The stories of our past are the stories of our future

My grandmother died this week. She was 96, and had lived a long and interesting life filled with travel and culture. Immediately, I wanted to know more about her, to fill in the blanks in the life history of this woman who had me walk up and down the stairs with books on my head as a child and wore red lipstick and Chanel No. 5 at all times.

So I Googled. Nothing. Well, OK, not nothing, because she was married to an influential professor at Yale University. So her name came up from time to time, but there were no real details associated with it. I know she studied writing in college — attending Black Mountain College, an experimental art college founded in 1933. I know she married her high school sweetheart, had three children and made pounded brass jewelry in the musky basement of their Connecticut farmhouse. I know her house always smelled of English muffins and coffee, even when I visited there for the first time in 25 years to honor the passing of her husband of nearly eight decades. I know she had a very quick wit; a dry sense of humor and a Mona Lisa smile that kept you guessing. I know she bought me a dishwasher for my wedding present, proclaiming it the secret to a long, happy marriage. The marriage didn't make it, but the dishwasher is still humming along 15 years later, and it brings me great joy.

But there is far more I don't know about the woman who was my grandmother, and now, I ache to go back in time and ask her many, many questions about her choices in life, her successes and her failures, the wisdom she gleaned from surviving the Great Depression and World War II. I wish I could ask her how she viewed parenting, and what she thought when my parents moved to Canada to homestead off the land. I wish I could go shopping with her — she had perfect style, always. I wish could ask her about her childhood, about watching nearly 100 years pass before her, about the perspective that must give a person. I wish I could ask her how she developed her direct style of conversation — a discussion with her was sometimes more like a job interview than a casual chat.

The few clear memories I have, blurred by time, are precious — summers on the beach in Martha's Vineyard, a galaxy away from my hometown of 500 in rural Canada, big bowls of plums and peaches on the center of the kitchen table, trips to the bookstore where the bookshelves reached the sky. I regularly spent summers with my grandparents while my parents took on big projects, like reconstructing a house from a timber-frame barn. I see now the influence she has had on me, an influence I see reflected in the values I pass on to my children about the importance of art and beauty, and of course, books. But I realize now that I missed an opportunity to understand more about the whys of their life.

It's funny that despite being in a profession that requires you to often ask probing questions of complete strangers, I never asked any questions of my close relatives. Now that chapter is closed — she was my last living grandparent. I may be able to reconstruct some of it from aunts and uncles and my mother, but I'll never hear from the woman herself about why she stopped writing, or what she valued most. Those are conversations we should all be brave enough to have with our relatives, because the stories of our past are also the stories of our future.

My daughter is named after my grandmother, and despite the fact that at 8, she is almost the same height as my petite-framed grandma, my daughter is a lot like her. They are born a week apart, and both are spunky and determined in a way that keeps you guessing. Our connection with our ancestors goes way beyond the color of our eyes and the shape of our nose. There is so much we can learn from our elders. Unfortunately, our society does not encourage and incorporate the storytelling and passing down of wisdom and knowledge and experience the way past cultures did. So you have to ask, ask often and ask soon. Because the simple truth is, you just can't get that from Google.

Carey Restino is the editor of Bristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman and The Arctic Sounder, where this commentary first appeared.

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