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The Wisdom of My Elders

My grandfather and I were contemplating our respective milestones. He was fast approaching his 90th birthday and I was about to have my first child. We were each excited and very happy to be there for the others’ big event.

Gramps was an old-school gentleman, the father of three far-flung progeny, of whom my father is the eldest. I don’t imagine he ever said it, but you could picture him saying something like he “maintained an interest in their prospects” despite the fact that they were all long-since launched and spread across three continents. He was an affectionate and attentive grandfather, always good for a story and some escapade. I loved him madly.

Despite my delight at the impending birth, I confessed some trepidation. “I don’t know, Gramps, I just feel as if I’m going into an 18 year free fall.”

No, dear, it’s a 50 year free fall.

Never truer words spoke.  At the time, they landed a little hard — holy crap, 50 years! — but I could see that, even at 90, he wasn’t done fussing about his kids. Parenthood, parenting: they don’t end at our offspring’s age of majority. It’s a life-long gig. Best to appreciate that.


I always thought of my mother’s mother as the archetypal Quaker lady. She was service-oriented, endlessly capable, strong in her faith and devoted to her family. (She also had an inexplicable fondness for the “Broad Street Bullies” the thuggish, brawling Philadelphia Flyers ice hockey team.  A fierce fan, she’d watch the games on television, sputtering, “Now, boys!” when things got out of hand.) She had a very clear sense of what was proper and, although quite loving, could be a little reserved. Things rarely seemed out of place with her. I think that was a point of pride for her — although she’d have been loath to admit a prideful thought.

She was, unquestionably, thrilled to see great grandchildren arrive and was always eager for a visit or pictures. In those days before digital, I spent a small fortune on photo prints and postage to New Jersey. It seemed a small price to pay for such obvious pleasure on her end.

Following one such package, she called to say thanks and check in. It must have been a trying day with the toddlers and I allowed myself to complain about my adorable but sometimes prickly and strong-willed children.

Well, thee wouldn’t want a pin cushion.

And there it was: just the re- frame I needed — and the reminder that their strong wills, their developing senses of self and justice and everything else, were indeed strengths I wanted in them. It wasn’t the last time the reminder was useful.


Both of my grandmothers were great seamstresses and knitters. As a child I honestly thought there wasn’t anything they couldn’t do with needles. They were clearly magicians. Gramms made herself fabulous suits from Vogue patterns and knit elegant jackets she outfitted with marvelous buttons from far-away places like Kabul. Grammy was equally skilled, albeit tending more toward the utilitarian, and saw to it that my dolls — from baby through Barbie and trolls — were the best outfitted of any known to humanity.

I learned to knit and sew at an early age – so early, I don’t remember not knowing how. My mother, no slouch with the needles herself, and grandmothers all taught me, but I have always believed it was Gramms who offered this:

If you knit, you rip.

From the very start, I understood that making something would always also entail unmaking, that to do is to redo, iteration after iteration. It made the ripping – the tearing out of long hours of work – seem less punitive, less like a problem. It was all just part of the process.

My grandfather and his grandfather ~ circa 1905


Friends have heard me quote all these lines, I know. They are gifts I am eager to share. Their simplicity is deceptive and I’ve come to appreciate what a normalizing and empowering effect they’ve had in my life. They remind me of the inevitability of the unevenness of things, the continuity of our connections and the enduring power of love.



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