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“What Would My Grandfather Do?”

In The Garden

In The Garden of Their Retirement Home

Every Wednesday I take my grandfather and his wife out to lunch. “Wait – his wife? Isn’t that your grandmother?” you ask. Well no, she’s his second wife. On Sunday the whole family got together to celebrate their 10th anniversary. They’re 97 years old.

Yes, when they were 87, they called both families together, paid for a lovely dinner, and then at the end of a wonderfully eloquent speech about the family and how much they loved each of us, they said in unison, “… But, we wanted to let you know that we’re spending your inheritance!” And for the next five years they literally traveled around the world together.

She now has Alzheimer’s, so she has good days and bad. Her quality of life is pretty good, though, because she has him. And my grandfather? He is still smart as a whip.

Yesterday we went down on the waterfront and had lunch composed of mostly local food: seafood and salad with berries. It was a beautiful day, we sat and watched the water and discussed how to change the world. Surprised you, didn’t I? Yes, every week there is a new topic to tackle, a new problem to solve. It has ranged from homelessness to climate change to the recession to our problems of garbage (Seattle ships garbage to Portland… long story). Last week it was peak oil. Yes, peak oil. He knows about it, and understands it, and tries to figure out how to solve it. Of course he doesn’t know the term, but who cares about the term – it’s just a term and it can be misleading anyway.

Yesterday’s topic was the bank crises. My grandfather built a couple of savings and loans from the ground up in the 70s and 80s. And he knew when to get out, too – a few years before the savings and loan crisis, he sold all of his shares and retired, because he saw it coming. Anyway, my grandfather mentored a guy named Kerry Killinger – gave him his first start and taught him everything he knew. He’s now the CEO of Washington Mutual. My grandfather says, with the shake of his head, “he knew better than to take those risks.” But that’s another topic. I want to get to the title of this post!

On Finding a Check Register

So, the other day I took my grandfather to buy a check register. It’s #12. The same one he’s used for 50 years. And he’s bought it from the same guy for 50 years. So we drove to his old neighborhood in Ballard, turned down a few side streets and then an alley and finally pulled behind a tiny run-down building where the guy’s shop was. It was closed, so my grandfather walked around and talked to the other businesses there to find out if the guy was still around. It was like walking through another era. In this little building there were three small businesses, all had been around forever, were run by the business owners themselves, and had people coming in as they had been coming in for years.

Well, the business owners said the man who sold the registers had retired, but it turns out one of the shop owners was the son of an old friend, so the two chatted for some time. Then the guy pointed my grandfather to Office Depot, where we did find the register. It was weird for my grandfather to go into that place, sterile and all, asking questions of people who worked there who weren’t invested in the store at all. But they had the register! I leafed through its pages: the design, shape, style – all have remained the same for at least 100 years. And it fits into the same leather cover my grandfather has had for 50 years, and it lasts for about 10 years: “It will last longer than me!” my grandfather said.

And that got me thinking on the way home. I realized that over the past year or two, since I’ve really been thinking about living sustainably, I’ve found myself asking on several occasions, “What would my grandfather do?”

My Grandfather, His Grandson, and His Great Great Grand Son

My Grandfather, His Grandson, and His Great Great Grandson


What Would My Grandfather Do?

I can’t decide which item to buy: the inexpensive one or the nice one. What would my grandfather do? He’d first decide if he really needed it by making sure he didn’t already have one, and then figuring out if he could make do with something he already has. If he still needed to buy it, he’d buy the one that will last forever.

I have a family member who is hard on his luck right now. What would my grandfather do? He’d help him get back on his feet, any way he could.

I have a friend who is ill. What would my grandfather do? He’d go visit, and he’d bring some nice home-cooked food for the family.

I need to write something down. What would my grandfather do? He’d take an old envelope from a bill and write on the back of it. (He wrote our wedding toast on the back of a card we’d sent him months before – he liked that it was so pretty and thought it added extra meaning to the toast. Then he gave it to us after the toast as a keepsake.)

