The little child that lives inside each of us never quite goes away, not even as we age and mature decade after decade. Our memories of childhood whether magical or nightmarish linger inside our very souls and color the way that we view the world. Those like myself lucky enough to have known mostly love are often guided by the nostalgia of kindnesses and happy times. For others overcoming painful experiences is a lifelong battle. During the holiday season we often become more acutely aware of our long ago histories, and depending upon how they are affecting us we either feel an exhilarating happiness or a sense of sadness. Thus is the power of our pasts and our emotions.
I once wrote a paper detailing the folk history of my grandfather. Rather than guiding him in any particular manner I simply asked him a series of questions and then allowed him to respond in a way that revealed his personal take on the world in which he had lived and grown. He was approaching his hundredth year when I undertook this project and I uncovered a theme in his way of dealing with the ups and downs of life that he somehow passed down to me. Every single story that he told me involved elements of strength, courage and love. It was his personal point of view. His heroes were the people who overcame difficulties through not just their own determination, but with the assistance of caring individuals who often appeared serendipitously to save them. He firmly believed in the idea of personal accountability, but understood that everyone struggles, and when things become almost too much to bear there always seems to be someone who arrives to help.
Convinced that we each have an inner strength in spite of the problems that stalk us, and realizing that we are never truly alone was my Grandpa’s foundational philosophy and the cannon of his life. His was one of those nameless stories that never lead to fame or riches of the concrete kind, but rather the wealth of friendships and love that is far more substantial than the ephemeral nature of titles and things. By the time that he had reached his one hundred eighth year he had become an inspiration to all of us fortunate enough to have known him, and I was chief among his fans. I suppose that I either consciously or unconsciously modeled my own personality after his. I adopted his optimism even in the face of difficulties and soldiered through irritations and tragedies by reminding myself that I came from strong ancestors who refused to let anyone grind them down.
I often thought of my grandfather as a young virtually orphaned boy who never knew his mother, and yet honored and cherished her by naming his daughter after her. He spoke of her a hundred years after she had left him with a profound reverence as though her death in childbirth had proven to him how much she had loved him. The sacrifice that she made to bring him into the world was the foundation upon which he built the entirety of his extraordinary character. The fact that his father abandoned him meant less to him than the knowledge that his mother had died giving him the opportunity to live. His devotion to her was as deep as if she had raised him into an adult.
It was his grandmother who did the job of guiding him into a purpose driven life, and she did so with great care, providing him with wisdom and an unstoppable sense of humor. She gave him the tools that he would need to continue even after she too had died before he was quite ready to be alone. At the age of thirteen h head already risen to a level of maturity that was far beyond his years, so when he was charged by a judge to select a guardian he decided upon an uncle who seemed to be quite noble and honest. This man was so upstanding that my grandfather ultimately adopted his name to honor him for his morality and character. Indeed he also emulated the traits that he saw in this individual who was kind enough to take on the duties of helping a teenaged boy even though he himself was barely into manhood.
Grandpa was stalked by bad fortune. Not so long after he chose the man who would be his surrogate parent a deadly hurricane came to Puerto Rico. My grandfather’s uncle who was a graduate of West Point and a military man served his country by traveling to the devastated island to direct the distribution of aide and supplies. While there he contracted typhus and died. My dear grandfather was alone once again, and so affected by his multiple losses of loved ones that he was rather confused for a time. He bounced around the country doing jobs wherever work was to be found, living in boarding houses and drinking more than he should have to still the sadness that sometimes threatened to overwhelm him. On one particular evening he experienced a moment of clarity, raealizing that he had become his own worst enemy. He thought about his mother and grandmother and uncle and suddenly felt their spirit reminding him that he was meant to be better than he had allowed himself to become. He resolved at the moment to be the man that they had intended him to be, and with an iron will he turned himself around. Luckily he did so in time to meet my grandmother, the ultimate love of his life and the woman to whom he would surrender his heart. They became lovers, buddies, the best of friends.
The funny thing is that there was never really a time in my grandfather’s life when things came easily to him. He had to work hard and deal with tragedies that broke his heart, but never his will. Somehow regardless of his circumstances he found ways to survive and to find that one tiny speck of hope that kept him going year after year. When he was one hundred eight years old he had lost his beloved wife, his son and one of his daughters. Even some of his grandchildren had preceded him in death. Most of the friends in his age group had left this earth years before, and yet he rarely complained other than to note that he missed them all.
I always enjoyed visiting my grandfather in the tiny house where he rented a room from a widow who needed the extra income to stay afloat. He maintained his independence with a fierceness that I so admired. Much as he had done throughout his life he found ways to keep moving forward even when times became tough. When he grew older he became a bit more nostalgic, and even found ways to understand and forgive his father whom he kindly referred to as a bit of a reprobate, a man whom he nonetheless had grown to love or at least accept.
I find myself thinking of my grandfather more and more often these days, and when troubles come my way I wonder what he would do in similar circumstances. I know that he would somehow find the silver lining that he insisted is a part of every situation. He had been a penniless, homeless, seemingly unwanted orphan who was dropped on his grandmother’s doorstep like a stray cat, and yet he rose above the hurt and anger that might have been his guiding light. He chose instead to focus on the positive aspects of his story and those of the people he had met along the way. He saw himself as someone whose life had been blessed again and again.
We mostly choose how to view our individual stations in life. In the proverbial way of the glass we either decide that our lives have been half empty or half full. Grandpa taught me to choose the optimistic path, to proudly be a Pollyanna. What I have encountered has not always been pretty, in fact it has often been scary and wrought with tears. My grandfather showed me that rather than wallowing in the pity that may indeed be rightfully mine, I always need to ultimately find a way to pluck up my courage and move forward once again. Like him I have repeated the drill time and time again, and along the way discovered new friends, new allies and great love. My grandfather’s worldview has been one of the most amazing gifts of my life. He was indeed a fortunate son just as he believed and I inherited his wealth.