Getting a book deal is exciting. Now comes the hard part — writing a good book. Writing is usually considered a solo endeavor, but in the case of Good Grandpa…
Getting a book deal is exciting. Now comes the hard part — writing a good book.
Writing is usually considered a solo endeavor, but in the case of Good Grandpa I know I can’t do this alone. I will be traveling around the U.S. and other countries to meet with grandpas from different backgrounds and cultures. I’m hunting for fascinating life stories that have powerful lessons built into them; unique cultural differences that make grandparenting experiences different from my own. And, most of all, finding anything that shines a light on the kind of wisdom that only comes with advancing years.
Instagram is populated with “influencers,” most often young and beautiful people hawking luxury handbags. I have nothing against youth and fashion. But I think it’s time for more influencers who are in their 60s to 90s and beyond.
Let’s influence people to bring about major societal changes that make the world a better place. And have fun along the way.
If you know of a grandpa with a story to tell and wisdom to share, here’s my email: email@example.com. I will do my best to respond to every email I receive.
Love to all,
P.S. Some people have asked me, “What about the grandmas?” I value grandmas equally, and I would not be half the man I am without my wife of 38 years. But I happen to be a grandpa so I can write from experience. A Good Grandma book would be great, written most authentically by a grandma.
In 1837 Nathaniel Gamage, Jr. became the second keeper of the Pemaquid Lighthouse in New Harbor, Maine. He and other lighthouse keepers up and down the New England coast were…
In 1837 Nathaniel Gamage, Jr. became the second keeper of the Pemaquid Lighthouse in New Harbor, Maine.
He and other lighthouse keepers up and down the New England coast were called “wickies,” named after the whale-oil soaked wicks of the lanterns they were tasked with trimming and keeping alight to alert ships nearing the rocky shore.
On a hot sunny September day 186 years later, a new group of travelers came to the lighthouse: my wife and I, along with Jack and Kalley Moore, their son Ryan (our son in law), and the two grandsons we have in common — Henry and Charlie. Jack, Ryan and the boys are all direct descendants of Nathaniel Gamage.
This was more than a typical tourist visit. It was more like a homecoming.
To say that the Pemaquid Lighthouse is iconic doesn’t do it justice. It sits atop a rise of granite high above the ocean, and on the day of our visit the white of the majestic tower was matched by the whitecaps of the waves stretching out across the horizon. Henry and Charlie scrambled over the rocks and darted around the throngs of visitors lining up to ascend up the lighthouse.
While we waited our turn in line, Jack let the State Park ranger know about the Moore family’s ancestral tie to the lighthouse. The lanky ranger was in his 60s, a retired cop with a thick Maine accent. As soon as he heard that not one but THREE generations of Gamage descendants were visiting his whole face lit up. Other people in line heard the news as well and we all joined in a lively conversation, with the park ranger sharing history and chatting with Henry and Charlie.
I brought the boys through the house attached to the lighthouse, now a museum. They were thrilled to see the artifacts on display, including the name of their great, great, great, great (at least this many greats) grandfather listed on a plaque.
Soon it was our turn to go up into the lighthouse. The stairs were narrow and steep, and we grandpas and grandmas ascended cautiously while the boys were eager to sprint.
There was just enough room at the top for our extended family. I think it’s fair to say we all felt a sense of wonder being there. The view was of course breathtaking, looking out through the glass to a panoramic and classic view of the Maine coastline.
In the center was the light, surrounded by our family. The brilliant sunshine hit the curved Fresnel glass lens and refracted around us.
We were there in the present, yet with a sense that the lighthouse itself was a beacon that shone across the years to the time of grandpa Gamage. I wondered what Nathaniel would have said if someone had told him that someday this visit would happen, that his future family would stop by in a few hundred years, with these amazing kids a testament to his legacy.
While I am not related to grandpa Gamage, he and I have the very best things in common: Henry and Charlie, and the joy of passing on a little bit of who we are to the next generations to come. For me, this was a shining, shimmering revelation.
After we’d very carefully descended the winding stairs, Ryan and the boys went down to the shore to walk and play along the rocks by the crashing waves. I could see them in the distance silhouetted against the water as the boys held up discovered shells for dad to see, or jumped from rock to rock, while seagulls swooped and soared above.
#1. Don’t wait for a global pandemic to live your best life.
For decades I slogged through heavy traffic to commute into Boston to work at the ad agency I co-founded, Captains of Industry. I thought that being successful meant having employees and a nice office. It wasn’t until the pandemic struck and we closed down the office that I realized the full depth of just how miserable I’d been for a long time. When we closed the office and I began working from my home in Vermont I felt like I’d been let out of jail. No commuting. No management hassles. This morning, like a lot of mornings, I woke at 5 and went for a long swim. After breakfast I read a book to my grandson, and now I’m in my home office. This is good. Very, very good.
#2. Make health your job.
When I was running my agency at our Boston office I was so stressed out my health went into a downward spiral. I will spare you the details, but let’s just say it was incredibly awful. These days I have a to-do list on Google docs and at the top is whatever workout I have planned for that day. I feel great, I’m twice as productive than I was a few years ago, and I make more money.
