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Life Lessons I Learned From My Grandparents – A Memorial Day Reflection
This Memorial Day, like all Memorial Day’s in my adult life, I am thinking of my grandparents.
I was far too young to understand the significance, but every Memorial Day I would swell with pride as I stood on the sidelines and watched my grandparents marching in the local parade, dressed in their uniforms.
At the end of the parade, on the town green, there was always a ceremony. Every year it was the same and I knew it was coming, but still my heart would always jump at the rifle salute at the end.
I could sense my grandparents had the respect of everyone in town. I knew they were special. But it wasn’t until I was older that I understood why.
I grew up in rural New England. Born in New Hampshire, I was raised just over the border in Maine on the farm where my grandparents had started a family and a chicken farm after their service in World War II.
Things got messy as I got older, but my memories of my early childhood are idyllic.
After marrying, my parents built a house on a plot of land my grandfather had gifted them, so I grew up just down the road, within sight of the farm.
It has since grown into a busy, populated road.
But in those days, it was a quiet country road with no close neighbors. We’d see only two or three cars go by each day.
That meant I had easy access to my eight aunts and uncles at the farm (my mother’s siblings) and I would go back and forth between the farm and my house almost like they were extensions of the same home.
I was the oldest child of two. My sister was almost four years younger.
When I was really young, I’d walk from our house to the farm with my mom pushing my baby sister in her carriage.
Michelle and her sister Amy Catherine (1973 – 2003)
I still remember exactly what it felt like on a still warm early-autumn day to enter into the cool darkness of the 200-year-old farmhouse after our walk in the hot sun. My mother’s younger siblings would all be gone for the day, at the local high school, a couple of the older ones at college.
My grandmother would be alone. Doing housework. Preparing meals. Washing or folding laundry. With a family that large, she was always busy.
While my mom chatted with her mom, I would wait eagerly in the window for the school bus to come, bringing home my school-aged aunts and uncles who were always generous in making time for their young niece.
As I got older, I was allowed to walk myself between the two houses, dragging my “Red Flyer” wagon behind me. My mom would stand at the end of our driveway, my grandmother at hers, and both make sure my walk was a safe one.
Later, by the time I was six or so, my dog Happy would walk with me. Happy was a large mixed breed, part Saint Bernard, who I had personally named for his exuberantly happy personality.
Most of my growing up happened outdoors. I would play in the forest surrounding the farm. Climb trees. Make mud pies and build forts out of branches and rocks.
There was a tire swing in the large maple in front of the farm. A big old barn to play in and explore. I didn’t have many toys. But I didn’t miss them either. It was more fun to be outside.
When my aunts and uncles were around, I’d hang out with them.
The original chicken farm operation had been destroyed in a hurricane before I was born. But my older uncles had a large organic garden and sold produce to local restaurants. I loved walking through the rows of growing plants and I loved harvest time. I hated weeding.
As an adult, I’ve always grown my own small kitchen garden. But I still hate weeding.
One of my uncles raised goats for milk. I used to help him bottle feed the newborn babies and often helped him milk them.
On rainy Saturday afternoons, sometimes my uncles would let me watch “Creature Double Feature” movies with them on the small black and white TV that was in the farm family room.
My youngest aunt was always good for a story or to encourage me in all the “make believe” games I would play.
My youngest uncle would always be willing to play ball with me.
One summer I missed a catch and the ball hit me squarely in the eye, blackening it. My dad jokingly called me “Black Eyed Michelle” the rest of the summer—a play on words referring to the “Black Eyed Susan” wildflowers that grew profusely in the fields. I still smile at the memory every summer when I see the flowers growing.
But a lot of the time, I just spent with my grandmother. She was a quiet, gentle, kind, and very intelligent woman whose work was never done, and I would follow her around as she did her chores. All the while she would tell me stories about the past, and many times her hopes and dreams for the future.
I learned that my grandmother, mother of nine, had been the salutatorian of her high-school class.
Mary Louise McCarthy (1922 – 2013)
Then, at a time when very few women went to college, she continued her education, graduating the accelerated program in 1943 with a B.S. in Zoology. With the war in progress, the same year she joined the Navy WAVES and was serving as a Pharmacist’s Mate in Philadelphia where she met my grandfather—her patient.
I haven’t mentioned my grandfather yet. He was one of the most prominent role models of my life.
You see, my grandfather had been blinded in the war during the Battle of Peleliu in the South Pacific when a Japanese mortar round exploded in front of him, literally blowing his eyes out of his head. He was only 21 years old at the time.
Thomas Christopher “Mike” Wright (1921 – 1990)
Having joined the Marines at the age of 19, the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, my grandfather—a man that I only knew to be gentle and loving–was a member of the 1st Marine Division and had manned a .30 caliber machine gun for five months on Guadalcanal and later in the Battle of Cape Gloucester.
Several years ago, I sat down to watch it for the first time, not knowing anything about the story when it began. When I realized that what I was watching on the screen in front of me was the story of the 1st Marine Division, the story my grandfather had lived, I was spellbound.
The tears streamed as the truth of what my grandfather had survived sunk in. He had never shared much about his service with me, beyond some fun stories about the nine months his division had spent in Australia.
I still get a lump in my throat today, imagining what he didn’t tell me about. The hell he must have gone through.
