“I said Grandpa what’s this picture here, It’s all black and white; And it ain’t crystal clear; … is that you there?”—song lyrics from “In Color” performed by Jamey Johnson
Sunday is National Grandparents Day. ‘Grandparent’ is sometimes more easily defined in a dictionary than in real-life familial relationships. ‘Grandparent’ can mean different things to different people when lines between generations become blurred by life. Some are close geographically and emotionally while others may be distanced by geography, emotions, or lifestyles. It’s also not uncommon for some grandparents to become the full-time parents for their grandchildren.
For me, ‘grandparents’ always meant love, direction, and wisdom. Oh, and wit if we’re talking about my grandmother. Yep, she was funny. Mom lost her mother during high school and her father died when I was three. Other than faint memories of visiting him before he died, ‘grandparents’ always meant Dad’s parents who lived at 323 Cypress Street in Pittsburg from 1930 until they passed away; my grandfather in 1967 and my grandmother in 1993.
Sylvester Aldridge and Hattie Lois Farmer married New Year’s Day in 1920. She was three months short of 16 and he was already 31, something not that uncommon 100 years ago. He worked for the railroad from the time he was 13 until a heart attack retired him in 1954. Her lifelong labor was taking care of the household, raising my father, and caring for her husband for several years before he died.
My grandfather was quiet, easy-going, and retired for most of the years I knew him. He taught me about tools, yardwork, and how to use a .22 to keep the blue jays out of his prized fruit trees. We also built toy boats from wood scraps and “sailed” them tethered to a piece of string at the city park pond. He was also good to sneak me away from the house for driving lessons at the age of 11 by using the excuse of going downtown to DeWoody’s Western Auto for a lawnmower part or some such item. He also swore me under oath not to tell my grandmother, thereby keeping us both out of trouble.
Best of all, perhaps, were the stories of his childhood in the late 1800s, his military service in World War I, and his accounts of what life was like working on the railroad in the era of steam engines during the first half of the 20th Century.
My grandmother taught me as much about life, love, right, and wrong as anyone did. She stood short of five feet in heels, but never hesitated to speak her mind regardless of how much she had to tilt her head back in order to look someone in the eyes—something she deemed essential in honest conversation.
Her stories were about married life in the 1920s as a teenager living in a railroad boxcar converted to primitive mobile housing traveling from job to job with my grandfather, and how to stretch a dollar farther than anyone thought possible. Few days pass in which I fail to summarize something with one of her “lessons in life” or her witty sayings. Although her school days ended at 15, her wisdom influenced me in a way that my excess of education and degrees never could have.
Honesty and “doing what was right” was perhaps her strongest conviction. She was quick to correct a cashier for overcharging her three cents. But I also recall going with her to Watson’s Grocery Store on Greer Boulevard in Pittsburg one day to return a nickel after she arrived home and discovered they had undercharged her by that amount.
National Grandparents Day on the Sunday after Labor Day was Marian McQuade’s dedication to champion the cause of grandparents in nursing homes. She also noted that her hope was to persuade grandchildren to tap the wisdom and heritage of their grandparents: a vision that would enhance society in so many ways today.
It’s staggering to think that my window of generational learning spans the years between my grandfather’s birth in 1888 to my youngest grandchildren today. Even more thought provoking has been realizing that a wise person learns from their children as well.
Admittedly, it’s taken a furrowed brow and some gray hair to fully appreciate the generational life lessons provided me. I just wish I had more than black-and-white photos with which to share my grandparents with my grandchildren.
Maybe that’s why the line in Johnson’s song resonated so well with me: “A picture’s worth a thousand words; But you can’t see what those shades of gray cover; … you should have seen it in color.”
(Photos at the top of the page: According to my mother’s handwriting on the back, both of these photos were taken March 25, 1950, at my grandmother’s sister’s house in Fort Worth. The photo on the left depicts (left to right) my grandfather, S.V. Aldridge; me; and my father, Leon Aldridge. The photo on the right is me and my father again, this time with my grandmother, Hattie Lois Farmer Aldridge.)
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