My dad and I speak by phone every week. He’s been under the weather so we talk more these days than we have in the past. I get a lot out of our conversations. We chat about sports, my job, the kids. He tells me about the book he’s reading.
We try to avoid politics. If it comes up we find a way to laugh at our differences of opinion. What else can you do?
Last week I was telling him about various household dramas. The usual stuff. Billy has been acting up in pre-K. Sally has been testing limits at home. Paddy’s doing well at banjo but he needs to find a sport to play. Magdalena’s sensory issues are driving us batty. Clara recently changed high schools.
My dad listened quietly and said: “Little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems.”
“Say what now?”
“My mother used to say that all the time,” he said. “Little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems. It was one of her famous sayings. She had a million of them.”
My father is 85. We lived in the same house for almost two decades. He raised me to manhood. Until last week I never once heard him say “little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems.” Nor was I aware that my grandmother had famous sayings.
“I’d be happy to hear some of these famous sayings,” I said.
“I can’t think of them right now,” he said. “I’m sure they’ll come to me. You can ask Aunt Claire. She knows them all.” Aunt Claire is 90.
A lot of family information gets closeted away with the passage of time. Not intentionally, of course. It just happens. People are busy. Time flies. Who’s remembering to think of famous sayings?
When you’re a kid you don’t much care to hear stories about the ancient people in the old framed photographs in the upstairs hall. When you’re older you forget to ask. Then, before you know it, it’s too late, and you spend the rest of your life walking around wishing you’d thought to say, “Mom, what was your grandfather like?”
A family is a contiguous thing, it runs together, generation to generation, a daisy chain of people, living and dead, the not yet born. We look the same. We share traits. We laugh the same. Maybe we like the same flavor of ice cream.
Yet most of us have never met. I never knew my paternal grandmother, she of the famous sayings. I never met her husband, my grandfather, either. They both died before my parents were even married. Photos are few, and they don’t reveal much.
Still, when my father tells me something like “little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems,” I think maybe I have met them. Maybe I’ve known them all my life.
She’s him. He’s me. They are all of us—Billy, Sally, Paddy, Mags, and Clara, who even shares a name with her great-grandmother.
What a pity that the generations usually only press flesh with those just older and those just younger. I bet if my grandparents were still here I would recognize everything about them.
Wouldn’t you love to spend ten minutes with those old-timers from the upstairs hall, to compare notes, to see how they moved through a room or hear how they spoke? What would you give to get to see how your children’s children turned out as adults? I suppose that’s what Heaven is.
“Yes,” says my wife, one eye on Billy the Kid, current scourge of the St. Barnabas pre-K3s. “And that’s why we all want to get there together.”