The recipient of two Presidential Citations, a Purple Heart, and six major campaign stars by the time he was injured, his second day on Peleliu, my grandfather was sent to the Philadelphia Naval Hospital to recover.
As fate would have it, the very hospital where my grandmother was working.
It is kind of like a fairytale.
They fell in love, married not long after, and in 1948, moved to Maine where they purchased a 100-acre farm and 6,000 chickens.
You see, my grandfather could do anything.
Being blind was just a fact that he had to learn to work around. It wasn’t his identity and it never stopped him from doing anything. My grandfather ran the farm himself while they started a family—a family that eventually grew to nine children (five girls and four boys).
With a growing family to support, he leased his fields to local farmers and always accompanied by a service dog, went to work for a manufacturing company.
There’s a newspaper article I have that was written about him, title “Who Said Marines Don’t Cry?”. Here is a copy of it. To this day I can’t read it without choking up.
In it, he explains how he felt after learning that he would never see again.
”I took it pretty bad I guess. But that only lasted about a day. The next day I said to myself ‘What the hell. There’s more than one blind person in the world. If they can make it, so can I.’”
That is how he approached everything in his life; every challenge that came along.
He never made excuses and he never felt sorry for himself. Never.
He found ways to support his growing family and he eventually retired from that manufacturing plant.
He remodeled the house. Himself.
He had a ham radio and would climb the ladder, go up on the roof, and adjust his antenna. Himself.
In that same article he continued…
“I’ll be honest with you. I don’t really care to associate with blind people. They’re too damn pampered. Everyone wants to do things for them and the result is they can’t do anything for themselves.”
People are always shocked when I tell them my grandfather had a workshop in the garage, full of power tools. And he used them. Himself. Building furniture for family.
I used to visit him in his workshop and he would give me lessons on how to use the tools safely. Then let me play with scraps of wood, extra nails and hand tools, and supervise me as I built whatever my creative mind could come up with.
The summer I was six, he installed a swimming pool in the backyard. I remember the warm sun on my skin as I played nearby and ate blackberries off the wild bushes, watching him work while listening to the Red Sox game on his transistor radio. He loved the Red Sox.
On Sundays after church, my grandparents would bring my sister and me, and my older cousin when she was in town, to the local dime store and give us each a quarter to spend on penny candy. That was back in the days when penny candy really was a penny.
Every Christmas Eve I would decorate the tree with him. It was always a “Charlie Brown” tree that one of my uncles had cut from the forest surrounding the farm.
He would take the delicate glass globes out of the box one by one and ask me the color. I would tell him and he would remind me that I should make sure I didn’t put it next to another bulb that same color. It would look better if I mixed them up, he said. That was important to him.
One of my favorite rituals was walking with him every afternoon when he came home from work and took Mimi, his service dog for a walk. I don’t remember what we talked about. It didn’t matter. I just loved being with him.
He was my hero. I knew he was blind and that somehow made him different. But I didn’t KNOW he was blind. It never held him back. I believed he could do anything he put his mind to. I loved him.
My grandfather died of cancer in 1990, just shortly after my daughter was born. I am sad that she never knew him, but he got to know her, and for that I will forever be grateful. My grandmother lived on for another 23 years, and passed away in 2013. To the end, she was one of the kindest, most generous, loving people I have ever known, devoted to her growing family of grandchildren and great grandchildren.
I still miss them both, every day.
But the lessons I learned from them will stay with me forever. They are lessons I have lived my life by and lessons that I hope I have passed on to their great-grandchild, my daughter.
From my grandparents I learned the joy of traveling the world, of embracing all the diversity and cultures of the world. Somehow, they managed to save their pennies, and when the children were grown they went on several “exotic” trips together.
I am smiling as I write this, remembering my grandfather—a blind man—tell me how much he had loved visiting Ireland and how much he had loved visiting Egypt. How friendly the people were. What amazing places they had been.
In that way, my grandfather taught me to use all my senses. It wasn’t just about sight. It was about “feeling” a place. Using all my senses to soak in experiences.
To this day, I find myself doing exactly that. I absolutely love traveling and experiencing new places and cultures. And many times, I find myself standing silently in a new place, eyes closed, soaking in the feeling of the place. I can’t explain it better than that. But I know who I learned it from.
But most importantly, from my grandfather, I learned that anything is possible, if only you put your mind to it.
He taught me that the story you tell yourself is the story you live.
My grandfather had every reason to make excuses. To give in to the adversity and hard circumstances of his life. Both my grandparents did.
And yet, they didn’t.
From them both, I learned that It was okay to take risks. Fall down. Then pick yourself up and carry on.
They taught me to take responsibility for my own happiness and never to waste time feeling sorry for myself–no matter what. You can’t always change the circumstances, but you can always choose how you experience any experience. Perception is a choice.
This Memorial Day, like all, I am thinking of my grandparents with gratitude for all they brought into my life.
Since those early, idyllic days of my childhood I have faced much adversity. I’ve fallen many times, only to pick myself up and try again. The lessons my grandparents left me with are my foundation. My strength. My inspiration. They will always be with me.
I hope you too will take some time to remember those who paid the ultimate price for the love of their country; just like my grandparents did during those Memorial Day parades and ceremonies they took part in every year, each of them, until the end of their lives.