I don’t need these dishes any more. What would my grandfather do? He’d give them to someone who really does need them.

Should I go out to eat or stay in? What would my grandfather do? Stay in, unless it’s a special occasion. And going out to lunch once a week with a granddaughter who has been out of town for 15 years is a special occasion.

The economy is going south. What would my grandfather do? Stop spending, plant more food in the garden, make sure all of his money is insured and in no-risk cds, and check to be sure everyone in the family is doing ok. If they’re not, he’d help them. After all that, he’d try to figure out in his head how to turn around the economy, and how to help others in need. Then he’d put any extra money into programs that help others in need, and he’d bring up those problems to fellow board members at Kiwanis and other boards on which he serves.

It’s big things, and small things. I don’t know if these qualities come from growing up in the Depression, being a hard working man, not growing up in the computer age, or just learning to be a good person. But for my grandfather, every decision matters, to ourselves, our family, our friends, our communities, and the world as a whole.

Supporting small businesses, bringing family and friends together and being there for them – without fail, living a frugal and conscientious lifestyle, making himself aware of what is going on in the local and national economy and political arenas, and enjoying life to its fullest… These are things he does well. And for all of these reasons I often ask myself, “What would my grandfather do?”

Toast At Our Wedding

Toasting At Our Wedding

What do you think?

Do you have someone in your life like this? Do you think about the “old ways” of doing things? Am I too nostalgic for a time when these things mattered to most people? Will we all live this way again: deliberately, happily, frugally, sustainably?

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46 comments to “What Would My Grandfather Do?”

  • I sincerely hope we can live like this again. A beautifully written and thoughtful post – thank you. It’s brought a tear to my eye. And how lucky you are to have a grandfather who has set you such a fine example of how to REALLY live.

  • I often think about the old ways of doing things. Unfortunately, all my grandparents have gone the other way. They all totally buy into the consumer society. None of them do things the old ways and haven’t for at least 30 years. They use disposible plates, cups etc. because they don’t want to bother doing dishes. They eat out all the time because they don’t want to bother cooking and them seem to have no concern for the environment what so ever. I love them all but don’t view them as role models in anyway. Most of my role models like this are people I’ve never met.

    Your grandfather sounds like an amazing guy! Thanks for sharing about him.

  • It would be incredible if everyone acted this way. There would be no need for welfare if people took care of their own families. People wouldn’t go into debt & lose their homes.
    There are so many things that we lost as we modernized, and being better people was lost on a lot of people as well. We could all improve trying to be like our grandparents or great grandparents, especially our diets. Would they even recognize some of the things we eat as food?
    Thank you for a great thought provoking post. I hope that you write down as many stories about your grandfather that you can. That would be a legend to pass on for generations!

  • I don’t, unfortunately, have anyone like that in my life. My grandparents have long passed on or are beyond being able to communicate like yours.

    How lucky you are? And what a wonderful set of questions you pose?

    If we all thought just a bit more like prior generations, in what state would this planet be.

    A reader launched a new website that explores the same topic. As we search for sustainable decisions, I think we should explore more what our grandparents would do.

  • Melinda, what a loving tribute to a wonderful man! I wish I had a grandpa like you do. You’ve certainly given us a lot to think about.

  • What an inspired piece to honor a remarkable loved one. I would love to see you share your weekly lunch conversations – or at least a quote from each.

    As Christy wrote, my only older relative is my 84 year old mother. She bought into the whole manifest destiny advertising juggernaut 60 years ago and never looked back. My efforts to dissuade her overtly, covertly, stridently, softly . . . whatever . . . have only entrenched her more deeply in her ways. Silly me.

    The irony for me has always been that she thinks of herself as a Democrat in a Republican state (and all of her mother’s family is seriously conservative so it is a topic never discussed). She is frugal, loving, and caring – but absolutely resolute in refusing to see the bigger picture beyond her tiny sphere.