#3. Being kind is the best investment you can make.
Coming back to The Beatles (they are after all still my favorite band), they sang “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” I’ve learned this lyric actually underestimates the value of generous love and kindness. When I’m kind to others it’s always returned in greater measure. Plus, it’s the right thing to do.
#4. There is no such thing as a Red or Blue State.
Have you ever been to a family gathering when one of your relatives (let’s call him Steve) finally leaves and as soon as he’s gone you say to your spouse, “Jeeze, can you believe that guy? Was he raised by wolves?” Then, a few months later, something challenging happens in your life and Steve is the first to call and offer to help. That’s what America is. We have our differences, but at the end of the day we are one big family. Often dysfunctional, but a family nevertheless.
#5. Creative ideas are all around us.
We just have to listen to find them. The main barrier to creativity is the mental clammer that usually buzzes around in our minds. When I meditate, I gradually calm down the brain buzz, and when I reach a quieter and more focused state all kinds of creative ideas reveal themselves to me. The ideas have been there all along, like puppies pawing at a door, and when distraction is gone the door opens. I keep a pad of paper handy to write down what the puppies tell me.
#6. The best feature on your smart phone is airplane mode.
Related to point #5, turning off the phone helps prevent distraction — the top plague of modern life.
#7. People who want you to worry about eating red meat or Cheetos are unhealthy to be around.
We can’t eat these things every day in mass quantities, but let’s bust loose now and then and enjoy ourselves without stressing about it. Have you had Cheetos lately? Yes, the day-glow color of Cheetos does not exist in nature, and the ingredients will never appear in any cookbook. But come on, they are indescribably crunchy and yummy. And a good steak, right off the grill, is a recipe for happiness.
#8. Our perception of time is tied to the quality of stories.
As a writer, I focus on telling a good story and don’t worry about making it too long. Horrible 90-minute movies are interminable. The original Godfather, at nearly 3 hours, is a classic that goes by in the blink of an eye.
#9. People won’t laugh if they are confused.
This is something John Cleese told me when I wrote a script for him, and he’s right. I later asked him how this lesson related to the concept of medieval knights “riding” around banging coconuts together. Why would audiences not find that confusing? The answer of course was that in that particular off-kilter world it all made perfect sense. The reason why many comedies are not funny is that they fail to establish a consistent and understandable universe that doesn’t confuse the audience.
#10. We are all connected in ways science does not yet explain.
My late Aunt Lois used to tell the story of a man named Willard Haskell that she knew in high school. In the Second World War he was a pilot stationed in England. One night she had a vivid dream that he was flying overhead in a squadron of bombers and he was leaning out the window of the cockpit waving goodbye. When Lois woke up that morning she learned that the D-Day landings were underway. Two weeks later she found out that Willard’s plane had been shot down on D-Day, at the same time she had the dream. The lesson: All the people we know and love are always with us in a vast and interconnected web that transcends time and space.
#11. Never let anyone put artificial limits on what you can or should do.
10 lessons was the original limit here, but who cares. One of the best things about the movie “This is Spinal Tap” is that the band’s amplifier goes to 11. So, turn up the volume. Go beyond the expected. Have a ball. Life is too short for anything less.
It was an early morning in July 1918, cloudy with a strong wind blowing as the American pilot flew his Nieuport 28 biplane over Chamery, a hamlet of Coulonges-en-Tardenois not…
It was an early morning in July 1918, cloudy with a strong wind blowing as the American pilot flew his Nieuport 28 biplane over Chamery, a hamlet of Coulonges-en-Tardenois not far from the front lines. His mission: Scout out and shoot down German reconnaissance. The fields of France were lush and green below, expanding out to the horizon where a glimmer of sun shone through the clouds, with dark trenches coiled through the fields like venomous snakes.
The roar of the planes behind him was his first sign of trouble.
He turned with alarm to see three Fokker Chasse planes bearing down on him from above. He yanked the stick hard to maneuver and climb into a more favorable fighting position, hearing the rattling bursts of machine gun fire growing nearer. It was too late. Within seconds, he was shot twice in the back of the head. His plane turned over on its back and plunged to Earth.
Back home on Long Island, the young man’s father—former President Theodore Roosevelt—mourned deeply from afar. Roosevelt put on a brave face for the press, but many believed he was so heartbroken he never recovered, and died barely a year after his favorite son, Quentin.
In the same French skies that year was another American pilot, Lieutenant Frederick L. Fish. The son of a Vermont State Supreme Court justice, Fred was tall, with short-cut sandy brown hair, a long face with an aquiline nose and clear grey-blue eyes. As he flew, Fred looked down at the battle below, a muddy moonscape of devastation, trenches separated by undulating piles and pits from shell blasts, shattered tree trunks pointing at twisted angles.
Fred pulled the trigger. But instead of firing a machine gun, he was snapping the shutter of a camera mounted to his plane, photographing enemy positions to provide intelligence to army headquarters. Fred was smart. Resourceful. Brave. Lucky as hell.
Fred was also my grandfather.
