My Son The Writer

My grandmother with my children in 2010.

Last week my son had a conversation with my grandmother, his great grandmother.  He had a school assignment to speak to someone – anyone he knew and could interview – who had a connection with World War II.  My grandfather was a pharmacist on a hospital ship based in Europe during the war, and though he died fifteen years ago, my grandmother was the obvious go-to source for help.

Before the call, Bailey created a list of questions to ask.  I looked over the list and they were good questions – ones designed to get her to talk and tell a story.  I knew my grandmother wouldn’t need much prompting to talk.  He wanted to know if Papa enlisted or was drafted.  He wanted to know if Papa ever saved any lives and how he survived the war.  He had questions for Grandma about the home front as well.  It was a good list.

As I predicted, Grandma didn’t need much prompting to talk.  She told Bailey a great story that Papa had told her about how the convoy that included his hospital ship normally sailed in complete darkness for secrecy, and then noticing the beauty of the lights on V.E. day when they could be more overt.  She reminded him that Papa was in Europe when my mother was born and he came home to fatherhood for the first time. She told him about how Papa donated his uniforms for Israeli soldiers after the war.  She told him about the patriotism of New Yorkers and how everyone did their part.  I listened to the entire interview as it happened on speakerphone.  My grandfather was just an ordinary guy, but at the same time, a great guy and a wonderful grandfather.  I spoke to him every day the last year of him life, and Bailey carries his name.   The whole conversation was rife with meaning – to my grandmother, to me, and even to Bailey.

With all of this info, Bailey had to write not an essay, but a poem.  That night, he sat down with his notes and wrote each line that Grandma had told him.  Then under it he wrote a line or two of description or analysis of the story.  He wrote concisely and tried to be as poetic as possible.  He really crafted the words.  He ended up with more than 400 words.

The next day Bailey’s teacher had a few words to say to the students about how to write, and actually suggested the method that Bailey used – quote then analysis.  He also had a word limit of 300 words, so Bailey then had to go back and tighten his language without losing any meaning – a tough exercise for any writer, novice or seasoned.  But he did it – he got it down to just about 300.

Bailey spent Tuesday evening reading the poem aloud over and over again to give it in class on Wednesday.  He said it went really well and the teacher and his classmates seemed to like the poem.  I was pleased for him.

Somehow he captured the feelings – he captured the idea that while my Papa wasn’t a war hero per se, every act at wartime is an act of heroism.  He found the words to name the sacrifice of missing the birth of his first child, and the depth of meaning behind giving uniforms to the army of the burgeoning state of Israel, much of whose initial population was comprised of former concentration camp victims.

I really didn’t help much; Bailey found the words to do it himself.  For me, as a writer, it was joyful to watch him do it.  The learning process – the thinking process – that is going on in his head as he develops never ceases to amaze me.  Is he learning from me?  I don’t know and I am not sure it matters much.  Bailey is just at the start of his educational journey, and I hope he can derive the same sweetness from it that I have had over the years.  He’s off to a strong start.

Regarding family, not the quake

Last week when I arrived in Florida unexpectedly, I realized that it would be a bonus visit to my grandparents.  My grandmother is 89 and lives in an independent living place where she has her own apartment and goes into a lovely dining room for dinner.  Last December she told me that she was as happy as she possibly could be without my grandfather.  She is feisty and funny and knits up a storm every day (you should see my sweater closet!).  We go out for lunch together, laugh and enjoy each other’s company.  She has been my very best friend for 39 years.

My grandfather is 93 and lives in an assisted living residence where he has his own apartment, but he needs quite a bit more care than my grandmother does.  I realize that it’s unfair to compare them, but when dealing with the elderly and children, it’s hard not to.  Frankly the most startling comparison for my grandfather is to his own siblings.  Of the six original Ledewitz siblings, five are still living, though they have all lost their spouses.  The eldest is 97 and living in an independent residence similar to my grandmother’s.  The next oldest is 95 and lives on his own completely – still driving, though I wouldn’t necessarily put my children in his car if I didn’t have to.  Then there’s my grandfather, followed by two more beautiful sisters, one 89 and the other 79.  The youngest two sisters completely belie their ages, looking, acting, and I hope feeling, each ten years younger. It’s a family with a lot of longevity in it.  I’m so proud to be part of that gene pool.