    I write her every week and speak about all that I am doing and learning about sustainability, peak-oil, politics, farming and community projects. I treat her as an interested audience and think of her in an inclusive way. I include a family photo pertaining to each week’s theme I have chosen and a related nostalgia reference. I try through these to help us both focus on what we share rather than any opposing viewpoints. But, if given the choice I would have preferred instead to have had this loving person be my role model, my mentor.

  • You are a lucky, lucky person to know someone like this. And the best part is that you know your’re lucky. Thanks for the great post.

  • That’s beautiful! And no, you’re not being overly nostalgic.

  • Meg

    They look so sweet! I don’t have any particular “grandfather” that I learned from, but I do appreciate those sorts of values (which I guess many people would consider old fashioned). Especially the idea of buying something that will last or not buying it at all. I can’t stand how people treat everything as though it’s disposable!

  • Melinda, I loved this post. Where does your grandfather live ’cause I want to go over there and give him a big hug!

    Seriously, this reminds me a lot of the way my grandmother lived. She would be 95 if she were alive today so she grew up in the same era and with a similar mentality (although she was a bit nutty and paranoid, but that’s another story).

    I think this way of operating in the world definitely came out of living through the depression as well as living the majority of your formative years during a time when things weren’t disposable and when you purchased something it was for a damn good reason.

    It may have been antiquated thinking when we grew up with our cheap, foreign-made disposable goods, but I definitely see a resurgence in this sort of mentality. I think it makes you value objects a whole lot more and you don’t feel that “dirty” consumeristic guilt when you buy something you don’t really need.

  • This is an excellent post! I find myself thinking similar thoughts all the time. That’s a long story though… Anyway, thank you for this.

  • Beautiful tribute to your grandfather, Melinda. Do you share your blog posts with him, because I am sure he would love to read or have you read this one to him! :)

  • I love this post!
    Too often these days we don’t give our elders the respect they deserve. We don’t pay attention to what they have to say. We think we know better..and we don’t.

    I didn’t have any Grandparents growing. I sure wish I did!

  • Your grandfather certainly is a dapper looking fellow! And smart too! I have been lucky to have the teachings of many uncles and my grandfather ( and aunts and grandma)On the old ways. Luckily for me, many of my cousins and my mother are founts of information.

  • Juliet

    Great post! My step-dad grew up in Maine during the Depression- maybe everyone has heard this one before, but the phrase he lived by was “Use it up, wear it out. Make it do, or do without.” That’s the “old way” I try to incorporate (with varying degrees of success!) in my own lifestyle.

  • What a beautiful post! I hope your grandfather reads your blog.

    I, too, am lucky enough to have grandparents that have modeled sustainable living. I’m only now starting to appreciate it, though.

    Its funny, I have my first little “garden” and I’ve called both sets of grandparents to ask advice about how to take care of this or that. You’ve reminded me that I can look to them for advice about many other things as well. Thank you!

  • Coincidentally, I’m reading this post on the 97th birthday of my Nanie (my dad’s mom)…she’s still with us, though most of her intellectual capacity has sadly gone astray…but since losing my dad last year, it’s got me thinking more about how other generations live too. Lovely post…great reminders, how others lived before us, when we’re faced with such modern conveniences at the expense of our environment…

  • Oh! That brought tears to my eyes. My grandparents were people I could ask myself the same questions about, but sadly my grandma is in nursing home after suffering a stroke and my grandfather passed years ago. However, every time I try to make a recipe of hers (they were all in her head, nothing was written down – you had to watch to learn!) or when I think about planting something or canning something I remember them and their values. So, to answer your question, I don’t think the person still needs to be here on this planet for you to ask them, just there in your memory. Why does it seem their generation was much greener, wiser, smarter and entreprenurial than any other generation after? Great post, thank you!

  • Your not too nostalgic… these are characteristics of decency! Yes, they seem to be disappearing, but they are not gone… and it is up to individuals and parents to illustrate and encourage them.

    As to whom I can look up to it would be my mother. As shrewd a business woman as she is, she always considers what is the ethical thing to do and how it impacts others… and guess what? she was raised by her grandparents.