After the war, Fred Fish became a successful salesman, and in middle age became a Colonel in the Air Force in WWII to help organize allied resources for the D-Day landings.
I got to know Gramp very well, thankfully, when I was a teenager working for him to help manage and clean his rental cottages on our family farm along the shores of Lake Willoughby in Vermont’s remote Northeast Kingdom. The five-mile-long lake was formed when a glacier bore down from the North, cutting a deep trough in the land and splitting one big mountain in two—Mt. Pisgah and Mt. Hor—with steep rock cliffs that slope down to the deep lake waters. The family’s rental cottages, all painted red with white trim, lined a sandy beach and hugged the banks of a brook that flowed from Westmore mountain.
Even then, in the 1970s, Gramp had a commanding presence.
Though bent with age, he was still tall at six foot two, and was quite comfortable giving orders and seeing that they were obeyed without question. He was usually dressed head to toe in khaki, including a cap, and would fix me with his clear eyes and tell me to do this (empty buckets of sewage out of a septic well) or that (rake the beach). Or the Sisyphean task of cleaning the cottages in-between rentals using an upright vacuum that had terrible suction. “You missed a spot!”
I can picture him now vividly as he kicked back at the end of a long day, drinking a Miller High Life in the yard behind the Farmhouse. “Teddy,” he’d say, “there’s no substitute for hard work.”
Gramp lived into his mid-eighties, always active and full of life. He sang hymns in Church, delighting everyone with his vibrant baritone voice. Often down at the beach he’d break into yet another chorus of his favorite song, The Foggy Foggy Dew.
Why does the fact that Gramp survived two wars and lived a long life matter? Why did it matter to him, and—for the purposes of this story—why did it matter to me, my brothers and cousins? Just as important, why did his very nature as a grandfather matter to us, complete with his many tales of adventure and shared wisdom?
It turns out it matters a lot. Not just in the case of my Gramp, but for all grandpas and our loved ones here in America and around the world. The reasons are rooted in the history of humanity itself.
Early humans lived lives that Thomas Hobbes best described as “Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Fossil records indicate that our very earliest ancestors 30,000 years ago lived to about the age of 30. Which meant very few lived long enough to become grandparents. Scientists aren’t sure why Upper Paleolithic Europeans started to live longer into relatively old age, but they surmise that the changes brought about by this longevity had a profound impact on evolution.
When more grandparents came on the scene, things started to change for the better.
“Grandparents,” an article in Scientific American informs us, “contribute economic and social resources to their descendants, increasing both the number of offspring their children can have and the survivorship of their grandchildren.” In other words, having grandpa and grandma hanging out in the cave meant they were there to help raise the kids and dole out essential knowledge. Grandparents could teach, from experience, how to plant seeds to get the best crops. Or a thousand other things that helped the family survive and thrive.
Gramp’s habit of telling stories ladled with wisdom is likely a key reason why several of my four older brothers survived into adulthood.
Here’s one story out of many that shows how Gramp made a difference.
It was Easter, 1969, a lovely spring day in Lexington, Massachusetts, when my family—mom, dad and brothers—loaded into the station wagon and headed over to my grandparents’ house across town for the traditional late afternoon feast of ham, potatoes, peas, pies and handfuls of chocolate Easter eggs.
I was 10 at the time, while my eldest brother, Calvin, was twenty-one, and Charlie, nineteen. Both draft age for Vietnam. Photos taken that day seem inked in pastel hues, all of us in jackets and ties, young and pink-faced.
The war was not far away. Every night we watched Walter Cronkite on the evening news and there was always a tally of the men who had died in Vietnam. My parents were very much against the war and were not shy about saying so. Dad was no stranger to war, having been divebombed by kamikazes at the battle of Okinawa. He often said war was the stupidest thing he’d ever seen, and Vietnam only confirmed his beliefs. He did his part to serve his country but suffered lifelong PTSD. I once witnessed my mom give him food in a red dish, and when he saw the color red he clenched his teeth and screamed, “Blood!”
Having seen dad’s post-war stress up close, Calvin and Charlie were nervous about the draft; there was a lot of nail biting going on.
Calvin was still a bit on the fence, though, about whether he’d go to Vietnam if his draft number came up. He’d been in ROTC and was better prepared than most of his peers to fight. Both my parents hated Richard Nixon. My Gramp and Gram, however, were lifelong Republicans through and through. Even if Nixon wasn’t perfect, they would always support whoever led the Grand Old Party.
After we’d gorged ourselves on Gram’s multi-course dinner, we retired to the living room. Somehow the topic of Vietnam came up. My grandparents never said a word about Vietnam, which is why what Gramp said that day was so astonishing.
Gramp held court in his chair, center stage, while we young men sat nearby in respectful silence. “Well, boys,” Gramp said, “when I went to war the first time, in World War I, they told us it was the war to end all wars. Then came World War II don’t you know, and we had to go back and fight another one. Then there was Korea. And now there’s Vietnam.”
Here Gramp gestured one long hand in the air for emphasis, “All I can tell you is, it’s always the old men who start wars, and it’s the young men who are sent off to fight them.”
