“Dying Words”: The Things Your Grandparents Can Teach You, Pt.2

A couple weeks ago, I wrote part 1 of this post after reading a fascinating article in The Atlantic by Zeynep Tufekci called “The Tragic Loss of Coronavirus Patients’ Final Words.” Tufekci lamented the sad situation so many elderly Americans find themselves in during this pandemic—even more isolated than normal and often cut off from their families. In too many cases, they have even had to face perhaps the worst moments of their lives—dying—in effective medical quarantine, at best able to occasionally converse with loved ones over the phone, at worst left to die face down in a hospital bed hooked up to ventilators with only the comfort of a few health care workers passing in and out on their rounds.

Here’s a little more from Tufekci article:

It’s not just that the dying deserve to be heard or that their wisdom is valuable, but that the living need to have the chance to hear them—to let go on their own, mutual terms. That was something I learned the hard way, when my mother died unexpectedly in her 50s. There is no good way to lose a mother, but my loss was compounded by how complicated our relationship had been as she spiraled into alcoholism later in life…

Then my phone rang early one morning. I jumped out of bed to learn that she had died… My mind raced with only one thought: What was our last conversation? Had I hung up on her?… There [was] no longer a chance for a final, redemptive chapter…

That dying alone has been normalized, as if it were a small matter, is frightening and inhuman. The panic of the early days of the crisis could be seen as a temporary, terrible compromise. Since then, though, airlines have been bailed out to the tune of many billions of dollars, while there has been no rush to build more negative-pressure rooms, designed to circulate air out, at hospitals, which would allow for much safer visits. We still haven’t developed the infection-control protocols for visitors and built up supplies of personal protective equipment in ways that would avoid the need to completely isolate patients in the days and months ahead.

Even without all the wisdom of the ages, it takes a special kind of inattention to human suffering to not notice how unfortunate this is, that people have been left to face death alone. Some have come to fear dying alone more than the coronavirus itself.

The truth is that this pandemic has revealed profound weaknesses and inequalities across the spectrum of American institutions, from health care and public health to manufacturing, food production, electoral infrastructure, and public support systems. As the saying goes, “The measure of a civilization is how it treats its weakest members,” and it turns out that the U. S. really hasn’t measured up to its developed peers. That was true before the crisis, but it’s now been laid bare for all the world to see.

Thanks in part to Trump, of course, our government mostly ignored the pandemic throughout January and February and has continued to be extremely sluggish, contradictory, and ineffective in its response ever since. But many of our citizens haven’t done much better. Early on, some Americans even reveled in “the painful death of senior citizens by hailing the coronavirus as a ‘boomer remover.’” The slogan became a hit hashtag on Twitter in mid-March. Even in the early days of the shutdown, many Americans used the pandemic as an opportunity to host “Covid parties” or capitalize on cheaper airline tickets for nonessential travel. For others, this kind of ageist and ableist callousness has always been less overt, but still cruel and destructive—as Eva Raggio put it, many have taken “a more diplomatic ‘Let the virus take its course’ approach, which roughly translates to, ‘Fuck the old and sick people.’” Even now, amid the brutal second peak of this still-first-wave of the virus, restless “[y]oung people are infecting older family members in shared homes.”

Anyway, in this tragic context, I wanted to return to the theme of what we can learn from our elders. Several weeks ago, I polled friends on Facebook as well as a larger network of members from a couple social media groups I’m a part of, asking them to give me examples of the “wisest or cleverest things” they ever heard from a grandparent or important things they learned from their grandparents. I received a surprising number of enthusiastic and heartfelt responses, all of which served as a reminder to me of just how much there is to gain from our elders—from knowing, loving, and being loved by them—and how much I miss my own grandparents who have passed on.

I’ve edited the results and selected the ones that seemed worth sharing. I organized them in three batches. Here’s the first—clever or wise things our grandparents said—from the brilliant and insightful to the cliché, sentimental, and/or slightly questionable, and lots in between:

