Nurturing the Next Great Generation

Author: grandpateddy1

On the Engineering of Memory

April 13, 2014 My impending grandfathership has sunk in finally. It’s much less of a shock than it was when Abigail first shared the news. And now I seem to…

April 13, 2014

My impending grandfathership has sunk in finally. It’s much less of a shock than it was when Abigail first shared the news. And now I seem to be in a new phase, pondering what being a grandfather is all about and how I can fully experience the joy of it – for myself but more importantly for my grandchild.

What occurs to me is that when we think of “grandfather”, most of the time it is a memory. We typically experience grandfathers for a brief span of time, when we are very young and up to our teenage years. Grandfathers don’t live as long as grandmothers based on average life expectancy, so this span is all the briefer and more precious.

My grandfather on my father’s side, Roland Page, died young, when my dad was only 7. He died of tuberculosis. My dad would tell the story of sitting by his father’s deathbed, his dad coughing violently, and dad would rub his dad’s chest to help make it all go away. Dad always blamed himself for not making it all better, even when his adult rational mind told him this was unreasonable. This may have been my dad’s most vivid memory of my grandfather.

This is one of the great conundrums of memory. That we often remember the traumatic things more than the pleasant things. The reason for this, according to research studies, is that adrenaline released during stressful events acts like a kind of memory glue. Fortunately, this glue also works (probably to a lesser extent) for emotionally satisfying events. It’s the average, every day satisfaction we experience that is forgettable.

What I’d like to do as a grandfather is work to engineer just the right good memories of me with my grandchildren. So for their entire lives the good times we had together, and the lessons I’ve taught, are the things that come to mind when they see a picture of me, or they’re in a situation at work or life when they need to make a decision and choose a course. I’d like to think that the joy and wisdom I instill can live on and do good things when my physical body is no longer around.

As I start to think about this process, of course my own grandfather memories spring up. Meet Fred Fish, my “gramp” on my mother’s side who lived until I was 19.A pilot in the First World War, a full Colonel in World War II, he was a towering and unique character. As a young teenager, I visited him and my gram in their retirement in Tucson, Arizona. One late afternoon we were at the summit of “Mount A” the tallest point of land in Tucson. Gramp saw these guys wearing WWI-style leather pilot helmets and jumping off a parapet of rock in their hang gliders. Gramp introduced himself (as a salesman he was good with people) and regaled them with stories of his flying days over France and Germany.

At our family farm in Vermont, Gramp and Gram rented cottages on the shores of Lake Willoughby. I see him now pushing a red wooden wheelbarrow piled with brush down to the fourth of July bonfire at the beach, sprinkling kerosene on the damp branches, and the flames leaping up and reflecting on the water. We’d all sing by the bonfire, my mom and dad, gram, my four older brothers, my cousins, the sparks flying up and mixing with the stars. Gramp would sing “The Foggy Foggy Dew” in his rich, wavering baritone, dressed in khaki head to foot, in his 80s and bent over, one hand outstretched as if to conduct his own voice. His nose aquiline in his long face, big ears jutting out at either side of his cap – “I once was a bachelor and lived all aloooooooooone!” Then he’d sing it again half an hour later because he’d forget, or wanted to torture my grandmother.

Another memory: Gramp would take me and my brothers to Howard Johnsons for the all you can eat fish or clam dinners, and we did in fact eat all we possibly could. His light blue eyes would glitter, and he’d smile and say “I love to see a boy eat.”

There is also the memory (one that surely results from a little too much adrenaline), of gramp tasking me with cleaning out the cottage septic tanks – by hand. We had to lower a bucket into the foul smelling goo, and heft it out, attempting all the while not to puke.

I’m grateful for all the memories of gramp, from the sublime to the stinky. Gramp could easily have been shot down by the Germans over France, bombed by them in London, or fall to natural causes before I ever got a chance to know him. He’ll always be a part of me. And I sing the Foggy Foggy Dew with my brother down at the bonfire, remembering him, laughing, drinking wine together as the stars come out.

I acknowledge that my quest to architect memory with my grandchildren is oh so baby boomer. Can’t we just age like everybody else without trying to do it better? Does being a grandfather in this decade really have to be engineered like a new smart phone? 55 isn’t the new 40. 55 is 55. I get it. But the reality is that my life expectancy is greater than that of my father or his father – not simply that I may live longer, but the quality of life I experience in later years will hopefully be on a different level than what was possible in previous generations. With luck, and good science, me and my grandfather peers can and should take full advantage of this time bonus to be good grandpas in new ways, with more opportunities to instill the warm and enduring memories. Less decrepitude. More hiking mountains with our grandkids on our backs. More stories by the bonfire. More love.

This will be fun.

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On hearing the news

February 2014 Today my daughter Abigail shared the news that I am the grandfather of a heartbeat. The ultrasound image was pasted into a Valentine’s card A black and white…

February 2014

Today my daughter Abigail shared the news that I am the grandfather of a heartbeat.

The ultrasound image was pasted into a Valentine’s card

A black and white Rorschach, with one tiny hand reaching up as if to say, “Hello.”

The boulder of energy that struck my chest was both kind and playful

It whispered of future walks in a Vermont meadow

Me holding my grandchild’s hands up as she takes toddling steps through the tall grass

His gleeful laughter at how new and thrilling it is to be alive

Smeared peas and Cheerios soggy with milk on a highchair tray

And sitting together by the brook, staring in wonder and silence

At water spiders darting here and there.

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