None of us said a word in response, but heads nodded. We knew exactly what Gramp’s opinion of Vietnam was without him ever having to be explicit or betray his Republican principles. None of my brothers chose to fight in Vietnam.
Only a man who’d flown above the trenches in France, then returned to Europe to fight again not too long after, and only a man who loved his grandsons more than anything, had the moral credence, love and wisdom required to tell us what he did. My brothers and I lived on to have children and grandchildren of our own.
What are lessons that I and other grandparents can impart to help nourish the next great generation? What role does wisdom play in survival and happiness?
In future posts, I’ll offer up some ideas. Not only mine, but gems of wisdom I’ve heard from other grandparents. If you have suggestions or would like to write a guest post, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peter Pan protested that he would not grow up. In the island of Neverland, he and Wendy could live a never-ending adventure filled with pirates, fairies and crocodiles, and they…
Peter Pan protested that he would not grow up. In the island of Neverland, he and Wendy could live a never-ending adventure filled with pirates, fairies and crocodiles, and they could fly.
As a grandfather, I’ve rediscovered my inner boy, that eternal Peter Pan that never really left me but was hidden from my vision for a while. I become Peter again when I’m building a cave out of couch cushions with my grandkids. Venomous snakes hunt across the jungle floor (the living room) in search of prey. A pterodactyl (me) swoops down and darkens the sky, talons reaching towards the mouth of the cave as the helpless little ones scream with laughter.
Childhood is indeed a magical place, but as parents and grandparents we know all too well that it doesn’t last forever.
When I was very little, I remember my dad would hold me up and rub my face against the stubble of his early morning beard, the sandpaper-like feel of it making me giggle. Then one day when I was older, he picked me up and was about to do what he’d always done, but I stopped him and said, “I don’t like that anymore.” He looked very sad. At the time I didn’t understand why.
But I do now.
As a grandpa, I’m experiencing time with a sense of increasing acceleration.
My eldest grandson is now 9, and the time between when I held that baby boy and the long-limbed seemingly pre-teen he is today, the one who is able to tackle me to the floor quite effectively, passed in the blink of a crocodile’s eye. And with this rapid passage of time I’ve become more aware than ever of the little changes I see in my grandkids, the moments I see them emerging from Neverland, sometimes in small steps, other times in giant leaps.
There’s great joy in seeing them progress upward in life (and all of them very tall, like me). Yet I feel an almost indescribable sadness when I see them leaving their own childhoods behind. A sadness that the magic I have witnessed—and rediscovered—is fleeting.
It’s one thing to experience this as a parent. As a grandpa, the emotions are all the more poignant because I know this is my last rodeo.
Each step that I see them take into adulthood has an air of personal finality for me because I know I will only see this once. And may not live long enough to see them have children of their own. This is it.
I recently had one of these joy/sadness moments on a Sunday morning. My son came over with his two girls to hang out and eat too many bagels, one of our favorite weekend activities.
Like most grandparents, my wife I read a lot to our grandkids. Whether it’s Goodnight Moon, or searching once again for the elusive rainbow elephant, we’re always reaching for another book. No matter what’s going on, or which grandchild is with us, we’ll ask if they’d like to read a book, and another, and another.
On this particular Sunday, I was in the living room with our youngest granddaughter, not yet 2 years old. She’s a very bright girl, cute and always fearlessly active (rock walls? Yes!) and highly focused on building Magna-Tile structures or whatever toy is before her. I was sitting in my leather chair, enjoying watching her bustle about. The sun was shining through multiple windows, filling the room with a bright, warm feeling. She was snapping Legos together, quietly figuring out what pieces would fit.
Then she looked up at me with her big brown eyes, picked up a book and held it toward me, and asked, “Would you like to read a book?”
I was startled. This very young girl, still in diapers and barely beyond infancy, had just formed a complete sentence, and the look on her face was suddenly so grown-up, so girl versus baby, that the joy/sadness of the moment struck me with full force. The part of me that was in the room then, fully present with my granddaughter, replied, “Yes, I would love to read a book.”
The other part of me, this boy inside who never, ever wanted to grow up, was flying with Wendy hand in hand through the night sky, the wind in my hair, heading home.
Second star to the right and straight on ’til morning.
Like so many Americans I was completely horrified by the storming of our nation’s capital on January 6th. This, I thought, was the modern-day equivalent of the sacking of Rome…
Like so many Americans I was completely horrified by the storming of our nation’s capital on January 6th.
This, I thought, was the modern-day equivalent of the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths. The end of the American empire, at our own hands, no less. The people throwing fire extinguishers at the capitol police wore red, white and blue outfits. All for the purpose of Making America Great Again, as if this violence was a return to our better days. I absolutely hated the rioters, and still do.
But if I am to be truly honest with myself, I’d admit that not everyone there that day was a violent extremist rioter.
There were moms and dads pushing their kids in strollers. They, too, wore red, white and blue outfits. It was like they were at some kind of picnic, a patriotic event. And why would they think they were not? The President of the United States had told them the election was being stolen and it was up to them to do something about it.