  • “A poor carpenter blames his tools.” – C. B.
  • “A shepherd smells like his sheep.” – B. R.
  • “Add a little of this and a little of that and taste, taste, taste!” – L. L.
  • “Always lay down a towel during sex, easy clean up.” – J. M.
  • “Always wear a good bra so your boobs won’t sag.” – G. K.
  • “Always wear clean underwear. If you’re in an accident and the paramedics have to cut your clothes off, you don’t want to be wearing nasty panties.” – A. P.
  • “Anything worth having is worth waiting for.” – M. B.
  • As a boy I lived for a while with my grandfather. One day there was a bee trapped inside our glass enclosed front porch and I was afraid of it. Grandpa calmly got a newspaper, wrapped it around the bee, opened the door and let it go. Then he said, “Always be merciful whenever you can be.” – J. D.
  • At 93, my grandmother would still walk a true country mile to go to church. She never would let you pick her up unless it was raining or snowing. She said, “It’s my time before church to walk and talk with Jesus.” – M. M.
  • “Baking is chemistry and numbers but above all it’s love.” – P. A.
  • “Cars don’t need automated windows.” – D. N.
  • “Computers are just a fad.” – E. H.
  • “Don’t eat sugar for breakfast. It will give you a headache.” – D. H.
  • “Fix the easy things first.” – W. C.
  • Growing up my grandfather sometimes told me, “Keep breathing through your nose.” In other words, sometimes it’s best not to speak. – K. D.
  • “I don’t need a half-hooved mule!” – R. H.
  • “I don’t want to be rich.” – J. S.
  • “I was never good at singin’, but the Lord doesn’t mind as long as my noise is joyful.” – K. T.
  • “I will shake any man’s hand once.” – A. R.
  • “I’ll give you this bright, shiny, new 1965 dime if you promise you’ll never marry a Republican.” I was four. – L. C.
  • “If a man leaves someone else for you, he will leave you too.” – P. L.
  • “If God made anything better than sex, He kept it to Himself.” – G. K.
  • “If the shoe fits buy it in every color.” My grandma told me this because she only got one pair of shoes a year when she was a kid and only if her brother’s shoes didn’t fit her or her cousin’s were too worn out. When she got old enough to buy her own shoes, she made sure she was never without a pair. – V. K.
  • “If there was something you could have done to help and you didn’t, you will never forgive yourself.” – K. P.
  • “If you ever borrow something make sure you stick to your word and give/pay it back.” – T. S.
  • “If you have a tattie, you’ll never go hungry.” – P. A.
  • “If you have to argue with your spouse, take off your clothes. It’s hard to get angry with someone when you’re both stark naked.” – D. W.
  • “If you want something pay for it.” In other words, try not to use credit. – J. P.
  • In the afternoon when the sun is still out but you can also see the moon, my grandma used to say, “Have you lost anything? Now’s the best time to look for it because the sun and moon are both a’shining!” – D. R.
  • “It ain’t a bargain if you don’t really need it.” – R. B.
  • “Little bird never flew so far he got away from his own tail.” – G. M.
  • “Look at the flowers. Enjoy sweet things. Rhubarb is a staple. Hold hands with your person even when you’re in your seventies.” – J. M.
  • “Measure twice, cut once.” – C. S.
  • My favorite thing my grandma ever said was, “Honey, the grass IS greener on the other side, but you still have to mow it.” – K. S.
  • My grandfather was born in the 1890s. He used to say, “There are no ‘bad’ children; only tired children.” – D. U.
  • My grandma was in her early 90s and my mother was helping her with something. She looked down at the floor and said, “If I knew I was going to live this long I would have had new carpeting laid!” We always took that to be great advice. If it’s something that you want to do, do it! – S. M.
  • Born in 1880, my grandmother liked to say, “all ladies ride horses.” – L. F.
  • My grandmother had an uncle who died by suicide. I remember her saying that she didn’t believe “God would hold such an awful moment against someone.” This may sound like a sad story, but it was the beginning of me realizing God was larger than my Southern Baptist upbringing. – L. K.
  • My grandmother told me, “Always marry for love, even if he comes from downstairs.” She grew up in India when it was still the British Raj and married “below” her in 1915. – P. A.
  • My grandmother used to say, “Never lend anyone any money unless you can afford to give it to them. Otherwise if they fail to pay you back then you’ve lost a friend.” – J. M.
  • My grandmother, who would be 104 if she was still with us, never talked about politics. One day in the 1980s she made an exception and said, “I’m a Democrat because Democrats care about the poor. The Republicans don’t care about the poor.” It took me many years to catch up to my grandmother’s simple truth. – C. B.
  • My grandpa once told me, “A war is how the gentry thin us out.” He served in WWI. – P. A.
  • “Never do anything standing up you can do sitting down.” – A. H.
  • “Never trump your partner’s ace.” – G. S.
  • “Red hot dogs make the best fishing bait.” – R. L.
  • “Save money, don’t give up on loved ones, and always offer guests something to drink.” – J. H.
  • “Someone needs to start the forgiving and be the first to say ‘I’m sorry.’ Say it even if you know you are right. Otherwise, 40 years will go by and you’ll wonder what you were so mad about and why you still aren’t speaking.” – M. E.
  • “Take care of the land and the land will take care of you.” – N. W.
  • “The less you say, the less you have to take back.” – B. M.
  • “Things aren’t ever so bad that they couldn’t be worse.” – J. S.
  • Throughout my life, whether fighting with my best friend in 2nd grade, or hating on a coworker who was backbiting, my grandmother taught me to always look for the good in others. She had a saying along those lines: “Two things are certain, and well understood: the good are half bad, and the bad are half good.” I still thank God regularly for the privilege of having known her. – L. L.
  • “Use coupons and buy in bulk. Always have enough food in stock. Grow your own vegetables.” – M. C.
  • “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” – J. W.
  • “We’ll get smarter as you grow up.” – D. L.
  • “What you don’t have in your brains you make up for in your legs!” My grandmother used to say this as she aged and would forget something in a room and have to go back to get it. – L. G.
  • When my children were still little, my grandma told me, “If you ever want to hear big talk, you have to listen to little talk.” – K. K.
  • When my husband and I started having our children my grandma told us this: “Children are HARD to kill.” It’s a great relief to new parents to know that children are tougher than what you think. – S. M.
  • “Women died so you could have the right to vote. Don’t waste it.” – K. P.

