Grandparents are a family’s foundation. They hold the key to our heritage and are a living connection to our past. Whether your grandparents were captivating storytellers, wise elders who always provided the best advice, or simply spoiled you when your parents couldn’t, one thing is for sure: we don’t fully appreciate grandparents until they are gone.
My paternal grandmother, Ida Wallace, died last year on Valentine’s Day. My son was only a year old at the time. Luckily, I have pictures of them together. In fact, the last picture taken of her while she was alive was with my son. However, I knew my son would never remember her, so I began writing him a letter detailing everything I remembered about Grandma Wallace. I wrote about her award winning “Wallace rolls” that she made every Thanksgiving and Christmas. I also wrote about her love for cats. I remember she kept a cat cookie jar on the kitchen counter. My sister and I would sneak cookies from that jar every time she wasn’t looking. We thought we were so sly, but later we learned that Grandma knew and would keep the cookie jar filled just for us. I also wrote about her beautiful garden filled with brilliant colors and familiar smells.
But, then I paused. I couldn’t remember anything else about her. I didn’t know anything personal about Grandma Wallace. I put down the pen and cried. I felt like I had lost Grandma all over again. In that moment, I realized I would never have the opportunity to really know her first-hand.
In my quest to learn more about Grandma Wallace, I flew to California to stay with my Grandpa, Newt Wallace. Their house felt empty even though I saw Grandma everywhere. I saw her sitting on the sofa covered in one of the many quilts she made, I saw her cooking her famous rolls in the kitchen where a clock with the words “Ida’s Kitchen” still hung, and I vividly saw her tending to her flowers that were now dying and overgrown by weeds. Those few days I spent with Grandpa were emotionally rough, but they were also a blessing. Grandpa showed me family photo albums, letters he wrote to Grandma during their courtship, and awards she had won over the years including Citizen of the Year. We also visited Grandma’s grave together. In the process, he taught me about our family lineage.
Spending those few precious days with Grandpa taught me about his character. Like our ancestors, he has continually fought for our freedom. Not only did he serve in Bermuda, he is a veteran of protecting our right to free speech. Grandpa Wallace built a successful newspaper company with hard work and dedication. For 65 years he’s had the courage to publish the truth, as he sees it, in spite of the numerous threats that have been made against him. His passion for freedom is echoed in his own words: “I think the printed word is one of God’s gifts to free men.”
His courage earned him a spot at the White House dinner table. He was among a handful of newspaper publishers who were invited to dine with President John F. Kennedy. He’s now 93 years old and rides his bike to work every day. He still works for the newspaper that he built and later sold. He sits at a wooden desk and writes his articles using the same 1920s typewriter. Thankfully, I have a picture of Grandpa teaching my son how to use that vintage typewriter. And, he still drives to the neighboring city to deliver newspapers. In fact, he was featured on the county phone book as the oldest paperboy in America.
Above all, I learned that Grandpa Wallace is a man of integrity, discipline, and chivalry. Throughout his life, he woke up every day and did whatever had to be done for his family, for God, and for his country. He has always lived within his means, never asking for anything. He’d rather go without than ask someone for a favor or a handout. In other words, he is a true American patriot. In short, Grandpa Wallace is my role model. Learning about his accomplishments and his character has made me strive to become a better person.
I never took the time to know my maternal grandfather, Bud Andersen, although my sister and I did spend time with him growing up. I remember the smell of his pipe and how much he loved fishing on his boat. He always had the most obedient German Shepherds, which he trained himself. Grandfather Andersen loved Easter. He would write a dollar amount on each egg. After we gathered all of the eggs we had to add up our earnings, which he would pay us in coins.
Grandfather Andersen perhaps was best known for his oranges, which he sold at the local farmers market. Grandfather Andersen unknowingly shaped my career. He passed when I was in high school. But, I remember how people spoke about him with a deep respect. He was a veterinarian, but also earned a PhD and a Masters degree.
Additionally, he wrote several books about the reproductive system of the beagle. One Christmas, he gave our entire family copies of his new book. I remember one of my relatives opening the book and saying, “Well, I can’t understand it but it sounds good.” Everyone laughed. I remember thinking I was going to study science so that one day I could understand his book and have a scientific conversation with him. That moment shaped my life forever. It motivated me to earn my doctoral degree. He passed away before we could have that conversation, but science has forged a bond between my Grandfather Andersen and me that can never be broken.
Grandfather and Grandmother Andersen took my sister and me to our first opera. We must have been six and eight years old. I don’t remember much about the opera, but I do remember getting dressed up in the most beautiful dress that a six-year-old could imagine. We felt so special that night. My grandparents had given us a taste of something we never knew existed.
One of my happiest childhood memories was spending the night at their house. Every night after dinner we had vanilla ice cream with Hershey’s syrup. Then, we’d all watch The Love Boat while Grandma brushed our hair 100 times each. I will always remember Grandma Andersen’s angel food cake. I used to request it for my birthday parties even as a young child. Recently, she passed the recipe down to me.
Perhaps most importantly, it was through Grandma Andersen that history came alive for me. She was living on Hickam Air Force Base when Pearl Harbor was attacked. She rarely speaks of that day. However, one time she shared the story of how she and her mother were preparing breakfast in anticipation of the arrival of family friends who were flying in to visit.
Suddenly, they heard sirens. There were no shelters so they stayed in their house and periodically came out onto the porch to watch the bombing. Even though she was right next to the bombing, she wasn’t afraid. She told me, “My father was there and I knew he would take care of it.” He kept her safe. However, later she would learn that her friends never made it. They were shot down.
Suddenly, Pearl Harbor wasn’t just another date in history I had to memorize for school. It was a day of challenge and resolve. It was a day that would shape my Grandma’s character forever. She is a strong, independent woman who loves our country deeply. Her husband passed 18 years ago and she has been taking care of their 20-acre ranchette ever since. At 86 years of age she pulls the weeds, mows the lawn, sweeps the porch, and kills the rattlesnakes. Yet, she makes time to volunteer at church and the library, and to care for her friends and family members who have not faired as well as she has through the years. She is the epitome of loyalty. If I am lucky enough to have a daughter some day, I hope she is the mirror image of my Grandmother Andersen.
Grandparents are the windows to our past and, through their experiences, the keys to our future if we choose to grab them. Aside from teaching me about discipline and charity through their example, my grandparents have taught me to never take life for granted, to care for those you love as well as your neighbors, and the importance of passing our heritage onto our children. After all, our children know our grandparents mainly through our memories. My wish is that your memories of your grandparents are as rich as mine have become.
Dr. Sina McCullough has a PhD in Nutrition and Exercise from the University of California at Davis. She is a freelance writer and nutrition consultant (www.personalizeyourdiet.com).