Since that day I’ve done a lot of thinking about the deep divisions in American society and what can be done about it. On issue after issue we Americans are at each others’ throats trying to strangle some sense into the idiots who hold an opposing view.
And all the while these issues have been boiling over, with people shouting on Fox News or CNN, our tribal echo chambers of conservative and liberal media, I’ve been writing for this blog about grandparenting. The purpose of Good Grandpa remains to help nurture the next great generation. It occurs to me that this mission sounds rather lofty, but it’s vague on how to actually get the job done. How do we as grandparents help our kids raise a generation of Americans who can far surpass even “the greatest generation” that Tom Brokaw wrote about in his book; my parents’ generation that lived through the depression and won World War II?
That’s a tall order, isn’t it?
So, here’s a specific thing we can do. Whether we are Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, we can introduce our grandchildren to an extremely important three-word phrase: “I respectfully disagree.”
Try saying that out loud. Let it roll around in your mind. Have you heard anyone say this on cable TV in the last 20 years? No, because ratings are based on conflict, not respectful disagreement.
Just because a Republican doesn’t agree with me doesn’t make them a bad person, and visa versa. If we can get our grandchildren, the 5 and 12 year olds, to take this one guiding principle to heart, it’s something they will bring with them into their adult lives, into the workplace, and into politics. Our grandchildren can be a unifying force, a common American ground.
Instead of a million man or woman march on Washington with people screaming at each other with bullhorns, let’s have a million toddler stroll, with grandparents leading the way as we bring the kids together to celebrate just that. Being together.
If you look at the news you see constant talk of red states and blue states. I frankly think it’s BS. Whether someone is from Kansas or Vermont, if they have grandkids they have something absolutely wonderful in common. These kids are the future, which means they have the potential to be the America they we all have wished for, those better angels of our nature that Lincoln spoke of.
Feel free to disagree—respectfully—but I think we can do this. What say you?
When you get to be sixty-two like me, or somewhere in this neck of the woods, you’re used to hearing things like, “Where does the time go?” Or, when we…
When you get to be sixty-two like me, or somewhere in this neck of the woods, you’re used to hearing things like, “Where does the time go?” Or, when we talk about our four grandchildren, “They’re growing up so fast!” My wife and I have a weird sense of time these days, with different recollections of when things in the past happened.
We’ll be thinking about when something occurred (a kid going off to college or whatever) and one of us will say, “It was the year we had the house painted. Twelve years ago.”
“That wasn’t twelve years ago!” the other says, “That was twenty years ago!”
“Was it? Oh yea, you’re right.”
It’s not that we’re losing our minds. It’s that the ship we are traveling on through time experiences warp speed without us every exclaiming “Make it so!”
So, sometimes we don’t notice when a decade whips past. And yet the most recent stretch of time during the pandemic has felt like two of the very longest years ever. Have you ever noticed that really, really good movies that are three hours long seem like they’re over in an hour, while terrible ninety-minute movies last an eternity? Our perception of time is all relative to our experiences. Life is just another story we just happen to be living.
I am writing this from our farm in the far reaches of Vermont in a place called the Northeast Kingdom. The locals joke that July and August are two months of bad sledding. It’s one of those funny/not funny jokes because winter here is in fact interminable, with snow not uncommon in May. Often, nothing seems to change for many days in a row. We look out the window most mornings in March to see snow falling.
Yet when I really pay attention, I can see spring trying to rise up and find me.
Last week I went on one of my daily walks through the woods, along a rushing brook, and there in front of me was something startling: a bright green fern sprouting up and out in all directions. I found it strikingly beautiful, perhaps because it was in the middle of a very cold forest full of ice and snow. In a few weeks, or maybe a month, the lilacs along our deck will extend their limbs as if stretching for the first time after their long sleep.
Seeing these snapshots within my life’s story is like a time stamp, a reminder that this is not really one big blur going past — not if we take the time to pause and look.
I think of this when I see my grandchildren, in person or on Instagram,….
…My eldest grandchild, a seven year old boy now, in a picture where his arms are so long he looks like a teenager. He’s perched on my shoulders, smiling from ear to ear, on top of the world.
I see this same boy holding my three-year old granddaughter’s hand as they walk through the halls of an aquarium surrounded my luminescent fish. Cousins and buddies already! Wow.
I see my youngest granddaughter, barely one year old, saying my daughter’s name for the first time, “Ab-i-gail!”
I see my youngest grandson, age five, helping my daughter chop vegetables, dressed in his Ninja costume and using what appears to be a Samurai blade.
I hear the sound of a grandson laughing as I launch him like a rocket off my shoulders while standing in Lake Willoughby in August, and see him flailing through space before splashing down; as soon as he’s surfaced he’s shouting, “Do that again! Higher!”
Experiencing these moments fully, examining them as the jewels they truly are, doesn’t slow the rushing time of life’s narrative—because, as I said, good stories do seem to go by faster—but added together they create a mosaic that transcends a ticking clock. The picture is grand and breathtaking.