There are definitely some great ones in there. In the original batch of responses, I also noticed some elder sayings that were, um, a little more than slightly questionable… perhaps to the point of being deeply confusing or just downright disturbing. Here, for your amusement, are the best of those wacky responses:

  • “A crowing girl and a whistling hen. Neither comes to a good end.” – M. I.
  • “Be careful eatin’ skunk.” – A. F.
  • “Don’t ever trust a sumbitch that talks to you with his eyes closed.” – C. P.
  • “Everyone is Santa Claus.” – K. B.
  • “If your nose is itchy, some dog’s butt is in trouble.” I have no idea what that means, but every time I scratch my nose, I think about dogs. – A. L.
  • “Let the baby cry, or when she grows up she’ll have a stutter.” – J. B.
  • My grandma used to say, “If you go to bed laughing you’ll wake up crying.” It always creeped me out and I still have no idea what she meant. – A. B.
  • My grandma-in-law said women had to breast feed in order to suck their organs back up into place after having a baby. – S. M.
  • “Never touch the seat in a public restroom.” – C. A.
  • “Never trust a person from Kentucky—they’ll kill ya just the same as look at ya. Slime suckers are in fact slimy.” – A. H.
  • “Shotguns don’t leave no ballistic reports.” – S. R.
  • “The walking farts make folks smile.” – J. M.

I actually kind of like that last one. My Kentucky grandfather did have a tendency to let out some of the most hilarious buttery-sounding fried chicken farts I’ve ever heard. I still laugh.

Anyway, here’s one last batch of responses, more in the vein of things your grandparents taught you than things they said:

