Lessons for My Kids From the Grandpas They’ll Never Know

My kids will never know their grandfathers.

My husband was 14 when his dad died of cancer, and my dad died four years ago when my kids were 4, 2 and 9 months. They don’t remember him. It breaks my heart.

As the fourth anniversary of my dad’s death approached, however, I started contemplating how our dads directly influenced who we became and how we’re using those lessons to shape our children into the adults they will be.

Our dads aren’t here merely in spirit. They’re here in our values. They’re here in our decisions. They’re here in how we love.

So, here’s what I hope our children learn from our dads, via us, the two people lucky enough to have known and loved them all.

To our kids:

Do the right thing, even when it hurts you. Your dad’s grandpa once ran a business with some “off the books” work. When your grandfather took over the business, he opted to do everything on the up-and-up. It led to a few problems with the British government, but everything got sorted. It’s moments like that that taught your dad honesty and hard work, two of his best qualities.

Your paternal grandfather, Bruce; your dad and his baby brother, your Uncle Jonathan

Go to France. France is where your dad vacationed as a child and where we began our European adventure in 2008. Somewhere between Nice and Cannes, we learned we were going to be parents. France has the best campsites in Europe and will ruin everyone’s else food for you forever. But don’t take our word for it. Go to France.

Never give up on someone. As a teenager, my brother was angry, rebellious and an avid drug user. He attended four different high schools his senior year because he kept getting expelled. My dad never gave up. It was my dad who, after your uncle decided to turn his life around, got him enrolled in High School No. 4. That put your uncle on the path to being a criminal defense attorney, just like my dad. If you want to understand the best of my father, look at your uncle.

Me and my dad, Bill, your grandpa.

Don’t make excuses. Just be better. Not all experiences are positive, but that doesn’t mean the lessons can’t be. My dad was unconditionally loving to us and one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. He was also bipolar, rarely took his medication and used his diagnosis to justify poor behavior. I’ve long since forgiven him for the crazy. But when I find myself rationalizing being a lazy parent, or acting impatient when I ought to be calm, I think to myself, “Don’t make excuses. Just be better.”

Have fun. Ask your dad sometime about the day your grandfather came home dressed as a horse. Ask me about the day my dad stopped the car alongside the highway in the blazing summer heat to let us run through the sprinklers farmers were using to water their fields. Our dads knew how and when to have fun. Decades later, we still laugh at those memories.

Remember people for the totality of who they were.  Your grandfathers weren’t perfect. None of us are. Your dad’s dad went off the deep end with religion and, from that, could be cruel. My dad could be self-indulgent and prone to self-pity. Why is that important for you to know? Because glossing over their challenges deprives them of their humanity. Their struggles, the things they overcame and the things they didn’t, were integral parts of what life taught them, what they taught us and what we’re teaching you. Remember people for who they were. But …

Forgive everyone everything. This is one of my favorite lines from “Tuesdays With Morrie.” Your dad and I aren’t blind to your grandfathers’ faults. But we don’t dwell on the hurt. Your dad remembers family vacations and his father’s unfailing honesty. I remember my dad zooming over country roads just to make us laugh; or dashing out the door with us, on a whim, with an uneaten dinner still on the table, to catch a show at the movie theater. Bean-counting and bitterness are both a waste.

Love, love and love some more. What do your dad and I remember most about our dads? This: We always felt loved. Hugging my dad was like hugging a mountain, in the best possible way. I always felt safe, cherished. Your dad remembers riding atop his father’s shoulders or simply chatting, father to son, in the car. Love is the very best thing we humans get, and your dad and I never once doubted our parents’ love. If we pass along no other legacy from generation to generation, that’s the one I choose.

Kirsten is a native Wisconsinite who married a Brit, moved to England and happily ended up in Madison in 2010. She and her husband, Adrian, are parents to Sophie, Charlie and Susannah, who fascinate and exhaust their parents pretty much every day. A former newspaper reporter, Kirsten now supports mompreneurs through her website, motherbility.com. She's also a mini-expert on traveling with kids. (Always answer "Should we go to ... " with "yes." Bring toys, snacks and an excess of patience.) She and her family camp every summer, usually in state parks, because they love outdoor living. And s'mores.

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