Before the pandemic, many of us took being able to see our relatives safely for granted. I myself had gotten used to a near-annual trip up to Minnesota to see my maternal grandparents. However, I didn’t get to see them in 2020 out of concern for their health.
Until then, not seeing them had never been a question of keeping them safe or making sure that we didn’t endanger them. It was a question of cost, feasibility and what else my family was doing that summer.
Fortunately, I was able to visit them again this year, over Thanksgiving break. My mother and I flew up and stayed from Sunday to Tuesday, and flew back to North Carolina on Wednesday. It was a predictably cold few days, as they live in northern Minnesota.
While we were there, I made sure to take time to talk to my grandparents, particularly to my grandfather. Over the years I’ve heard plenty of stories from him, but I hadn’t considered their weight or importance. We live in an age of abundant information, but no amount of googling about the Great Depression can yield a first-hand account with the same impact of a family member’s own story.
My grandfather was an English professor, a fact which has slowly become tragic due to his macular degeneration. He can’t read nearly as well as he used to, but while I visited he took time to show me some of the various books in my grandparents’ library that I might not have looked at. One book they own was published in 1740, making it approximately 280 years old.
One book in particular he was eager to share was “A Sand County Almanac,” which he frequently pulled from in his courses. The book itself focuses on ecology and environments through beautiful prose, and he was happy to see me interested in it. I actually took home one of his copies and it now sits on my dorm bookshelf.
But I don’t want you to talk to your grandparents, great-uncles and great-aunts because they might give you some family heirloom.
You should talk to them because people at their age, at their health, want someone to talk to them. They want to know that they won’t be forgotten.
People have a legacy to fall back on. In my grandparents’ case, it’s their three children and their home, which they built into the side of a hill. My grandparents have always been fiercely independent, and even now, at the age of 92, my grandfather goes outside to chop and gather firewood to warm their home.
A legacy doesn’t guarantee the immortality of memory, however. Once I’m old, I could write an entire memoir about my life, and that wouldn’t mean anything if it was never read. What we can do for our elders is to ensure that they’re remembered.
I know I’m lucky in that regard. All of my grandparents, maternal and paternal, have perfectly fine memories. They aren’t afflicted by the various degenerative diseases that steal away people’s memories, and for that I am thankful.
I’m thankful that my grandparents, particularly my maternal grandparents, are still in good health at all. The ongoing pandemic has had its worst impacts on people at their ages, and I don’t know how I would have felt if my last visit with them had been one where I didn’t pay enough attention to them or didn’t appreciate the stories they wanted to tell.
So please, this holiday season, talk to your grandparents. Ask them questions that only they can answer, and make sure you remember their answers. Do it for their sake, as well as yours.