78.7 (numbers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics).
Do the math.
But does their death make their influence irrelevant?
I’m an author; stories are my living. Stories are the most memorable means of transference of an idea from one person to another. Stories can expand horizons, quell fears, expose the reader to new situations, and teach them appropriate behavior. So let’s take a close look at grandparents-as-stories:
· The ambitious guy who left everything to come to America
· The desperate guy who lost everything gambling in Vegas
· The brave woman who was the first in the family to earn a high school degree
· The feminist who abandoned her husband and kids to start a career in law
· The tailor who slaved his whole life at a job he hated, just to make ends meet
· The couple who celebrated their 50th anniversary and divorced the next year
Just stories: easily summarized in one sentence. I submit that we routinely undervalue the influence of grandparents on our life-stories because we are looking at the wrong part of their lives. We are looking at the biological entity we met when we were kids. We look at them as Grandparents, every one of them old, and therefore “irrelevant,” as MIT software guru Phillip Greenspun argued in a 2009 blog post
. Few of us ever got a chance to really know them; they had little direct influence on us.
But think of them as stories: who were your grandparents? I’ll start.
My grandfather was a smart and determined guy who ran away from home at 19 so as not to have to fight on the wrong side’s army.
My other grandfather grew so angry at being called a stupid immigrant railroad worker that he earned a living winning word contests by converting a language he barely spoke into math. Then he got a job as an engineer and returned to spit at his ex-boss’ feet.
One grandmother was a famous opera singer who left her career behind to raise a family and always regretted her decision.
The other invented her own medium in visual arts at 40 and continued to gain respect as a visual artist until she had her first public art show in Manhattan at the age of 90, which is also when she started winning prizes.
See? Just stories.
But oh, their resonance.
Like the memoirs, blogs, and reality TV that have captivated and nearly taken over the general entertainment industry (With the notable exception of epic movies with crazy special effects. Hang in there Hobbits!) these stories are true. These heroes are real. These stories actually happened.
Truth has resonance.
In practice, the direct influence my grandparents had was to introduce me to their hobbies: fishing, word games, chess, sewing, music, art, fashion, and heavy drinking.
You probably have a useless passion that some grandparent inspired: crossword puzzles, knitting, a card game, cruise ship travel, genealogy. Grandparents have been studied, of course: one study in 1994 by a psychologist named Laura DeHaan described their direct influence as “significant others who have a great deal to do with one’s view of life.”
But I submit, based purely on anecdotal evidence, that our parents give us our limitations while our grandparents-as-stories offer us our ambitions. The web is full of blogs of grandkids eulogizing the deaths of grandparents by following in their footsteps in some way. In the introduction to their book Grandparents/Grandchildren: the Vital Connection (Transaction Publishers, 1985), Arthur Kornhaber and Kenneth Woodward complain that “the literature of social science treats the three-generational family as a myth” – but isn’t that its very strength?
- Madeleine L’Engle’s granddaughter, Léna Roy (one of our devoted members! yay!) has a young adult book of her own, Edges.
- Gifford Pinchot III, the grandson and namesake of the former Pennsylvania governor and first head of the National Forest Service, is carrying on his famous relative’s legacy of conservation.
- Fabien Cousteau is following in the footsteps of his famed grandfather, ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau
A myth is a powerful story usually concerning a hero experiencing a series of events. Want to know what characteristics your kids will admire as adults? Stop looking at your aging parents. Instead, listen to the stories you tell about them. These are going to be the main characters in your kid’s life story. Not the complex psychological inner-demons you deal with: no. Your parents will become the simple heroes of a bedtime story. But one that is true.
Don’t forget to help us out by blogging, Tweeting, Facebook liking, and word-of-mouthing the fact that the Pen Parentis Literary Salons season opener is THIS COMING MONDAY, yes, September 11th. We have spectacular writers in a stunning location. You’ll need every adjective you know. Come! We offer wine! Books for signings! It’s fabulous! You’ll be so happy you live in NYC!
here’s the link: https://www.facebook.com/events/491504440878779/
cheers! I for one am desperately sad to see Summer slip away. But Fall is notorious for getting people working, so who’s complaining?