And while I’m working every mental muscle to see the NOW, I’m also looking back on occasion because that helps put the present in context. This blog has helped me tell stories that have formed a kind of time capsule, for my readers and for myself. Today I read again the very first post I wrote. Here it is:
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.
What are things you are experiencing now that form your own story and colorful mosaic? If you’re a grandparent, how do these experiences enrich your life? Please feel free to share your thoughts through posting a comment.
I first experienced double vision in 2019 during an intensely stressful period at work around the holidays. I had a weird virus of some kind (back when the term virus…
I first experienced double vision in 2019 during an intensely stressful period at work around the holidays.
I had a weird virus of some kind (back when the term virus had far tamer connotations than today), and my entire body broke out in a horrible itchy rash. Days later, while driving, I saw with alarm that the sidewalk on the right side of the road was now at an angle across the middle of the road. An eye specialist soon found the culprit: the 6th cranial nerve behind my left eye had gone on vacation, perhaps because of the virus. This particular nerve is in charge of the lateral movement of the eye, so while I had—and still have—two perfectly healthy eyes, they don’t look in the same direction. My primary doctor emailed nonchalantly, “We rarely know what causes it, and it usually goes away.”
He was right. While I was deeply alarmed that my vision had gone to hell, within about three months I was fully back to normal. I thought all that was behind me.
I was wrong.
On a sunny September day a few weeks ago I started seeing double again. The angle of the roadway was all off, and with the Picasso-like modernism of my multiple vision came a sudden torrent of sheer panic. I put on my reading glasses and looked at my computer screen, and there, too, was double vision. Doing my work as a writer was doubly hard if not impossible. Worst of all, the bizarre vision made me dizzy and nauseous.
My eye doctor confirmed that my 6th cranial nerve was not working properly. And this time I am being referred to a neurologist. In the absence of high blood pressure or diabetes, both of which can cause sudden vision changes, I did not fit the profile of those with double vision.
Doctors are by nature wary of telling patients all the things that can actually be wrong.
They don’t want us to freak out. That’s what the Internet is for. The WebMD site indicates that the 6th cranial nerve can have problems due to things like a brain tumor, stroke, or MS. Of course, the site also explained, it usually goes away within a few months. The neurologist will no doubt have me get a brain scan to check for these things.
And in the meantime, life goes on. I see my body as a ship carrying me through time and space. At any given moment there might be one or more things wrong (a sore tendon in my foot, for example). Like Scotty on Star Trek, I’m dispatched to fix the problem, and I’m usually pleased to report back—in a Scottish brogue—that it won’t be easy but it will get done. It has to.
So the repairs keep happening while I’m hurtling at warp speed through life, working with clients, spending time with my wife and (most important for both of us) being with our four grandchildren.
Fear stalks anyone who hears the word “brain tumor.” But, I’ve told myself, this is what we all sign up for when we are born.
Our little newborn baby hands are too small to hold the pen on the contract that must be initialed as soon as we emerge from the womb, but the contract is binding nevertheless. It states unequivocally that we must accept with grace the good and the bad, the joy and the pain, the love and heartache.
I have a friend who lost a young son to a brain tumor. It was and is horribly sad. He was far too young to be taken from this world. I, on the other hand, am 62. If my number is up (and to be clear, I don’t believe it is), I can have no complaints. How many men get to enjoy being with not just one, but four grandchildren? As my dad used to say, “This is all grace.” There is no alternative to keeping calm and carrying on.
And so it was that within days of meeting with the eye specialist I found myself at fabled Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts.
I started a regimen back in the spring that entailed mile-long swims four or five days a week. Thanks to swimming and dietary changes I have lost twenty-five pounds since June, and I wasn’t about to stop for anything.
The air was cool—about 60 degrees—the leafy trees along the water’s edge were just beginning to turn red, yellow and orange. I took off the glasses I use that blocks the vision of my left eye so I can see straight with my right eye, and put on my swimming goggles.
Goggles themselves are rarely clear, so putting them on and seeing the familiar blur of the water-splotched plastic lenses was calming, like a visual white noise that partly obscured the reality of my double vision. I jumped forward into the cold water and swam hard and fast, thrusting my arms forward and back, the shock of the cold gradually easing as the exercise warmed me and the waters washed over and around and under me, propelled forward with the knowledge of my potential doom chasing behind, or perhaps it was simply the joy of being in my element again, doing something regular and healthy in defiance of my dysfunctional cranial nerve and the fear of the insidious brain tumor strangling it unseen inside by skull.
My hands pounded in the water, pulling back again and again until I needed a rest, and there in the center of the one-mile long pond I switched from the crawl stroke to the less strenuous sidestroke. Doing the sidestroke, you float on your side, one eye in the water, the other above, coordinating arms reaching and pulling while scissoring the legs.
On my side, the edge of the pond came into starker view.
A painting of fall leaves seen laterally, with the blue sky above and the dark pond below. And with my cranial nerve on sabbatical, the scene was repeated one over the other.
Henry David Thoreau famously spent a year camped beside the pond when writing his seminal work, Walden. As he once wrote in his journal, “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.”
There in my double pond on that day, I saw my life.