Recently my grandfather had a bit of a setback with a short hospital visit, and now he’s currently in a rehab center, hoping to regain his strength and return home.  On the first day I got there for a visit, he was lying on his bed, covered in a sheet, fully dressed, but obviously in some pain from a headache.  Additionally, my normally outrageously fastidious grandfather really wanted to change his clothes; felt that he wasn’t clean and neat enough.  This was a common refrain from a man who spent his life changing into proper clothes to wear to dinner, be it at the fanciest restaurant in town, or his own dining room.  He pressed his sense of orderliness and timeliness on his children and grandchildren, most of who responded   in kind.

Though he wasn’t completely aware of everything that was happening, and later in our conversation confused me with his youngest sister, he was very clear about what he wanted in those first minutes.  “I need to get new pants on before dinner and I need to get up into my wheelchair.  Can you do it for me, Aimee?”

The question was a serious one.  He was weak and fairly incapacitated; he’d be unable to help me and he knew it.  These were pretty intimate things he was asking of me.

I did not hesitate.  “Grandpa,” I told him, “when you have children there is some expectation that they will care for you in your old age.  You care for your children when they’re young and they care for you when you’re old.  Quid pro quo.  But with grandchildren, you care for them and give to them without any expectation in return.  You have been a good grandfather and you have taken good care of me all of my life.  Helping you now is my privilege.  It’s my chance to give back to you and it’s the least I can do.”

It took me an hour, and in the end, a little help from an aide, but we got his clothes changed and got him up in a wheelchair, and when I left, he was ready for dinner.

I am pleased to report that nearly a week later, Grandpa is doing much much better – eating his meals in the dining room, making progress on walking again, and even rode a stationary bike the other day.  His ability to hang on to a conversation is much improved as well.  He doesn’t, as my Aussie friends might say, lose the plot.  My mom says that Grandpa has 9 lives.  He has not yet used them up and will recover from this latest episode just fine.

I had dinner with Grandpa’s two youngest sisters last week, too.  They happen to be here in Florida either for the winter and/or visiting their brother.  They have been to see him pretty much every day.  We chatted about me, Japan, my kids, and then a million other family members (in a family with 6 siblings who each had 3 or 4 kids, there are at least 120 of us in the family to discuss!) I’m so impressed with them and the emphasis they put on staying connected as a family no matter what.

I’ve learned a lot in the past ten days – about myself, my response to disaster, my care for my children, and now here is a bonus lesson about my family and the commitment I have to them.  It is real and it is strong – no matter where I am in the world.

Getting Old is not for Sissies

I always learn a lot of lessons when making the trip from Japan to the U.S. to see my family.  This time, however, I seem to be learning more than usual about life in general.

My family is big – but beyond big, they’re close and in-your-face perpetually.  I will not lie: being across the globe from everyone is sometimes very difficult, but there are days when the distance is quite a relief.

On Tuesday I spent the day with my grandmother, age 88, taking her to buy presents for my two kids, to her knitting store (my grandmother knits every sweater I own and she’s absolutely incredible with her talent) and out to lunch before bringing her back to my parents’ house to see my kids swim and then have dinner before I brought her home again.

On Wednesday I got a call from my great-aunt who had received our holiday card and thought the photo of our family was terrific.  It was a nice call to get, but she also, at age 88, is going through her share of issues.  She lost a bunch of friends over the past year and she’s alone for the first time in her life, having lost her husband more than 16 years ago and a boyfriend quite recently.

Thursday I spent some of the morning with my grandfather, who is 93 and in an assisted living place.  But before going upstairs to his apartment, my mother and I spent a little time with the executive director of the place, discussing issues of my grandfather’s increasing dementia and agitation.  Always a jokester, my formerly jovial grandfather yelled at me yesterday because my father wasn’t paying enough attention to him while my dad and my son went to play golf.  In a brighter world, Grandpa would have been out on the links with them, but that’s not reality.

Even my parents see more doctors these days than I would prefer.  I recently helped my dad compile a list of his medications to bring to his primary care physician for a check.  What a list!  My dad is healthy, happy, and doing quite well, but it was more of a reality check for me than for him.

My mom and dad are doing a wonderful job caring for their elderly parents and it is not easy.  But sometimes they fail to recognize that it’s hard for me to watch too.  I hate that my grandparents are old.  I want to go back to being seventeen when I could take my car and drive to their houses  for the weekend and be completely pampered and cared for.  I hate that my parents are older, too, and reminders of that pop up in the most unexpected places.

I’m not yet forty and just feeling a little blue about time passing.  I know this is part of life and I can’t change it, nor would I want to.  These days and hours speaking with my various family members toward the close of their lives provide me with valuable tools by which I can see the second half of my life, too.  So that’s what I’m going to do going forward.  I’m going to be patient and I am going to listen.  These people are a gift in my life and I will embrace the gifts they bring as long as I can.