When I was a little boy my maternal grandfather was a heroic figure in my life. My parents were divorced and I didn’t see my father that often, so it was my grandfather who was the male role model in my world, and what a role model he was! Larger than life, he was a practical joker who told great stories of days long ago and took me camping in the Adirondack mountains. His love of baseball was legendary and people told me the stories of how, as a young man, he was recruited to play for the New York Yankees, but didn’t go because it would mean playing on the Sabbath. Born in 1901, his was a life that saw changes that had to seem remarkable to him. When he was born, powered flight didn’t exist. The last time I saw him before his death he was boarding an airplane in the Pittsburgh International Airport. In his lifetime he saw two world wars, a great depression, multiple genocides, women’s suffrage, school desegregation with the end of Jim Crow, the inventions of radio and television, and humans setting foot on the moon. He heard the sounds of ragtime turn into jazz, and then into rock-n-roll and country music. He knew joy in a life-long marriage to my grandmother, heartache with the death of two children, and renewed joy with the arrival of my Mother, who he adored.
I often wonder what would I show him if somehow I could magically bring him back into the world as it exists today for me. There are so many things in the world today that didn’t exist during his lifetime, which ended in 1974. What would he think of my cell phone and all its functions? The internet? My big screen high definition TV? He may have had a color TV at the very end of his life, but I’m not certain of that. What about my debit and credit cards? I don’t remember him ever using anything other than cash. I’m not sure, but I don’t think he ever had a mortgage or a credit card. What new food would I take him to try? When I was growing up we never heard of cuisines such as Indian food or Thai food which are now regular parts of my diet. I remember that pizza was new to him and he’s the only person I’ve ever met who didn’t like it. I doubt that ever met a vegetarian and I’m sure he never once heard of the term “gluten free”. So many changes and new things.
When I think about my grandfather’s world, it’s not just the technological changes that differ his life from mine. His world was more static than mine. I wonder what he would think about the frantic mobility found in 21st century American life. He was self-employed in a business his father started and he lived in the era of the company man in which you were likely to spend your entire career with one company from which you retired and collected a pension. That’s not the case anymore. I started my career with a 110-year old company that, while it is still in business, it is a mere fraction of the size it was 30 years ago. Most of the businesses that I’ve worked for are no longer around. My grandfather knew most of the same people his entire life. I haven’t seen anyone whom I knew in elementary school in decades and have only seen 2 people I knew in high school in the past 10 years. For me, even family life is tenuous. With the exception of my wife and mother, I almost never hear from my family members. My grandfather lived in an era of social engagement, of membership in groups like the Grange, Masons, and small country congregations. Yes, his social world was more geographically limited, but maybe it was richer in other ways. He didn’t get steady feed of Facebook pictures accompanied by his friends forwarding political propaganda telling him how to think, but he did get people who would just drop into the house early in the morning to share a cup of coffee. By necessity, his relationships had to survive the hurts and betrayals that are an inevitable part of human-relationships.
I’m not really sure why I contemplate these things. Maybe it’s that I sometimes envy the stability that I think existed in his era? Sometimes I feel disoriented and adrift by the ever increasing change in my world.
I know that showing my grandfather my world is just a fantasy, but still I wonder what he would say about the life I have built, the person I have become, the work I do, and the world in which I live? What questions would he ask me and what answers would he have for my questions? What could he teach me about creating and maintaining life-long relationships with people? However, it is the human dilemma that such conversations are not possible. We each live in the era of our times and we only receive glimpses of the past and future through the generations the precede and follow us. My nieces and nephews will see changes in the world that I can only imagine, but at some point I suspect they will also wonder what it was like to live with only 3 TV channels that went off the air at midnight and how I could navigate up and down the east coast highways without the benefit of a GPS. I wonder what questions they might want to ask me 50 years from now?