  • That’s what we call ‘Nanna-technology’, and though my own grandparents are dead now, I also reflect on how they (and my great grandparents) lived. My Nanna raised 10 children on a low income, they had a cow, and chickens, and two clothes lines in their backyard. My Dad is only in his 50s, but he’s always been pretty committed to careful spending and shaped the way I do things too.

  • What a great concept!

    Mine is “What would Tasha Tudor do?”

  • Oh, dear Lord, you have described the people who had so much influance in my life. My Grandparents where the sort who went through the depression with their belts in several notches, a garden in the ground, three babies, and a new business. They are long gone and I so miss them. Now, I try and remember things they did. I still have the bit of fabric selvage that my grandmother used to hand the canning rings on.

    My parents were visiting this week and I tried to jog their memories about their own parents and how they survived emigration, the war years, the dust bowl, the depression. So timely is this post.

    I find that I occasionally meet one of these people at church. The Sr. Warden at my church got her degree in engeneering in 1942 Britton (and only because girls couldn’t be chemists). She has amazing stories of so many people in thier house in the country that they could hardly hang up laundry to dry and stand at the same time. She was considered lucky because she could go out and do farm chores with her father. She talks about how they all knitted gloves and socks for the soldiers, and they all remember the rationing.

  • Ohh, one more thing (the memory is flowing). In college my pillow burst. I had had it all my life and it was a hand-me down. In addition to all sorts of feathers, I was shocked to find bits of hand made horseshoes in that pillow I’d used for years.

  • My Grammy was born in 1912. She was born “in town” in the Ozarks – but that meant a corner lot with over an acre – boasting garden galore, a barn, a chicken coop, a horse, a milk cow. She lived on the street named after her father. Her father lost his right arm to a cotton gin when he was 11 years old – yet he learned to play several musical instruments, was an inventor, built several homes – including the one that Grammy was born in, owned the first automobile in their town (which arrived in a crate in pieces – LOTS of assembly required!) – to name a few! So she grew up DETERMINED – she never lost that.

    One of the things I remember Grammy asking me as I was growing up was, “What would you have done 100 years ago?” or “What would the answer have been 100 years ago?” She’d ask that about everything from growing a garden to health care decisions to decorating! She was so cool!

    She was such a granola girl – without even knowing it! She taught me to love “brown” bread before I knew that I wasn’t supposed to. :) She was against chemicals – well, except when it came to hair color! LOL! (She was forever blonde! – and adorable!)

    Oh – you’ve got me going! Now I’m gonna have to write about Grammy on my blog! Sleep first, maybe tomorrow! Thanks for the catalyst.

  • Wow, you all – your comments are absolutely amazing, and brought tears to my eyes! Thank you for sharing your stories and thoughts!

    One of my best friends is getting married this weekend – a huge wedding – with festivities spread out over the whole weekend. So I’ve just been able to sneak a read at your comments. I’ll be back tomorrow or Monday morning at the latest, when I can really sit down with them. They’re beautiful!

  • Thank you for the inspiring post, my grandpa was a huge influence on my life, and my prime role model to this day. The only person whose name still brings tears to my eyes, even 9 years since he passed on. He was the type of guy who would drop everything to help a friend or family member. Someone who truly came from the hardest beginnings imaginable, and got by on wit. I don’t think he had much more than a few years of schooling but was a talented machinist and near genius with anything mechanical.

    Despite watching my grandmother slowly deteriorate from parkinson’s, his 2 heart surgeries, more bouts with cancer than I can count, he remained a warm person to the end.

    I had the great fortune to inherit his tools, and though I know I don’t have his skill, it gives me a bar to reach for.

    And of course he was a gardener, I can still taste the tomatoes! In fact my mother makes rhubarb bread from the stand he started decades ago.

  • I grew up in a household where the word “frugal” wasn’t used. We just used stuff up, passed it on, traded backyard vegetables. In other words, we were frugal. Then, when I grew up, married and lived in a two-income household without kids, I became profligate and acquisitive. Buying more stuff made me happy. I ended up with lots of stuff and not so much happiness. Now, I fondly recall those days of frugality and realize stuff isn’t where happiness comes from. I’m not as frugal as I was growing up, but I’m trying to be.
    It’s nice to meet someone else who appreciates those lessons our grandparents and parents taught us. You’re fortunate to have your grandfather around, and I suspect he’s fortunate to have you too.

