Sunday, January 24, 2010

Reflections on My Grandfather: Memories and Lost Opportunities

We stood at the door of my grandfather’s house, a country rancher on a horse farm in north central Ohio. My parents had been driving all day, three children and a dog in tow, so that we could make our annual summer visit to my mother’s father and her stepmom. It was dark outside and no porch light was on, when we rang the door bell. We stood there waiting, and waited some more, until it seemed like five or six minutes went by. Are they home? They are expecting us, aren’t they? Finally, my grandfather came to the door. “Oh, hi Janie,” he said to my mom impassively, “How are you?”

As a young boy, not more than eight years old, this was confusing. I was excited to arrive at my grandfather’s house. I knew that my brother and I would have a great time there, running up and down the long dirt-drive that connected the two horse barns; petting the horses while sneaking them sugar cubes and carrots; and hitting fly balls to each other in the open expanse of grass behind Grandpa’s granite back porch and goldfish pond. But Grandpa never seemed very glad to see us. Maybe he loved all of us and simply had a hard time showing it. He was not a man who expressed emotions freely; a lawyer and shrewd businessman, he had made good money in construction and real estate over the years, had two oil wells on his property, and at one time owned more than 30 thoroughbred race horses. Despite his wealth and good fortune, he did not share much of it with his family. When my father asked him for a small loan shortly after marrying my mom in the early 1950’s so that he could purchase a car, my grandfather declined, stating that his money “was all tied up.” When he died, he left my mom and her two brothers very little, instead passing almost all of his net worth onto his second wife, my Aunt Jean, a woman of independent means who would eventually leave it all to distant relatives (she had no children of her own).

He was not much of a father to my mom nor much of a grandfather to her children. Only once in my lifetime did he ever visit us. When I was six years old, he stopped by our house in southern New Jersey wearing his custom bow tie and fedora, said hello and sat on the living room couch for ten minutes, then continued to Atlantic City, where he was entering one of his horses in a stakes race. I sensed that he never greatly valued my mom as a daughter, though perhaps this was a reflection of his old-fashioned tastes and outdated, traditional views on the inferior roles of women. My mom and he had very little in common; she had long since expanded beyond her days as a boarding student at the prestigious Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights, where Grandpa sent her throughout her teen years. She had developed into a liberal Democrat and devout Christian, while he remained very conservative in his politics and had little connection to whatever semblance of faith he may have retained. He was a country club Republican who viewed the world from very narrow lenses, with little sympathy for the less fortunate and little tolerance for people different than himself.

Despite this, now that he has been gone for nearly three decades, I sometimes wish that he had lived longer, so that I could have talked to him as an adult and gotten to know him better. I would have liked to have discussed areas of mutual interest – the law, politics, and even horse racing. He and Jennifer, my oldest daughter, might have bonded over horses – maybe he could have helped make real her dream of one day training race horses. I could have learned a lot from my grandfather, despite his significant shortcomings. As with so much of life, we can only wonder.

In reality, I know very little about my grandfather’s life. Although he graduated with a law degree in the early 1920’s and used his legal training to assist him in his business endeavors, he died during my first year in law school. I never had a chance to talk with him in depth about the law as a profession. Had he lived longer, maybe he would have been proud to have a grandson who became a federal prosecutor. I would have liked to have talked to him about my courtroom experiences, about the art of cross examination and arguing to judges and juries. I have always been a little envious of my colleagues who had family members in the law, who could turn to fathers and grandfathers, brothers and sisters, as professional mentors and guides.

Grandpa and I would not have agreed on much politically, but I would have enjoyed debating him. And had he lived longer, when I developed an interest in horse racing – a sport to which I am attracted for its speed, beauty and rich history – I would have loved accompanying him to the track, gaining insight into the business side of racing, and listening to his stories of hope and heartbreak, disappointment and exuberance. My favorite room in his house was always his study. I recall spending hours there examining his collection of trophies and pictures from the winner’s circle that lined the dark wood paneling and built-in book shelves. It was a room of someone important, of an accomplished man who had succeeded in life, or so I thought as a ten year-old child that knew little of life’s realities.

