The Important Life Lessons Grandparents Teach Us

by Elizabeth Broadbent

Both my grandfathers had fought in the wars, one in Korea and the other in WWII. That’s not unusual. Most women my age have grandfathers who fought in one or the other, and the moms younger than us had granddads in Vietnam. They probably didn’t talk much about it. Mine didn’t, at least. My maternal grandfather, Pop-Pop, would only say that he drove a truck in France. My paternal grandfather said nothing, though he was a decorated war hero who’d driven a tank, on fire, back to base, thus saving the lives of everyone inside, including himself. He also married my grandmother before he left, when she was 15. She kept mum for two years until he returned. Our grandparents taught us reticence, how to keep a secret.

Grandparents teach us a lot, and my grandparents are no exception. I was lucky enough to grow up with two full sets: Grammy and Poppy on my dad’s side, and Mom-Mom and Pop-Pop on my mother’s. I was closer to Mom-Mom and Pop-Pop; my sister was closer to Grammy and Poppy. They were the grandparents whose houses we went to when we were sick. When my sister had pneumonia, she slept on Gram’s pull-out couch for a week and a half. Mom-Mom made me buttered toast when I was sick and read me all of Tom Sawyer. We were lucky.

Everyone seemed to have that wacky grandma, the one who wore purple and said whatever she thought. Adults might sigh and duck their heads in embarrassment, but we loved them for their eccentricities. My Grammy collected and dressed miniature bears. Her apartment overflowed with teddy bears. She drove herself in a massive garnet Buick. And whenever you called her, you had to let the phone ring twice and hang up, then call back. Otherwise, she’d think you were her friend Minerva and ignore your call because Minerva would talk for four hours. Gram taught us how to be yourself.

My Mom-Mom wasn’t like Gram. She was more the milk-and-cookies, hair-set-on-Friday, church-on-Sunday type. Everyone had one of those grandmothers too — though unlike most of them, Mom-Mom had black hair, not blue. Mom-Mom showed me the most important skill my grandparents taught me: how to use a knife. She was teaching me to cook when she died (I was 13), but when I was 7 and stayed at her house every day after school, she showed me how to hold what I was cutting, how to keep my fingers out of the way. At first, I just cut celery, but I progressed into other things, like apples and pears and eventually chicken.

Grandparents also teach us fidelity. “The greatest generation” tended to be more rooted than we are today — more settled, more able to keep to one spot. Lifelong Catholics, Mom-Mom and Pop-Pop still attended the same church where they’d made their First Communion (in the same class — they’d known each other all their lives). Pop-Pop filled every role a layperson possibly can, and my grandmother ran the Women’s Club half the years. Mom-Mom was the one to teach me my prayers. When she died, she was buried out of that same church. That’s loyalty.

Grandparents also teach persistence. They do it in many ways, like through carpentry or through knitting one blanket over the span of a year. Pop-Pop spent his whole life searching out wheat pennies, bicentennial quarters, $2 bills, and all those anomalies of American coinage. He was one of the first people I knew to start collecting state quarters. By the time my sons were born, he’d amassed over $200 in bicentennial quarters alone. That’s some serious investment.

Less than parents but more than anyone else, grandparents teach us how to treat people. Mine might have done their share of bitching about minorities, which taught me how to contradict my elders, but they did more than that. Mom-Mom and Pop-Pop always went to the same restaurant, a Greek-run place within walking distance. They ate breakfast there something like six days a week if you counted Sunday brunch, so they knew all the waitresses and waitstaff in the place. And they talked to them: “How are you?” “How’s your day?” “How’s your grandson?” They treated the people who served them like people, and they were always careful to leave a more-than-good tip. When I grew up, I ended up the one who knew waitstaff, who asked about their lives, and who always tipped well. It’s how I was brought up.

Grandparents also teach us about death. Usually, the first real death we experience is that of a grandparent. Through them, we learn the rites and rituals of grief and the emptiness of loss. Mom-Mom died when I was 13, and I remember going up to my room, picking up a book, and reading, reading, reading because I couldn’t face her being gone. Gram passed when I was in college, and per her request, was buried in her pajamas. I couldn’t look at her without weeping. Poppy died last year, and my inability to go to his funeral — money, distance, small children — caused a minor stir. I learned what happens when you can’t participate in a family ritual, how that changes your status in the family, and what that means.

Grandparents teach us about death. They also teach us about frailty. Pop-Pop uses a walker now, the kind with tennis balls on the legs. He shakes; he forgets things. They moved him into assisted living last year, after nearly a decade of living with my mother. We learn, in our grandparents, the way the human body breaks down, the language of arrhythmia and tachycardia, the words of embolism and TIE. It hurts us, these things. But to learn them makes us human.

I don’t see Pop-Pop much; he lives almost 700 miles away. Our oldest son carries his name. I was lucky to have all my grandparents. I was lucky to know all my grandparents. But most of all, I was lucky enough to have grandparents generous enough with their time and love to teach me about the world. I miss them all terribly, especially Mom-Mom. They all had their flaws (except Mom-Mom). But they were, and are, amazing people. I was a lucky kid.

We were lucky, we who had our grandparents, who learned from them and loved them. And now, I’m a lucky adult — partly because of them.