Sometimes after school, I would hop on my bike and ride across town to my grandpa’s house. I would find him sitting in his recliner next to the oxygen tank. His hand, cruelly deformed by rheumatoid arthritis, would reach out to me. I would take it gently in mine and ask, “How are you doing today?” “Just reliving my life,” he would say.
And then he would tell me a story.
He might talk about his hobo days, hopping freight cars from Chicago to Montana, or of running moonshine from the Iowa bootleggers to the speakeasies in St. Paul, Minn.
Or he might talk about the hard times, after the aneurism that struck him down when he was in his 30s, leaving him unemployed and his family destitute. But he would not dwell on the hardship. Instead he would talk about his friends who, when deer season came along, loaded him into the car and brought him to deer camp. At the time he could neither walk nor talk, but they sat him in a chair in the woods, a sawhorse serving as gun rest so he could shoot with one hand. Each hour or so one of his buddies would stop by to make sure he hadn’t fallen out of the chair.
Whatever the story, it always ended the same way. He would lean back with a big smile and sigh, “It’s been a good life.”
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It was hard for me to see how. He had grown up poor, the little he had stripped from him, first by the Great Depression and then by the aneurism that paralyzed his left side and left him homeless.
But gratitude, I have since learned, has little to do with what happens to us and everything to do with how we see the world.
Robert Emmons, the world’s foremost researcher on gratitude, writes that gratitude has two components: the first is affirming goodness; the second is recognizing that goodness comes from outside ourselves.
Virtues begin in imitation, doing what we see modeled by those we love. That imitation, when practiced daily, becomes a habit. Eventually the habit shapes our perception, so we begin to see the world the way the person we imitate sees it. That is why most virtues are not explicitly taught; they are passed along, as gifts.
Gratitude, more than any other virtue, is handed down in families by the stories we tell. We look for the goodness in our lives, reflect upon it, and then talk about it, highlighting certain features of the world and obscuring others.
Now that I am one of the older members of my family, I feel the responsibility of tending to the stories, not just so my children and nieces and nephews know the stories, but so that they know how to tell their own stories, how to attend to their lives so that they do not become lost, mired in distraction and despair. I do not want them to become the sort of person who thinks life is “just one damn thing after another” or who thinks self-improvement happens as a result of first taking care of one’s “problems.” There is no end to problems.
At this time of year, when the family gathers together, I feel the responsibility intensely. But I know what will happen. Chaos will ensue. A football game will be blaring from the TV in the living room; somebody will spill the gravy; Gary will have one too many beers and start talking politics; my sister’s dog will have an accident in the hallway. My wife and I will drive home relieved to have survived another holiday get-together.
But then I recall that I never learned my grandparents’ stories during the hustle-and-bustle of the holidays. I listened to their stories over a cup of coffee at the kitchen table, when the house was quiet, or sitting on the porch as the shadows grew long. Stories are best when both teller and listener have time and attention.
A few months ago, I asked my mother if I could record some of her stories. We scheduled a series of meetings on Zoom. I sat at my kitchen table in Wisconsin, she at hers in northern Minnesota. We had coffee and talked.
She told me stories about my grandparents that I had never heard or had forgotten. She told me about her childhood, about the summer they couldn’t leave the farm because there had been a case of polio in town. She told me about living in a chicken coop one winter when she was 5 years old and about attending a one-room school. She told me why she decided to become a nurse.
As she finished her last story she sat back in her chair, gazed into the screen and said, “It’s been a good life.”
We have those stories now, posted on a YouTube channel so that kids in our family can watch them if they have the time and attention. I hope they do.
The other day a friend asked me what I was thankful for. It occurred to me I am most thankful for having parents and grandparents who showed me how to see the world with love. They entrusted me to pass that gift on to the next generation, one story at a time.