  • At nap time when I was little, we used to make our arms dance to the music, and that would relax me and make me fall asleep. – K. K.
  • Grandpa taught me how to drive a standard transmission in a field. I think I was 9. – M. V.
  • How to bake a pound cake. How to put a worm on a hook and fish with a cane pole. How to make baked banana pudding from scratch with meringue. How to live frugally and how to enjoy simple pleasures. How to tell the truth. How to love unconditionally. How to have courage. – J. L.
  • How to make good homemade pasta and gravy by hand (gravy = sauce). How to put up vegetables and make jam. How to peel and eat a persimmon and bake a mean cookie. How to be in true partnership with someone for a lifetime. How to make a proper pot of tea. How pretty a pink house looks in a sea of white ones and that it’s okay to be different—I’d be loved no matter how odd I was. – C. H.
  • My grandfather taught me to give without expecting anything in return. He would pack his backpack with food and give it to people in our neighborhood he knew were having hard times. My grandmother would tell me, “You gotta love ‘em, ‘cause that’s what Jesus did.” – K. T.
  • My grandfather was a student of creation and would draw my attention to everything from a budding tree to a red winged black bird by pointing it out and whispering, “Ooh, how about that?” – S. B.
  • My grandma always taught us that LOVE conquers all. She also made us sit on our hands when we were bad. – M. R.
  • My grandma dipped snuff. She swore by putting wet tobacco (straight from her mouth!) on a bee sting. This taught me to never tell her if I got stung. – S. C.
  • My grandma gave rolls of quarters to family friend’s kids when they’d come over to visit. A ‘just because’ gift. I always felt proud of her generosity. – B. H.
  • My grandma taught me how to hand sew quilt squares together when I was five years old. – J. J.
  • My grandma taught me how to turn leftovers into a brand new meal to avoid wasting. Usually by making casseroles. – F. S.
  • My grandma taught me lots of things. To be open-minded. To pay it forward. To look for spring plants (esp. morels). – D.S.
  • My grandma taught me to have fun. She showed me women could chew tobacco and spit like a man too. She was a little spit fire! – A. T.
  • My grandma taught me to read with an outsized King James Bible resting on her lap. – J. F.
  • My grandma told me to wear orange on St. Patrick’s Day. She was Irish but Protestant, not Catholic. Took me years to figure that one out. – J. P.
  • My grandma told the most wonderful stories of growing up in a household of 10 children after her father died of TB. She went to college with one dress that she washed out every night. She married a dentist and became President of the Women’s Auxiliary in Tennessee where she pioneered the mobile dental X-ray program. She was an incredible cook, champion flower-arranger, and lover of Jesus. – G. E.
  • My grandma told us a story of how her husband used to beat her up. One day she knocked him out with a Coke bottle. When he came to, he didn’t hit her anymore. Ever. They were married for some 50 years. – J. B.
  • My grandma was very serious about not leaving the house without lipstick—her beauty secret! I remember her sitting me down in a very serious way and showing me how to apply it. – K. E.
  • My grandmother always brought me Archie comics when I was sick! – M. R.
  • My grandmother always told us she made our grandfather court her for 13 years because she wanted to finish her education. After graduating high school and six years of college she finally said yes and they had a long and happy marriage.” – S. F.
  • My grandmother taught me how to kill and defeather a chicken. I miss her! – B. G.
  • My grandmother taught me how to pray the rosary. It was the first time I felt anything “holy.” – P. L.
  • My grandmother taught me to lick my finger and stick it in the sugar bowl. My parents questioned this wisdom.” – C. J.
  • My grandpa passed away a while ago and he had Alzheimer’s. Towards the end, he would forget just about everything he had done that day. One time I was playing around on my guitar and he saw me and asked if he could try to play it. It ended up being an exchange with us teaching each other various songs. It was such a cool experience because he couldn’t remember what he had for dinner that day, but he remembered how to play music he’d learned decades ago. This taught me that joy can be found in the midst of hard times, and that art can transcend so many barriers. – K. C.
  • My grandpa taught me to keep reading material in the bathroom. He potty-trained me with Little Golden books. – L. P.
  • My grandparents were married 50 years and still kissed and held hands to the end. They stayed in love their whole lives together and supported each other and that was my best example. – L. S.
  • My great grandfather taught me how to pinch the back of a snapdragon flower so it will open it’s mouth. Every year when the flowers start to bloom and I see a snapdragon, I go pinch it open and think of my great grandfather and his love for flowers. – B. R.
  • My great grandmother taught me to put a bead of sweet oil in my ears to keep safe from ear infections in cooler weather. – B. R.
  • My great grandmother was Native American and she taught me to be present and one with nature. To tap into the spiritual realm all around me. To see without my eyes but to open the eyes of my soul and look with awe, love, and curiosity. – D.T.
  • The most heart-tickling thing my grandma ever taught me was how to spit into a spittoon three feet out. So much laughing! – D. B.
  • There’s a skill my grandpa possessed that fascinated me when I was a kid and that I still cannot do well to this day. He could peel an orange with his pocketknife and never poke a hole in the orange, thus losing the juice… all while telling me a story. – G. A.
  • Tonight we had fish and rice for dinner. I grew up living with my grandma. If we had rice for dinner, she would always make me an extra bowl of rice after dinner, adding cinnamon, sugar, butter, and milk to make a delicious dessert. I did that for myself tonight and had such a powerful feeling of her with me. – J. W.

To my mind, there’s some beautiful stuff in there—little glittering nuggets of memory, tender illustrations of how the love and example of a grandparent can imprint upon us and stay with us for the rest of our lives. I hope you enjoyed the list! Feel free to add any of your own favorite examples in the comments section. Now I should probably go call my grandma…

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