About 15-ish years ago, I was in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky at the annual October Court Days Festival. It’s the festival my Grandpa raves about and tells my mom how we need to go every year type of thing. After crowds and aisles and sweating and funnel cakes and regretting wearing jean shorts, I left there with a book I found for $3.00 called “Our Family Tree.” It’s divided into two sections: one for the wife’s family and one for the husband’s. Even though I had never even heard of a guy named Chris Hocker, I bought the book and told myself I’d complete it when I knew the name of the guy who would go on the “husband” line.
Yesterday, Chris and I were heading back to Dayton for my sister’s graduation party so we decided to tote the book along and take his Grandma and her husband out to lunch beforehand.
There we sat, eating lunch at my favorite restaurant, Coldwater Café, with me nearly biting into a piece of quiche around the time his Grandma wanted to say a blessing over the food (I hope she knows I love the Lord in spite of my uncontrollable human behaviors of shoveling food in my mouth before we’ve said grace), chatting about family facts and sifting through the book of materials she brought in preparation: a family tree book she had already filled out, copies of old photos, pamphlets from old family reunions.
So. . . there’s Grandmas out there in the world. And Grandpa’s. And great aunts. And great uncles. And they’re the little ladies and men showing up at events and parties and school things and family functions with cards signed in cursive with $25 checks inside and they’re in their best outfits and they may have even prepared a dish or helped decorate. And they come to these things for their grown kids who are our parents, and they come there for us – their grandchildren, nieces, nephews. They hug us and stare at us and cheer us on and say they can “remember when. . .” They’re a regular attendee at all the parties and all the things.
But how often do we ask them questions about themselves? How often does it get to be about them anymore? And I’m not talking about “how have you been feeling” types of conversations. I’m talking about hobbies and interests and silliness and those little in between moments of life that make them who they are.
I’ve started changing my approach and it almost happened by accident. I always say that I have a heart for the older generations, but realized somehow through fate or accident I am the one who always ends up sitting with the oldest person in the room at parties and gatherings. I noticed this about myself in the last few years, but most noticeably after spending a Thanksgiving dinner in a one-on-one conversation learning about the missionary travels Chris’ great aunt had in her lifetime. Since then, I’ve decided to try to start asking them (the grandmas, the grandpas, the aunts, the uncles, the anything with the word “great” in front of it) questions about themselves and making it less about me all the time (fellow Aries, get ready, this is outside of our comfort zone of “me, me, me”).
I’m not one who really cares if my maiden name or married name is Russian or German or French. I don’t really care to track my genealogy all the way back until I find out that I’m related to an inventor or a President. I’m not the person who will visit the cemetery and track the headstones and the relations. I’m not even really the person who feels they’ve found a treasure when they find a photo from 1910, other than admiring the fashion of such times and giving a nod to those with names that would make a good baby name these days. But I AM the person who is fascinated with the stories of those little ladies and men who keep showing up at these parties of ours.
I recently learned that my Grandpa was salutatorian of his class (which I’ve since shared with others who have said “ain’t no way that fool was #2 in his class”. . . no offense Grandpa, this is more a testament to your humor and Kentucky twang, not your intelligence and hardworking nature), and I learned that my Grandma didn’t have a graduation party because “that wasn’t what you did back then.” I learned that Chris’ Grandma, like one of my Grandma’s, was born at home. I learned that Chris’ Grandma’s husband was asked if he wanted to be a pattern maker and given an hour to decide. He didn’t know what a pattern maker was but agreed and then affirmed his decision based on the smell of the pine on his first day – a career he’d do for 50+ years. I learned that Chris’ Grandma’s nickname was “Jenny Wren” and because of that she describes her younger self as a little bird. I learned my great aunt had a 30-year career at the electric company (which apparently doesn’t come with discounts on your utility bill). I learned what Heaven is and isn’t like based on notes in my Great Grandpa’s first Bible from when he was a Pastor. I learned that my Great Grandma’s favorite color is red, because even though she’s in a long-term care home and probably couldn’t have recalled responses to harder questions in that moment, she knew her favorite color was red for sure.
You may be in a season of life that your grandparents are no longer around for face-to-face conversations, but sit with your aunts and uncles and those other people who keep showing up for you when you’re at family functions. Heck, sit with your friend’s aunts and uncles and grandmas and grandpas. Don’t let them just ask about your life and tell you how wonderful you are and how there’s no way you’re as old as you are and then leave missing the opportunity to learn anything about them. It doesn’t have to be deep stuff — you may just leave there simply learning you and your great aunt have the same taste in gourmet coffees and sunglass frames.
If you’re at a graduation party, ask them if they had a graduation party. If you’re at a wedding, ask them about their wedding or their favorite flavor of wedding cake. If you’re out to dinner, ask them about their favorite restaurant or favorite meal (according to Chris’ Grandma, there’s someplace in Florida with salmon like no other she’s tasted before).
It’s these small details that are like fun treasures that leave Chris and I smiling and laughing and almost having this role-reversal sense of pride.
I may never know if Ignet was supposed to be pronounced “I-cha-nay” or “I-ja-net” and I’ll probably never know the names of anyone that is a great-great member of my family, but I know my Grandma loves ordering gaudy jewelry off QVC, and I know my other Grandma takes her coffee black, and I know Chris’ Grandma had a short stint playing the clarinet, and I know there’s not an oatmeal pie that I see that I don’t think of my Grandpa’s days of driving a truck for Little Debbie.