Life lessons from a caring grandfather

The grandfather who took an active role in her childhood remains a model for one mom as she builds a family of her own.

Alex Brandon/AP/FILE
Another proud grandfather: Snigdha Nandipati, right, 14, of San Diego, reacts with her grandfather, Mallikarjanrao Chalavadi, from India, after winning the National Spelling Bee with the word "guetapens" in Oxon Hill, Md. in 2012.

Experts often urge parents to live in the moment. To cherish every part of parenthood because our kids will be grown and gone before we know it.

But when we are caught in the middle of temper tantrums, potty training or teen rebellion – sometimes we just want that moment to be over. It’s hard to picture that empty nest – years in the future – while mired in the issue of the day.

What if we turned the current wisdom on its head and took the long view? What is it that you want your kids to remember from their childhoods when they are grown? You could even take the really long view and think about what your children will say about you at your funeral.

I had the opportunity to ponder this while writing a eulogy for my grandfather, who passed away last spring at the age of ninety-four. I brainstormed by writing down my memories: my “Pappy” teaching me to ride a bike, swing a hammer, and how to catch tadpoles in a jar.

After living through the Great Depression and growing up on a farm, he had a wealth of esoteric knowledge. He taught me how to clean corrosion off of my car’s battery with Coca-Cola and an old toothbrush, and even how to block a hand-knitted scarf with a steam iron. 

I don’t remember Pappy ever missing a dance recital, or any other important event in my life. He was always there, movie camera in hand, filming for posterity and – of course – later opportunities to embarrass me. Because Pappy took early retirement and both of my parents worked long hours, he was the one who drove me to orthodontist appointments and dropped me off at dance class.

Even during the year I was overseas as a high school exchange student, I felt his presence through his sign off in my Grandmother’s weekly letters: "Pappy says to keep your chin up and we love you."

We argued often. We disagreed on just about everything; religion, politics, race relations, and social issues. But, no matter what I did – or said – he supported me in a steadfast, loving way. He even flew from Oklahoma to California to attend the ceremony when I converted to Catholicism as an adult, even though as a Deacon in his Southern Baptist church, that wouldn’t have been his choice for me.

Perhaps the biggest test of his love for me was when I – a Midwestern white girl – dated a black guy. This was over 20 years ago, and Pappy grew up during segregation. Romantic relations between races were – in his day – unheard of. But he was willing to try and accept this because he loved me. I’m sure that I have no real comprehension of how truly difficult this was for him.

The phrase that kept coming up in my mind as I worked on Pappy’s eulogy was “He was there.” That was my most prominent memory of him. Not of our arguments. Not of our opposite political and social views. That he was there.

It made me think about my own kids, and ask myself how they will remember me. I realized that maybe instead of fretting over the small stuff with our kids, we should just be there. Be the one our kids lean on, a safety net, a source of comfort and support. 

As I stood at the podium at my Pappy’s funeral, that is what I said. I hope that when I am gone, that my children and grandchildren will say the same of me. I was there.

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