three ways of looking at my grandparents
“Eating out” with my grandparents has always involved starting about three hours early with a fanny pack and two Escapees RV Club water bottles per person. The fridge is stocked with store-brand soft drinks and a couple of six-packs of Old Milwaukee from the last grocery store you passed, two days ago, but for eating out, you bypass those and go straight for the bologna with its red plastic rind, and the real mayonnaise, not that Miracle Whip stuff your parents had in the nineties.
Your sandwich, crackers, sliced cheese, and cookies all go into the fanny pack, with a water bottle holder strapped on either side. And you have to check the indoor/outdoor thermometer on the wall before sliding the cover off the screen door latch and heading out, even though you are already dressed in layers and walking shoes. You will always be dressed in layers. If you are planning to eat out with my grandparents, you are either in the mountains or the desert. You have to be prepared. The thermometer check is just a ritual.
Once you’ve latched the door behind you, it is either off to the truck or down a trail, water bottles swaying. A few hours of exploring, either on foot or by road, await you before you unpack that sandwich. Dusty footpaths, prairie dogs, cactus flowers, stone arches, narrow switchbacks in the trail, grazing bison, flowing snowmelt streams, steaming fissures in the earth – the setting is always changing; the only thing you can predict is that it will be beautiful.
Often there is conversation, discussion of points of interest, stories someone knows about the landscape and its history. Many times there is also silence, appreciation for the sounds and smells, the rhythm of one’s breath and footfalls or the friction and curve of the road.
And after a while, my grandparents exchange a look that is not really a look, insofar as a look involves direct eye contact. They just incline their heads in each other’s direction, and my grandfather pulls the truck over or my grandmother strikes off the path a bit. There is always a picnic table that seems to rise out of the ground, unseen by all but my grandparents, and it always overlooks something beautiful or interesting or funny.
I vividly remember “eating out” this way with them alongside the Yellowstone River one summer when I was in middle school. It was June and finally sunny enough to allow me to shed my sweatshirt for a little while as I watched what had recently been snow making its foaming way around a bend in the river, headed downhill. The grass was greener than I have ever seen grass anywhere, and I’ve never tasted a bologna sandwich that good. I remember biting into it and feel like I had really made it in life.
I have heard it’s a saying among interior designers that if a person’s aesthetic taste is going to take after the taste of someone else in the family, it will most likely hearken back to their grandparents’ ideas of style rather than their parents’. I don’t know why that would be, or whether the theory holds water, or even if designers really say that or even care. My tastes at this point in life run generally more toward “free furniture” than “mid-century modern.” And my grandparents’ seem to consist largely of whether or not an item is made of a durable material. If we had world enough and time, I don’t know if we’d decorate our houses the same way.
Increasingly, though, it seems to me that in building our life as a couple, Lance and I are following much more in my grandparents’ footsteps than in those of either of our parents. My grandparents married right before my grandfather, Dick, shipped out for military service in Taiwan. My grandmother, Elaine, followed a few months afterward, traveling across the world alone at a time when overseas phone calls were strictly for emergency matters. It took my grandfather hours to find her when she finally landed in Taipei.
They made their first home together across an ocean and a continent from their families in upstate New York, inventing a life on ingenuity and a military paycheck. For their first Christmas, they made ornaments by spray-painting walnuts gold. My grandmother made almond cookies, a recipe I still make every Christmas, in an electric skillet because they didn’t have an oven.
My grandparents became parents young and had plenty of plans for their lives as empty-nesters. When I was in elementary school, they sold their house, moved the family heirlooms into storage, and moved themselves into a fifth-wheel RV. For most of my childhood, home was where they parked it – my parents’ or aunt and uncle’s backyard at Christmas, Big Bend National Park for the rest of the winter, up in the Rockies or New England during the summer. They visited every state, and more National Park sites than I even knew existed. That’s how I came to be “eating out” at Yellowstone with that bologna sandwich and the water bottle fanny pack – spending a month with them touring as many western sites of interest as we could, seeing the world from the pull-out bed in the RV’s living room.
The two things I always knew my grandparents had taught me are how to live frugally and how to appreciate nature. These, I am sure they instilled on purpose. I know I think of my Grandmama when I’m hiking on a shaded mountain trail, and of my Grandpapa when I find off-brand cola on sale for half-price. The new thing I’m realizing that they’ve taught me is the balance of prudence and adventurousness that I now find myself, along with my husband, trying to reach for.
They have never shied away from an opportunity to experience something new, and they have never let the social values around them dictate their actions. I’m sure their families thought they were nuts when they moved to Taipei, and again when their first daughter was born there. For them, each other’s opinions were the ones that mattered most; they set themselves together on a course and did what it took to make it happen. They still take this approach. They wrote in our memory book at our wedding that the secret to marriage was being best friends.
They make it work, and make what they want happen, by pairing their adventures with pragmatism. Lifelong frugality allowed them to travel freely, and choices like eating out in the great outdoors are emblematic of the lifestyle they’ve cultivated. It just seems natural to anyone who knows them. But I see, from talking to them now as an adult, and trying to make my own way in the world, that it is a product of conscious choice.
As their grandchild, I want to follow their way of taking on the world, doing things their own way, and working as a team. And I intend to pattern my choices after theirs to make it happen.