Bit of a knock-down the last few days: my grandfather passed, my Last Grandparent Standing. Fortunate to have had him in my life for so long; fortunate to have so many fond memories. He was a mischief-maker right through to the end, always one well-timed pause away from the next joke. I presume he’s back to franks and beans and the occasional ice cream sundae, in a condo at the beach with my grandmother. I’d rather write about him, now, than the regularly scheduled programming.
Herewith, a bit of wit and wisdom from Jack Reilly, Grandpa Extraordinaire:
Brush your teeth after lunch. You don’t appreciate your teeth until you lose them.
Driving in reverse is an equal, if not superior, skill to driving forwards. Learn it well; it will come in handy one day. Freeze candy bars, chocolate covered graham crackers, Oreos: They’re surprisingly delicious cold.
Give more than you think you can to people who need it more than you do.
One of my closest friends talks to me about “upward spirals” of life lessons: Our baggage is ours, our faults and failings won’t leave us, and they come around again with cyclical persistence. But we face each approach differently, with a higher level of understanding. Each time, it’s a newer, better, stronger us that takes on those tired challenges. This is how you manage to accept the stuff that haunts you: it’s never the same you, even if it’s the same stuff.
Are you familiar with fernweh? A German friend mentioned it to me the other night over pizza. It’s all the nostalgia and longing of homesickness, but not for home–for somewhere far away. In the dry, dusty capital city of Bamako, at the edge of the vast Sahara desert, I cried over stunning loss and dreamed of the lush greenery of Ireland. In fact, I longed for it, I felt fernweh for Ireland, though I’d never been. In my gut it was a place I had to see, a place of my ancestry, and an antidote to the sand pit (literal and figurative) in which I found myself. Years later, after I’d moved on to work in the Horn of Africa, the Addis Ababa to Washington D.C. flight route was rearranged to include a fueling stop in Dublin. Embracing serendipity, I extended my layover on the Emerald Isle, my first trip as a solo traveler. It was, indeed, the tonic I’d sought, albeit delayed…
Unable to rouse my mother from slumber, I quickly became a virtuoso of the breakfast vignette: aged kitchen table awash in rosy morning light, blackened toast atop white plate, dabs of melting butter, knife glistening with jam. Pile of pithy clementine rinds. Milk glass, butter dish.
Slowly, over time and broken hearts, I learned to engage stillness purposefully, finally grasping its value in a harried world. For too long I had clung to my own fretful flaws, muddled and spent by repetitious self-defeat. A still life remains an aspiration, even today; I’m more drawn to the itinerant moon, always heavy, if not always full, distracted by the night’s brightest company. But I identify less readily with restlessness, I recognize it as a passing mood instead of a way of being.
Way #2: Strut to the neighborhood crossroads in slacks and a button-down with tall, spring green palm fronds emerging from the collar, encircling your head and framing your face, like that fellow from last Wednesday around 4:00 pm. Go about your business at the local shops as though it were customary to sport fresh flora. Be regal, be purposeful, carry conviction. And make swift turns so that the palm fronds echo your movements like back-up dancers, or a loyal school of fish.
Over the years, Nana developed a penchant for ivy, and eventually the motif swallowed the ground floor, repeated from wallpaper to carpet to stencilling to the fake plastic garlands that hung over doorways. Where it was possible to put gold leaf, Nana put gold leaf, and mirrors covered at least one face of each room. Statuettes cluttered every surface beyond the reach of children: angels, Jesus-in-the-manger scenes, fruit and bread baskets, gold, pearl, silver, ceramic, you name it… In youth, opinions and attitudes are simply delivered to you, without your consent. When love is present before self-awareness ripens, when you find yourself yoked indelibly to someone with flawed character, you realize that it’s possible to love a person for their failures and faults, without loving the faults themselves. Think of your parents, whose social or political views may seem to you narrow or outdated. Think of the partners who simply don’t see things the way you do, sometimes, and of the work it takes to reach around those differences and love each other anyway.
I’d learned the basics, how to guide the boat up and down the lake, and how to get out of irons. The instructor announced that our next lesson would be the climax of the series: how to right a capsized boat. I had come to adore sailing, but I thought he was crazy–we would capsize the boat on purpose? Create a catastrophe in the middle of the lake just to (try to) fix it? Was this some kind of Navy drill? Had I been drafted? Was this necessary? At my desk this week, hands shaking uncontrollably above my keyboard, I likened my state to a capsized sailboat; I’d tipped over a bit too far, it seemed, and now found myself somehow upside down under water, trying to figure out how to right myself again. From underneath the surface, without oxygen, light filtered through brown muck, every normal thing is pressurized, every mundane task, every movement a thousand times heavier, a thousand times more difficult. Everything is scary, and the accumulation of fears starts to hurt, and starts to wear, and takes its toll.