Yesterday, my grandfather passed away. It wasn’t unexpected yet the pain still cuts deep. Even though we never had the privilege of living near my grandparents (except for the first nine months of my life, which I don’t really remember), we were close. Growing up we knew that every other weekend we would be talking to them on the phone. After we went to college and getting us on the phone proved to be a bigger challenge, we introduced them to the world of email and the communication flow increased. Recently, we’ve gone back to the phone calls, but they became weekly events. Perhaps the wisdom of age teaches you that more frequent communication is better.
My grandfather was a great man although I doubt his name will ever appear in the history books. He served his country proudly as a Marine for 25 years, and in more conflicts than I could name. When he left active duty, he returned to his roots, buying a forty-acre farm and building a home. My grandfather grew up on a Maryland farm, and I tend to think that despite traveling all over the world for Uncle Sam, it was knee-deep in hay where he was most at home. I never realized until I was much older but I’m sure that his farm boy roots is why nearly every phone conversation we had there was at least some discussion about the weather. When the rain and the sun are key determinants of your livelihood, you learn to pay close attention to their status.
However, it wasn’t just in soil that my grandfather planted. It wasn’t by accident that even though we weren’t geographically proximate, we were still relationally close. My granddad did well to form and maintain relationships despite the distance. He used the regular phone calls to plant his words of wisdom. There were several lessons that I will never forget:
1) There’s no use in complaining – It became commonplace that when I would ask my grandfather how he was doing he would respond, with a smile in his voice, “there’s no use in complaining; no one wants to listen to it anyhow.” Despite my assurance that I would listen, my grandfather refused to complain. Much of my adult life he lived in pain, but he didn’t talk about it much. His pain did not define him; he worked to define it – often disobeying doctors’ orders and exceeding their expectations in doing things that they were sure he couldn’t. He was right – there is no use in complaining. Much better to be thankful for what you have, do the best with what you’ve got, and leave the rest in God’s hands.
2) Treat your spouse like a jewel – My grandfather hated shopping except for one thing – buying jewelry for his bride. He married my grandmother when she was just 16 years old and she would be his sweetheart until the day that he died. If you had seen my grandfather you would have thought that he was one tough guy, and he was, except when it came to loving his wife. She always melted his heart. He might have hated shopping carts and long lines, but he loved making my grandmother happy. If that meant buying her sparkling gifts, he would do it, gladly taking on the inconvenience and hassle of going to a store, in order to show her love.
3) The ‘little things” matter – When we were younger, my grandparents always made sure that they brought us Smarties – sugar candy wrapped in cellophane. I’m not sure how it started, but we called them “little things.” Without fail, seeing my grandparents meant getting these candies, and I’m pretty sure that they’ve continued the tradition with their great grandchildren. It was a simple gesture but a meaningful one; a small symbol of the fact that distance might separate us, but they thought about us all the time.
But it wasn’t just the wrapped candy that signified the importance of the little things. My grandfather demonstrated this in how he treated others, and in his expectation for how those in his charge would treat one another too. He knew the power of saying please and thank you, and the last message I received from him was one expressing his gratitude. He realized that a simple act of kindness could mean the world to someone else. It’s because the little things mattered that he regularly called his sisters to make sure that they were o.k. They may have been hundreds of miles apart, but he wanted them to know he would still do whatever was in his power to take care of them. It’s because the little things matter that my grandfather would break out the homemade ice cream machine, or stop on the side of the road at a train museum just because his granddaughter thought it looked interesting. He may not have had much, but what he did have were kind words and simple actions – and he used those generously for the sake of others.
4) It’s better to be busy than to be bored – When my grandfather would ask about things that were going on in my life, and I would recount all of my commitments, his response was “It’s better to be busy than bored.” My grandfather was a hard worker, and he knew that being diligent and having a good work ethic were important characteristics. He never was much for wasting time. If he wasn’t doing something out in the field, he was reading, or fixing something inside the house. My grandfather recognized that idle hands often led to trouble. Hard work might not lead to riches, but if you worked hard enough, you would accomplish something. Make the most of the moments, because they will pass you by before you know it.
5) You’re never too old to change. You’re never too young to learn. – Many years ago my grandfather quit smoking despite the fact it was a habit that he had for over 50 years. As I understand it, he made the decision and just stopped – cold turkey. I don’t think he ever lit his pipe again. This is a testament to my grandfather’s stubbornness, and his determination. To him, age wasn’t an excuse not to do something; if anything, the expectation for doing the right thing increased as the years piled on. I’m sure it sounds odd, but I remain immensely proud of my grandfather for the courage to change in this one regard because it exemplifies his courage in so many other areas as well. Do the right thing – regardless of the consequences or personal costs. It may not be easy, but it will be worth it.
In a similar vein, however, my grandfather also knew that you were never too young to learn. He had a library full of books and when we went to visit him, they were always at our disposal. When someone would ask a question about why things worked a certain way – he was always happy to explain, regardless of their age. We spent countless hours on a tractor learning to mow the hay. The first time I drove a car was in his fields. My grandfather didn’t have the opportunity for much formal education but he knew more about a wide breadth of subjects than almost anyone else I know. He fed his curiosity and inquisitive nature with information and knowledge. He fostered this same habit in others – teaching them what he knew and encouraging them to go out and learn more.
I still smile when I think about all the conversations I had with my grandfather about the weather, and how long it took me to realize the importance of those talks. To a farmer, the weather isn’t just a way to make small talk; the weather is a critical component in determining when to plant seeds and how they will grow. What my grandfather may not have realized is that in all those talks, he was planting seeds of his own. I’m so grateful for the seeds of wisdom that my grandfather planted in my life, and in the life of those that he loved. I know that they will continue to bear fruit for years to come.