My fourth grade Granddaughter had been given the assignment of interviewing a Grandparent. Out of four living grandparents and one great grandparent she chose me. I felt honored. It reminded me of when I was in fourth grade and given the same assignment. I chose to interview Great Grandpa Bill who, I do not think, was very honored.
Great Grandpa Bill was my Grandmother’s Father. He was a short round man. Not much taller than me. Great Grandpa was as big around as he was tall. I never spent much time with Great Grandpa, but I thought Bill was funny. He did silly things that caused all manner of family discussions. Like the time he backed his car down his long driveway, across the street, over the curb, across the playground, and into the school building.
“Thank heavens you’re a slow driver!” my Grandmother exclaimed.
“It’s no big deal. I just forgot to turn,” was Great Grandpa’s explanation.
I didn’t realize that Great Grandpa was suffering from dementia. I just thought he was funny, and I figured anyone that funny would be an interesting person to interview. I knew Great Grandpa Bill was born in Germany and came to the United States, as a child, in the mid 1800s. His family were farmers and they settled in Iowa where he farmed his whole life. What I did not know was Bill was a man of few words. I started asking him the questions my teacher had given me. What games did he like to play? Did he have electricity in his house? Was he ever punished? How did he feel about having to work on the farm? My Great Grandfather grew impatient with all the questions. He looked at me as though I should have known the answers. After a few short one, or two-word responses he said, “I don’t know. What do you like to do? Life wasn’t so different. We just got up each day and did what had to be done.” The interview was over. No wonder conversations with my Great Grandfather had been few and far between!
My Great Grandmother Ella
Having not gotten very far with Great Grandpa Bill, I decided to interview my Great Grandmother Ella. Ella, my Grandfather’s mother, was a tall slender woman with a warm smile. She was the kind of person who never appeared to be in a hurry – ever. She always seemed in control, confident and was definitely more willing to be interviewed. She was born at home near the farm where her Grandmother and Grandfather homesteaded in Illinois. She told me that as a child, her family moved by covered wagon, from Illinois to Iowa. This was in the late 1800s. They had a plot of land but no house or any kind to live in. Food was the priority. They cleared the land and planted a few crops. Then her Father built a grainery so they would have a place to store the crops. A house to live in was not a priority. Winter arrived. The house was still under construction and the family had to live in the drafty grainery. Unfortunately, Great Grandma outgrew her shoes that winter and had to wrap rags around her feet to keep them warm.
Ella also related stories about her Grandmother, Caroline, whom she loved and admired but had to leave behind in Illinois. Caroline immigrated to Canada, with her parents, from Scotland in the early 1800s. She married and came by covered wagon to homestead in northern Illinois, prior to the Civil War. She lost two children and her husband to diseases, that are now curable, and was left to manage the farm and raise six children by herself. According to my Great Grandmother, Caroline was a woman of strong convictions. She did not believe in slavery and it was rumored that her farm was on the underground railroad. Two of her sons, one of which was Ella’s Father, fought in the civil war.
Right Out of the Westerns On TV
Here were two women who lived lives like westerns I watched on TV! But, to hear my Great Grandmother describe it, their lives were as boring and commonplace as mine. Going back five generations each story was about moving long distances, away from family, in search of a better life. It took a long time to get where they were going and when they did – they had to build a house to live in. It seemed rather dire to me. There was no color in their lives. I mean, When I asked them why they did that or how did it make them feel, I’d get some response like, “I don’t know. Just did what I was told”, or “my feet were cold”.
Well, of course your feet were cold! They were wrapped in rags. How long did you go without shoes? Did you have to go to school wearing rags on your feet? Was there a school? When did you finally get new shoes? Did you get new shoes? Did you have to wear hand-me-downs? I bet you tripped a lot on those rags. Now that would be a funny story.
Leaving a Legacy
My Great Grandparents were given an opportunity to share their story and leave a legacy, to share how they felt and what motivated them, to inform the next generation so that history might not repeat itself. What would they have done differently? What did they regret? What did they most appreciate? As I look back on this interview experience, I might have been asking the wrong questions.
With time, I have come to understand how politics and economics may have motivated my ancestors. I have come to realize their experiences were not so different from mine. To better themselves, my parents moved their family several times and built a home once, although, we did not have to live in a grainery while waiting for the house to be finished. My Father was struck with a debilitating disease that until recently had no cure and my Mother had to become the bread winner. Life continues to throw curve balls. War seems to be a constant, pandemics still occur, children are born, and people die. However, in my Great Grandparent’s lifetime, cars and airplanes were invented. Indoor plumbing, electricity and phones were installed in the houses on their farms. Great advances occurred that made their and our lives easier, longer, healthier, safer. Yet history repeats and here I am about to be questioned by my Granddaughter.
A Long Distance
My Granddaughter lives a long distance from me. Had it been 150 years ago it would take months to get to where my son’s family lives. Even by plane, with layovers, it takes most of a day to get there. So, my Granddaughter was interviewing me on Facetime. What a wonderful invention! The ability to see her body language, her beautiful face, her wonderful smile is priceless. However, it does not replace the ability to hug her and sit beside her. I look forward to the day that travel is instantaneous, and distance no longer keeps us apart. To be physically present is the best. I know this because every Facetime session ends with my Granddaughter saying, “I hope you can come visit us soon.”
I was wondering how she would view my childhood. I hoped she would hear that my childhood was not that different from hers. That the feelings she is experiencing are the feelings everyone experiences. The issues I struggled with are the issues she is experiencing. It seems that for all the advances humanity has made, people are people and we share the need to be loved, respected, understood and nothing does that better than a hug.
A Bridge Between the Generations
As I prepared for this most important interview, I realized I have become a bridge. A bridge spanning the distance between the generations, honoring the past and informing the future. I knew my great grandmother. Through her I came to know my Great, Great, Great Grandmother. Through my granddaughter my Great, Great, Great Grandchildren will come to know me. I wondered what questions she was instructed to ask. I contemplated the legacy I would leave my Granddaughter and thought back to my ancestors. It appeared they had not given much thought to their legacy. It could be they did not have time, or they just figured their actions would speak for them. What I do know is they were people who adapted, stood up for what they knew to be right, and did what had to be done. Not a bad legacy. But I would like to add a little color. After all, what is a legacy if it does not inspire?