  • I’m back! And again, thank you for sharing your stories – I love that so many of us value this lifestyle.

    DIANA, your words mean a lot – thank you.

    CHRISTY O, I am amazed that so many people who grew up during the Depression still do live frugally, as it would be so easy to say “I lived through it all, so I am entitled to whatever I can buy.” I think the latter experience is quite common – and human. I’ll continue to share my stories about my grandfather, so those of you who don’t have such a person in their lives can have him, too.

    ALANA, So true!
    “There would be no need for welfare if people took care of their own families. People wouldn’t go into debt & lose their homes.”
    Hadn’t thought of it that way – very interesting! I have thought about food: imagine when my grandfather was born in 1911, what would he have done with an avocado from South America in the winter? Or even bananas? I will definitely continue to catalog my grandfather’s experiences. I have been slowly filming conversations with him as well. ; )

    GB, Thank you for the link! I believe it’s
    . It looks like a great website, and she and I have traded emails thanks to you!

    KATIE, I sometimes think of you when I write these introspective posts – I’m glad you like them!

    KATE, I’ve thought about doing this once/week, but wondered if it would be too much. Hmmm… Since you’re suggesting it, maybe I will!!

    It sounds like you’re doing what you can – and that your mother is good in many other ways. I don’t mean to say that my grandfather is perfect either. Eg, he is a Republican – though I think he may vote for Obama – and I remind myself that Republican meant something very different earlier in my grandfather’s life. It’s wonderful that we have these elders in our lives – I’m glad you can focus on what you share.

    JOYCE, I do feel lucky!

    SARAH, thanks for the reassurance.

    MEG, maybe it’s the nouveau old fashioned or something. : ) I agree!

    CC, Awh, he’d love that! He’s in your neck of the woods, too – he’s lived in the Ballard area for the last 50 years or so. I wonder if some of us have to live through a simulated Depression in order to have the same values – whether it’s visualizing what the climate will look like in 25 years, or having that dirty guilt, or having a rough financial period…?

    JCC, Feel free to share that long story some time. ; ) Glad you liked the post!

    ARDUOUS, I probably should but haven’t – maybe some day.

    DANA, Well I’ll share mine with you!

    ROB, Indeed, dapper is a great word to describe him!

    JULIET, “Use it up, wear it out. Make it do, or do without.” Wonderful phrase to live by. We do have to redefine the old ways to our modern lifestyles, so any way we can…

    GR, Ah, well he doesn’t really read anything on the internet – it’s a bit to high-tech for him. But maybe, as Arduous suggests, I’ll read them to him someday. I’m glad you are also so lucky! You’re welcome!

    MELANIE, what a coincidence! I’m sorry your Nanie is not doing so well, but I’m so glad you have those memories.

    EBM, An extremely important point – so true. My grandmother on my mom’s side also taught me so very much. It’s from her that I learned about cooking and making things…

    SHAWNA, Awesome – not only can they live in our memories, but they can speak through other generations – I love that.

    KATE, “Nanna-technology” – I love it!

    MICHELLE, I’m glad you have someone, too.

    VERDE, Thank you for sharing your wonderful comment. Please find your way back here to comment again!! Memories are such powerful things! I have been jogging my grandfather’s memories as well, so that they live on.

    And you’re so right, that mentors and people who remind us about important ways of life can be anyone – my step-uncle’s mother was one such person for me. She used to run a one-room school house, and right before she died I had the opportunity to spend a couple of long conversations talking about her life. She sent me a couple of letters as well – I think I meant as much to her as she did to me.

    What an amazing find in your pillow!!

    DINA, your Granny sounds like an amazing, beautiful woman. What great stories!! Thank you for sharing them – they brought a tear to my eye! And you should definitely, definitely write about her. I’ll look for the post.

