Conservative. Old-fashioned. Persnickety. Judgmental. These are words I might use to describe my mom’s parents, Grandma and Grandpa Diller. Like many of their generation, they embodied the post-World War II belief that conformity, hard work, and discipline were what led to a successful life. Anything worth doing was worth doing right.
The rift between this “greatest generation” and their rebellious offspring is a well-worn theme in stories of the American twentieth century. But just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s less personal or easier to handle.
In the case of my family, it began when my mom went off to college and got involved with a preacher’s kid who was a little too interesting for Grandma and Grandpa’s taste. When they found out their first-born child, whom they had worked so hard to shelter and raise correctly, wound up pregnant before her wedding, their opinion of my father sank further. As my grandpa told me recently, “I know it takes two to tango, as they say, but that didn’t stop me from blaming him and his side of the family.”
Other differences added to the tension: disagreements about money, politics, religion, and of course, how to raise children. Dad resented my grandparents’ attitude of superiority. Grandpa didn’t appreciate his son-in-law’s lack of respect toward him and most of what he stood for. Mom tried to keep the peace.
It was hard for a kid to understand exactly what was going on. For the most part, my siblings and I were kept out of it. Thankfully, in spite of their differences, everyone agreed that family time was important. My sister and I spent weeks of our summers with Mom’s parents, just like we did with Dad’s. We visited for holidays, celebrated birthdays and anniversaries. As far as we kids could see, everyone usually got along just fine.
Actually, there were many more arguments when we visited Dad’s side of the family. A group of five brothers and one sister, all of them educated and opinionated, they were used to heated debates. It wasn’t uncommon for my grandpa Ball to get worked up enough to lose his temper and yell, “Lyle! (or whomever he was arguing with at the time) That’s just a bunch of B.S.! Just a bunch of B.S.!”
Nobody stayed mad for long, though. It was a short-fused, short-lived kind of anger. A post-feast exercise that kept people’s wits sharp and their blood flowing. The way I understood it, my dad and his siblings fought the way my sister and I did. When it was over it was over, and deep down everyone loved each other pretty much unconditionally.
For her part, Mom fell in love with Dad’s family. They reciprocated, welcoming her warmly and loving her the same way they loved each other.
That never happened with Dad and his in-laws. And even though I couldn’t understand the source of it all as a kid, I could feel it. I didn’t know about politics, money, or religion. I didn’t care about class differences. This lack of love was a deeper thing that I recognized on a gut level. I couldn’t help how that emotional intuition influenced my view of Grandpa and Grandma Diller.
One major effect was that my siblings and I over-identified with the Ball side of our own personalities. Basically, in our minds, Ball was better than Diller. We valued “Ball” passion, creativity, rebelliousness. We rejected conservative ideals outright. Rules, discipline, planning, and concern for security would only turn us into the kind of rigid and judgmental people we didn’t want to become.
Of course, such a simple view of life can’t hold forever. As I grew older, I came to realize how much I appreciate order and routine, even disciplined planning. I lamented the fact that I received basically no financial education. True, I don’t believe money is important in the way that my mom’s parents did, but rejecting the very idea of a financial education probably wasn’t too smart of me.
Likewise, as I got to know and understand my grandfather a little better in this last decade of his life–mostly through stories from my mom–I discovered how much more there was to him than I believed for most of my life. With that knowledge came a whole lot of regret. I wish now that I had spent a lot more time with him and my grandmother. It was foolish of me to neglect my relationship with them.
The guilt of that neglect weighed on me last December as my brothers, my wife, and I drove out to Colorado to see our grandparents. We knew Grandpa was dying. I realized it had been five years since I had last seen him in person, and it wasn’t like we visited frequently before that. He barely knew my wife Emmy.
Grandpa was happy to see all of us, but he said over and over how glad he was to see Emmy. “Of the three boys, I always felt like I never got to know Courtney or his family as well as I wanted to,” he said. He wanted to know how our life was, whether we were happy. We told him honestly that we are happy, that we are best friends and have a great life, a great family.
He told us that when he went to our wedding and saw Emmy six-months pregnant, he said to himself, No, no, no. Not again. (I was the second son of my parents to get my wife pregnant before we were married. You can imagine what feelings this brought up for Grandpa.) “But then,” he said, “while I was sitting there watching the two of you, I just flipped. I thought, This is okay. This is good.”
We had a wonderful visit with both Grandpa and Grandma. Our conversations with Grandpa were the best I ever had with him: open, honest, real, heartfelt. He was ready to die, but he was so thankful to see all the family who had come to visit him during his last few weeks of life.
Grandpa was also more affectionate than I had ever seen him. That deep, underlying love I thought might be missing came pouring out over all of us, again and again. “I love you all. I love you all,” he said repeatedly as he drifted in and out of sleep. In the end, that was all he had left for us. There was only love.Like this? Click to subscribe!