Not a “life flashing before your eyes” vision but more of a meditation on this whole experience. I think if Thoreau were alive today he’d be one of the people on the beach with his iPhone turned off, or better yet left in the car. When we are really alone with our uninterrupted thoughts we see more clearly. The noise of everyday life is a distraction. Seeing a double shoreline, I knew then, was weird but ok at the same time. I told God that if this is what he wanted me to experience, I was “all in.” I would see both shores and their myriad fall colors. Because accepting whatever comes and letting it flow through my body and mind like the cool waters around me was a way to acknowledge that the pain and anxiety and beauty were inseparable and inevitable.
It’s the contrast between the dark sadness and vivid, beautiful happiness that makes all the good things in life so much better.
Intermingled with my prayer, I saw a memory (captured in my mind like a perfect photo) of my two grandsons, age 7 and 5, running across the beach at our place in Vermont. In the background was the deep blue lake and evergreen mountains, and the boys were looking up excitedly at the sky because an eagle was there not more than fifty yards overhead flying north, and they shouted “the eagle!”
In that memory was the awareness that life is just as finite as this second. The perfect alignment of eagle, grandsons, a glorious summer day. Here, now.
Chances are, the neurologist will find nothing alarming in my brain scan. My 6th cranial nerve will tire of its extended vacation and come back to work with renewed vigor. My perfect vision will return. Or it might return for the most part but I’ll need to wear glasses like most people.
But no matter what happens, I hope I can learn from Mr. Thoreau. I’ll keep swimming right up until the pond freezes over (I have a wetsuit, after all). And if I learn very well, then I will know that it’s not about what I look at that matters, but what I really and truly see.
Author’s note: This summer as I rejoin my family at Willoughby Farm in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom I’m reminded of my grandfather. Often when I walk down to the shore and…
Author’s note: This summer as I rejoin my family at Willoughby Farm in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom I’m reminded of my grandfather. Often when I walk down to the shore and hear the rustling brook that runs through the farm to the lake I’m brought back to a sunny day many years ago when I was helping Gramp with a chore that taught me valuable lessons. Here’s a story excerpted from my book, The Willoughby Chronicles.
I’m lying on the beach reading a Hardy Boys book and Chet’s in the middle of a speedboat race. The sun on my back feels great. I’m not quite hot enough to jump in the lake, but I’m getting there.
“Teddy!” It’s Gramp. Oh, shit, I think, he’s found me. I’m 12 and under his employ this summer to help take care of the family’s rental cottages and land by the shores of Willoughby Lake. When I’m needed, I have to help. That’s it. And there’s no point trying to complain with Gramp. A biplane pilot in the First World War, he flew reconnaissance missions to photograph the enemy lines. In the Second World War, by then a full colonel, he helped Eisenhower prepare the Allies for the invasion of Normandy, checking supplies, stocking warehouses, and generally making sure all the i’s were dotted and t’s crossed.
This is a man who knows how to get the job done.
He’s used to having his orders followed. Even now, bent with 70 years of living, Gramp’s presence is commanding. He’s tall, with a prominent nose and sharp eyes shaded by his long-brimmed khaki cap.
“Yes, Gramp?” I say.
“Teddy, there you are. I need your help in the brook.”
Gramp is leaning his weight against a thick steel crowbar longer than he is. I can’t imagine what could be wrong with the brook, but all I can manage to say is, “Sure, Gramp.” I put on an old pair of sneakers and follow him.
The brook is always cold, even on the hottest days of August. Cedar and birch trees lean over the banks and shade the clear water and the tumble of rocks. Some rocks are thick with a cushy green moss, some are polished by the current. On either side of the brook, tucked beneath tall pines, my grandparents have built barn-red cottages with fieldstone fireplaces and views of the lake—rental cottages that have to be cleaned each week in preparation for a new crop of summer tenants. Today, Gramp stands on the bank of the brook and hands the long steel bar down to me. I’m up to my ankles in the freezing water, still wondering what on earth Gramp is up to. He peers down into the water, one hand behind his back. “Now Teddy,” he says, “all we have to do is move that rock over to there.”
“This one?” I ask, pointing the heavy crowbar at a boulder that must be 400 pounds.
“Yes, move it over to there.”
He doesn’t answer. My grandfather must be getting senile; that’s the only explanation. But senile or not, I better do as he says. So I try to lift up one edge of the boulder with my bare hands. It’s like trying to budge a mountain.
“No, no,” Gramp says testily, “use the bar. Get under it.”
I use the bar as a lever, and with much gasping and grunting I move the rock about four inches.
“That’s it, you’re getting it. Keep at it, Teddy, keep at it.”
I grunt more, I push, I heave. Sweat covers every inch of my body except my ankles, which are soaking in ice water. After a half hour or so I manage to shimmy the boulder over to the side of the bank. Finally, I can get back to my book, or maybe take a swim.
“That’s just dandy,” Gramp says. “Wonderful. Just dandy. We’re almost done. Now all we have to do is move that rock there, yes—no, that one right there—yes, we have to move that rock over to there.”
The rock he’s pointing at looks like something out of Stonehenge.