    “What would you have done 100 years ago?” or “What would the answer have been 100 years ago?” Excellent questions!!

    KORY, your grandpa sounds like a wonderful and caring person – aren’t we lucky to have had such people in our lives?! I inherited my grandfather’s tools as well. So much history.

    My mom still has my grandfather’s rhubarb in the garden.

    WS, Sounds like you’re learning and growing – great!! I think we really have to redefine what frugal, simple, and sustainable means to each of us in our own lives. And yes, I believe the relationship I have with my grandfather is very mutual!

  • I loved this post. My Grandmother has just turned 101. I often use a similiar thinking when I consider what or how I should do things. I think there is a lot to be learned from our elders.

  • BUSYWOMAN, Thank you for your comment! That’s amazing – your grandmother looks quite happy. Everyone, for more inspiration do check out her recent post about her grandmother:

    Wow. 101 and still living strong!

  • Melinda, that was a lovely post and you’re so lucky to have a truly wise grandfather. I didn’t really have anyone in my life that I would consistently choose to inspire me, so maybe I’ll just start asking myself, “What would Melinda’s grandfather do?”

  • CHILE, I love that. I may try to post about his wisdom and lessons regularly (as regularly as I can muster, anyway). I know I’m very lucky, and I enjoy sharing what amazing things he has to share.

  • Laura

    Nice post. Nice man. His life is truly a blessing.

  • Thomas Jefferson

    Heck my granddad was born in 1875 in north carolina. He didn’t have electricity until he moved north 25 years later. didn’t have running water, didn’t have indoor plumbing.

    I think about what they had to do to get by.

    When peak oil hits in full force, the depression era stories will be something we will wax whimsically over.

  • My fiance’s mother was born in China (she’s Russian/ long story) and she was very wealthy until the Communists stole her husband away.
    Then she had to carry milk from house to house, you know – like a milk cart with a horse, except she was the cart and the horse. Then the Communists found out she was working which was illegal so they made her stop. Which meant she couldn’t feed herself or her son. They would come by and check her house to make sure she did not have food.
    She did…but they never knew it ;) she did drafting and sewing by night. hehe

    My point is that I think of her a lot when I make my decisions too. I just never realized that I was doing that until I read this post.

    Amazing :)

    PS Melinda please kiss and hug your gramps for me. He is adorable.

  • Heather, will do! Is your fiance’s mother still alive? She sounds like a very interesting person, very inspiring! Thanks for sharing a bit of her life.

    I talk with my grandfather regularly about the Depression – he is reflecting back on his life more and more of late, and wants to share that information before he goes. What little we can live on, what we can live without and still be happy and proud… that we are all still human without money or possessions… and that we can find a way to get by moment to moment, while we never forget to remind ourselves of these important lessons in the future…

  • [...] am off to see my grandfather this morning, but I wanted to say a quick few words before I [...]

  • [...] My grandfather and I spoke for a long time Wednesday about the current financial crisis. As a former banker, he’s seen it coming for more than a year and can’t understand why the banks took so long to react. And he told me, “this happens with every generation of new CEOs,” once every 20 years or so, they get too greedy and they fall. [...]

  • [...] I drove my grandfather around to banks and investment houses and an accountant, so that he could make sure all of his [...]

  • [...] local charities, saying, “we’re all so lucky that we have everything we need.” My grandfather, who often gives each person in the family a check for Christmas, kept most of his money in his [...]

  • [...] And then it all changed in the 80s.  We moved from the Bay Area to Seattle, to be closer to my grandparents.  I believe you’ve met this guy: [...]

  • This is perfect! Thanks for referring me to it. Yes, I do have someone in my life like this…my grandparents.

  • You’re welcome, Willo – glad you liked it. And glad you also have your grandparents!

  • [...] guilt, it’s about sticking to your beliefs as you live your life. Every day. If it helps you, think about what your grandparents would have done, and where they would have gone when they needed [...]

  • Grandpa Joe is a man after my own heart.

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