Whatever deficiencies he may have had as a man, Grandpa was the only grandfather I ever knew. My dad’s father died long before I was born. I know now, as I enter into my sixth decade of life, that those fortunate enough to have had a loving grandfather or two are very lucky, for grandfathers have a lot of wisdom and life experience to offer. Having lived through history, they have the benefit of hindsight from which to talk of the present. Grandfathers can teach you what they have learned in life, including mistakes made along the way. A grandfather’s perspective, formed from years of experience, can guide, inform, teach, and influence.

My grandfather was born in 1901 and, by the time he died in 1983, he had lived through the inventions of the automobile, the assembly line, airplane travel, television and the computer; he saw the growth of the interstate highway system and the development of space travel; and he experienced two world wars, a great depression, and the social and sexual revolutions of the sixties and seventies. Just when I was old enough and ready to learn from him, he was no longer around to talk to me. Would he have been there for me had he lived longer?

I don’t recall any truly meaningful conversation that I ever had with my grandfather. I am sure he is not fully to blame, as I was too young or too limited in my own interests – too focused on baseball, or girls, or basketball, or school, or football – to understand the importance of grandfathers. My grandmothers, not surprisingly, paid much closer attention to their grandchildren and made clear their love of us. I have few regrets about them. Grandmothers historically and universally perform their tasks much better than grandfathers. My grandfather certainly failed in this respect. But I do not want to judge him too harshly. I’d like to think he tried his best. I just wish he and I had tried a little harder.


  1. It is so amazing that hind sight is 20/20. I find now that it is two and a half years since my Dad passed on that there are so many questions that will never be answered. Why had I not asked them or did I not know to ask? Only know do I realize there were so many things that I should have said and done not only with him but also with you Uncle Warren and Aunt Ann. I try now with much conviction to try to tell my children and grandchildren little things that I'm sure they won't ask and I have just started to go through pictures to show them what they will miss in not having known these great people. I know that in your family the closness that I did not have growing up will definately make it easier for your children and thier children. You have certainly been blessed. I'm so glad I took the time to read this post. Hope all is well with you and your. Cousin Julie

  2. This is interesting. You are lucky to be able to look back and wonder "what if" and make appropriate decisions for your own family based on your experiences. I have wonderful memories of my grandparents and was fortunate enough to have one of my grandfathers until I was 18 and one of my grandmothers until I was 32 and that she lived to see her 5 great grandchildren. My parents take such an active role in my kids' lives that I know they'll have memories for a lifetime. We always talk to the kids about their relatives that have passed and different memories we have - in fact we did this the other night :) This is a great memoir you are writing and your children will surely appreciate it.

  3. Another thought I had after reading this again -you are shaped by how your childhood was and so was your mom - that is why some people do things differently than they way it was for them and others don't. Your mom is such a sweet lady and I am sure she waits anxiously to see her grandchildren - you can tell that by the way she wrote about them to us in her Christmas card!
    I do think it is a shame that anyone would not share their wealth - meaning time or talents with their children or grandchildren - these are the people you should put first in your life and who you would want to be there for you if needed, why not treat them as best as you could. As far as money goes - it is not the materialistic things that I think are important to people if money is spent on them, but rather the fact that someone they loved gave them something that they will always have and can remember them by. If money is shared, then what you spend it on should have equally important value.
    Thanks for bringing up this topic and welcoming comments.

  4. Julie and Roseann -- Thank you both for your thoughtful comments. I am really glad that this piece meant something to each of you. It is great that you have made it a point to teach your children about their ancestors -- I think it is really important for all of us to have a sense of our family history and our connection to those who came before us. Thank you for reading and commenting.