What My Grandfather Taught Me About Life

Every year in recent memory, my grandfather has more insistently asked me the same question: Are you happy? And his question is about happiness in its truest sense - wanting to know if I have chosen to fill my life at that moment with joy. Because that, he explained by his actions and example, is a choice that we are offered every day.

His days have been quite full in recent years as he neared nonagenarian status, and I learned to time my calls between his T’ai Chi classes and favorite British television reruns. Last November, like always, he danced the role of the grandfather in The Nutcracker performances, growing out his beard for maximum authenticity on stage. “It’s scratchy,” he would say, wrinkling his nose and laughing. “You would fit right in in Brooklyn,” I told him.

Grampa’s hipster beard.

He has always been performative. When I was seven, he stood on his head. I didn’t think he was particularly athletic and remember him almost knocking a picture off the wall in doing so, prompting my grandmother to call out,“Bill!” from the other room. We went in to answer her raised eyebrows together.

“Mary, our eldest granddaughter refused to smile, so I stood on my head,” he began. I looked up at him and just kept giggling, forgetting to press my lips together over a mortifying overbite that would soon see years of braces and retainers. Over my head, my grandparents exchanged a look of profound understanding that was one of their signature moves in a marriage that lasted fifty-nine years, ending only with her death a few years ago. Turns out he had always been pretty good at headstands.

He extended his request to smile to my younger sisters over the years, and would regularly promise gymnastics if we didn’t exhibit sufficient cheer. In our annual holiday family videos he seems extremely capable of making good on those promises, with or without a guitar.

In the middle of last month my grandfather was wearing a tuxedo, and my parents were each holding one of his arms as they hoisted him up a steep hill. He gave a wave when he saw me, and did a little aerial jitterbug. “Incorrigible,” I said to myself, smiling.

Then I was awake, suddenly, and called his number. My mother picked up. “Hospice is here,” she said. “He’s having trouble breathing.”

What do you say to someone you love in the last conversation? I told him about the new job I had accepted, how I was about to go to Paris for the first time. I described the green vines that grow up the back of brownstones in my neighborhood and told him I was happy. Deliberately, and with effort, he said, “I love you –” and into the silence that followed I bit my lip and replied, “I love you, Grampa.”

Calling my mom back immediately, she stood in his room and drew in her breath, the way she does when she is handling a situation. “He mouthed ‘so much’ after he said ‘I love you,’ Kristen. He has a big smile on his face.” But I knew that already. We were stalling, and I had to ask her something important. “Mom, my flight is this afternoon. I can change the ticket.”

“Go,” she said and ended the call. I had her blessing and his goodbye. When I landed in Paris the next morning, I turned on my phone to texts from my sisters. He died while I was thousands of feet in the air.

I thought about my grandparents as I walked beautiful, unfamiliar streets in Paris and bought one-way tickets in quick succession to Oslo and Bilbao and Malaga. I thought of the small box lined with velvet containing five tiny perfumes that they gave me when they returned from Paris twenty years ago, after my grandmother won an all-expenses-paid trip for two weeks in a contest at their local grocery store. I had promised myself I would go to Paris someday, and then put it off for years, waiting to feel glamorous, prepared, ready.

My grandmother.

My grandmother was a model when she was young, and grew up on a significant tract of land on the Maryland shore with a long dock as well as a house in Philadelphia, breaking off four engagements (including one to Grace Kelly’s brother) to finally marry my grandfather, who courted her all along. He told me once how her father wanted them to live in a little cottage he had built next the Big House on his property. They declined and instead roadtripped up to visit in the summers.

Growing up poor, my grandfather went to medical school at Penn in a hurry and then to the war, returning to start his own practice, known for calming people and making them smile. They moved to Atlanta to start in a new city together. When I think about the American Dream, however flawed and incomplete that concept may be, I think of my grandparents’ series of decisions that let them create a life they reveled in with each other.

My grandmother selling war bonds.

Persuasive and elegant, my grandmother used her considerable skills to sell war bonds and clothing lines, greet everyone in St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church by name while wearing enormous hats, and to plan dinner parties for a core group of friends.

The table was always set with glass vases full of flowers cut by my grandfather, who kept detailed records of his garden’s successes from year to year on lined paper and later, spreadsheet macros on his latest computer.

Conducting the memorial service last Thursday, their best friend Reverend Austin Ford (who married my parents) shared a story about my grandfather’s skirmish with flowering wisteria, as he willed the recalcitrant purple vines to grow in the backyard. His botanical nemesis, wisteria either decides to bloom or not, and holds to that decision. When he couldn’t charm the vines into growing, he just wrapped bought blooming branches around his stubborn ones, encouraging them to grow by example.

Rev. Ford held a bag on Thursday full of wisteria. They took many walks in each other’s gardens over the forty years of their friendship, and he suggested the vines had bloomed in his garden two months late this year in a final nod to my grandfather. We tossed the wisteria on the soil covering the urn lowered into the family plot.

Grampa grew lilies of the valley for my grandmother, pansies for my mother, and I suspect partly for me, always had a patch of the violas known as Johnny-Jump-Ups in a corner with partial shade. Purple and yellow, the little flowers are hardy; they grow from a main stem and seed themselves, coming back like champs year after year. Only recently I learned that tea brewed with their blossoms calms the digestive system and purifies the blood. Humble and persistent in rocky soil and suburban backyards, they will always remind me of my grandfather, who woke up every day and decided to be happy.

My grandparents.