There’s a lot to learn from the past. I grew up surrounded by adults most. I spent most of my days with my grandparents and their friends. I loved listening to their stories about growing up. They stories about my mom, stories about the war, stories about their storms in life and in marriage, and even the stories about when I was a baby.
The only person I liked to listen to more was my great-grandmother, who we called Grandmother. It was fun picturing my grandma as a little girl and hard to imagine the way the world worked back then. As I grew up, I spent less time on the floor at my Grandmother’s feet listening to stories and more time chasing boys. I married and had kids and before I knew it, Grandmother had died.
The stories didn’t all die with her, many survived in Grandma and her sisters. Even if they might not remember being there, they remember the way Grandmother told the story. Lately, I have been with Grandma and Grandpa more. Even though their memories are not what they should be, they can still share a story. Sometimes it means I have to fill the gaps with how I remember the story being told.
I visit them every Sunday, no matter what life throws at me. This sunday was no different, except for there was a surprise. One of Grandpa’s old friends, Jim, was there. It’s funny how they met. They grew up in the same small town, but never met. They knew who the other was, but had no relationship, until they joined the army.
After joining the army, they had to get to basic training. The army loaded them on a bus to head to the train station. It was on that bus ride they realized they could be friends. The train ride sealed the forever friends. They now have been friends about 62 years. They fought in the Korean War together, separate divisions, but never too far apart. They got married just months apart. Strangely enough, they both married women who were similar in looks, stature, and personality.
Just like when I was a kid, I sat on the floor and listened to story after story. In between the stories Grandpa would interject his protest on aging and our efforts to help him through this challenging stage. Jim argue how lucky Grandpa is to have someone to help him through this stage of life.
Grandpa started spewing his list of regrets, Jim stopped him. “Red, you can’t do that. We all do the best we can and we end up where we are supposed to be. You fought for your country, you married a beautiful woman, you worked all your life and raised a family, and now you’re old. There’s no shame in that. That’s a good life.”
Jim’s words were not lost on me. In fact, they instantly hit home. The first thing we do during a storm is look for blame. Often, we blame ourselves. We wonder if we could have done something different. Could we have chosen a different path? Should we have said this or not said that? We can’t get lost in changing history. No one can change what’s already happened. Storms come, without warning sometimes. Blaming someone, or questioning possible regrets leaves us locked in that spot. Locked in that pain. We have to let go of ‘should-ing’ ourselves so we can move on.
Jim followed his first profound statement to Grandpa with, ” Ya know, Red, it’s funny. Life seems really hard sometimes. When you are in the middle something terrible, it feels like the end of the world. When I look back now, they were just little blips on the map. Sure, it was hard then, but now, I can see it was just life. I look back and can remember how hard it was, but I can also see even in the worst times, there was good.”
I couldn’t say that anymore perfectly. Once again, I’m humbled. He’s right–completely right. Jim wasn’t saying every experience is the way we want it to be. He came from a generation of hardships. He fought in a foreign war. He saved lives and took lives. He knows what it’s like to suffer, to go through hard times. He even knows what it feels like to wonder if you’ll make it out alive. Yet, here he is, confirming that as bad as things seem now, you learn to live.
Jim knows, through my grandparents, what happened to Randy. I have only met Jim and his wife a handful of times, ever. We have never discussed what happened with Randy, how it has affected me, or how I feel now. Here he is, saying nearly exactly how I feel about what I went through. I know his words were not about me. The words were to help Grandpa deal with the effects of aging and life as it is now. Jim was just being a friend. His words of wisdom, of experience, resonated through the entire room.
Our elders are our history, America’s history. They lived life during a time we can only imagine. A time when life was never easy. People were poor. Families were large and they worked together to meet the needs of the family. Food was rationed and difficult to prepare. Diseases were rampant. Medicine was crude and life spans short. The storms they faced are unfathomable to younger generations. Even though it’s hard for us to understand exactly how difficult life might have been, our elders’ advice is clear. Jim’s words were clear. They made sense. They hit home. They were right.
Heed Jim’s advice. I think he’s on to something. Life is undetermined. We have no idea where it will take us. Life doesn’t knock or make appointments. It happens and we need to handle it the best we know. We need to learn, grow, and live.