I stare at it for a second, imagining Druids performing ceremonies at its base. My protest is breathy and worthless. “That’s an awfully big rock, Gramp.”
“You can do it,” Gramp says. “Just move it over to there and we’ll be almost done.”
It’s always this way with Gramp, I realize—no matter where you are with a job, even if you’ve just started, you’re almost done. It’s a mental trick you can pull on yourself. But I am not done. I have to move this boulder, and that one, and that one, and that one, and this one, and that one, and my hands are soggy and raw from hauling at the rough, wet rocks; my toes are banged up and spongy; I’m an exhausted, sweaty, mindless mess, and all I have to do is move this other rock over to there, and that will be just dandy and we’ll be almost done.
At long last, after seven hours in the brook, Gramp looks me in the eye and says, “Teddy, there’s no substitute for hard work.”
I smile and look down into the shady water. The current is swift and straight right through the center of the brook. And the banks are lined with sturdy boulders that will prevent erosion of the valuable land. This year the spring floods will do no harm. Gramp adjusts his cap and walks off with the crowbar. “Just dandy,” he says. “Wonderful. We’re all done.”
What are lessons you learned from your grandparents? Please post a comment below with a lesson or two so we can learn from each other and help nurture the next great generation.
This Memorial Day I am celebrating two towering figures in my life and the unforgettable wisdom they shared with me. My grandfather, Frederick Fish (always Gramp to me), was an…
This Memorial Day I am celebrating two towering figures in my life and the unforgettable wisdom they shared with me.
My grandfather, Frederick Fish (always Gramp to me), was an American pilot in World War I. His job was to fly over the trenches and take photographs that could be used for military intelligence – a pioneering use of what became known as aerial reconnaissance. I remember seeing a picture he’d taken over Verdun (one of the more notorious battlefields), showing a hellscape of shell craters and smashed trees. Gramp was tall, with an aquiline nose and piercing eyes, always eager to tell stories or sing a song, one hand behind his back while the other accentuated his words like a conductor. In World War II he became a colonel in the Air Force, stationed in England.
My grandfather, Fred Fish, in World War I.
My father, William (Bill) Page, studied radar in grad school at Harvard and put his knowledge of the nascent technology to use as a lieutenant aboard the U.S.S. Burleigh, an attack transport ship in the Pacific theater in World War II.
On the rare occasions when dad talked about his war experiences, he’d recount the horrors of the battle of Okinawa.
His long face would get a steely, almost detached look as he told of his ship being dive-bombed by kamikazes, the men shouting for smoke to shroud the ship, seeing the planes hurtling towards the ship—so close he could see the fanatical eyes of the pilots—the deafening explosions, a leg floating in the water. I never fully realized just how traumatized dad was by all this throughout his life, an inner demon that would show itself unexpectedly. The color red sometimes made him unhinged with terror. I remember once my mom handing him a bowl of cereal in a red bowl; his face became a horrible mask of clenched teeth and deeply furrowed brow and intense glaring eyes and he shouted, “Blood! Blood!”
My dad (back row, 6th from the right) aboard the U.S.S. Burleigh 1945.
Gramp and my dad were very different people. Gramp was a lifelong Republican, a salesman, a football fan and fisherman. My dad was an intellectual Democrat, a chemical engineer who read voraciously. But through their very different stories ran a shared thread of wisdom that became woven into my memory and thoughts on war.
When I asked my dad what his takeaway was from all his experiences, he looked very thoughtful for a minute, then said quietly, “There’s always a way to rationalize cruelty.”
Dad felt terrible guilt over the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even though the bombings may have shortened the war (and he might have died in an invasion of Japan), there was simply no justification for incinerating children. “War was the stupidest thing I’d ever seen,” he’d say.
Gramp’s thoughts on war were less direct, but just as powerful.
One Easter Day in 1969 we gathered at my grandparents’ house, stuffed ourselves on ham, potatoes, peas—and many pieces of pie—then sat in the living room of their ranch house. Gramp was a master at holding court, sitting in his wing-backed chair, while all around him sat me, my four older brothers, and three cousins (two of them young men). We wore jackets and ties. Somehow the topic of the Vietnam War came up.
“Boys,” Gramp said, “Let me tell you. I was in France in World War I. Well, they called that ‘the War to End All Wars.’ But that wasn’t the end of it. World War II came and we had to go back and fight again.” He raised a finger and wagged it, “You’d think that would have been the last one, but then we had Korea. And now we have Vietnam.” He looked at us intently, all these boys and young men gathered around listening in rapt attention.
“All I can tell you,” Gramp said, “is that it’s always the old men who start wars, and the young men who are sent off to fight them.”
Gramp never told us not to go to Vietnam. Two of my older brothers were eligible to volunteer or be drafted. I was too young. But everyone in the room drew their own conclusion.
Here’s my take. To honor our veterans, I mean really honor them—not just say the words “Thank you for your service,” we need to listen to them. Through hearing their stories and sharing them with our children and grandchildren, we can find the peace that every generation has longed for, and perhaps in the process create the greatest generation of all.