Earlier this year my grandparents moved for what might be the last time. After sixteen years at a lovely house in Michigan—great for bringing together family but far too big for the two of them to manage alone—they downsized. Their new house, twenty minutes away from my parents, better suits their needs. Minus a few stairs to get into the attached garage, everything is on the same level. The showers are outfitted for accessibility. Yardwork, mowing, and snow removal—the subdivision sees to all that. In short, as a compromise between independence and age, this new house is ideal.

Jes and I have gone to visit them twice since their move. The first time we went up for the grand tour, to share in their excitement. The second time was for reasons not unrelated to the first—or at least for reasons that are difficult for me now, looking back, to disentangle. Something about new places, I think. New places, and fresh starts, and history that’s seemingly being left behind.

“See, but that’s not what bothered me,” I told Grandpa and Grandma, trying not to sound like a dick as I said it. “What bothered me wasn’t the fact that I don’t know your history. That I don’t know my own history, I guess.”

I licked my lips and smoothed the open journal in my lap. From their armchairs, Grandpa and Grandma observed me placidly, Grandpa with their ornery little dachshund on his knee.

“What bothered me,” I tried again after a moment, “is the fact that I didn’t care that I don’t know your history.”

Probably there was a more generous way to express my ambivalence. But I doubt it would have been as honest. Somewhere between our first and second visits, three things had come slowly but powerfully to my attention. First, most of my memories of my grandparents are set at their old place in Michigan. To encounter them here in their new house is, in a weird way, to encounter them out of context. And that act of defamiliarization, of being brought up short by a familiar face in a strange place, cleared ground for my second discovery: that, really, when it got right down to it, I didn’t know as much about them as I thought. I had bits and fragments, sure—shards of story amassed over twenty-eight years—but in reality, what I’d done was mistake the parts of my grandparents’ life that overlapped with my own, the parts they’d elected to share with me, for the whole thing.

The final realization was the one I worried would hurt their feelings, the one I blundered into. For in the end, the problem wasn’t just that I didn’t know their history, or my history, or our history. The problem instead was that not knowing didn’t bother me. I didn’t care. Not knowing my grandparents’ history—not knowing where they met, where they were born, or even when their families immigrated—had never troubled me. It certainly had never harmed me. Unlike plenty of other people in the U.S., I have never felt compelled to account for who I was, where I was, or what had brought me to be there. And indeed, if I recognized the fact of my own contingency at all, it was only ever in the most abstract sense.

Much of this indifference to my own origins has to do, I suspect, with being white, and with whiteness—with how the pressures of assimilation into a white identity often entail a loss of the particularizing past. Much of it likely also has to do with the sheer pace of modern life and its endless, urgent litany of work to do, places to go, people to meet, and money to make. Yet at the same time, no small part of it is a consequence of my own smallness and selfishness—and not even a malicious smallness and selfishness. I love my grandparents, or try to, just as I love Jes, or try to. But in what so often feels like the stage play of my life, I am always the most vivid, the most fully realized, actor. And it’s difficult sometimes, even with people you love, to remember that’s simply not the case.

My grandparents have had a lifetime to figure that out, of course. They took my halting clarifications in stride, and over the following three hours, they talked. They talked, and Jes and I listened, and at the end we left their house with seven pages of hastily scribbled notes. Details I’d never heard or had only ever heard in passing—about their parents, about their childhoods, about their first business dealings, about their kids.

I’m not sure what I plan to do with these notes. I had thought to incorporate them more directly into this post, but I didn’t. I should organize them, at least, but even if I don’t, I’m glad I have them. Settling into the car with Jes after leaving their house that second time, Jes remarked that she’d never heard my grandpa, who’s always been quiet, talk so much. And that stuck with me—stuck with me almost as much as one of the final things they said before we left.

When asked why it mattered that we learn this history, they both gave variations on the same answer: I wish I had asked. I wish I had asked my own father, my mother, my grandparents. I wish I had more to tell you.

7 Comments

  1. Alex Johnson

    Wow, yeah. Act Two of This American Life’s #735 “Bloody Feelings” captures this same feeling: not knowing and not caring about the past. I, too, have felt this gap of historical knowledge within myself more and more, and having these talks feels even more pressing with the enormous losses from COVID-19. Thanks for being vulnerable and open about your conversations.

    Reply
    • Ben DeVries

      Ah, yes–I remember listening to that episode. It’s a pretty spot-on comparison, really, and for anyone interested, I definitely recommend checking it out: https://www.thisamericanlife.org/735/bloody-feelings/act-two-10

      And re: that gap of historical knowledge: it’s such a weird feeling. There’s a shallowness to the experience of it that, most days, I can ignore. But increasingly–and maybe, as you say, because of COVID–it’s really, really bothered me.

      Reply
  2. Paul Spyksma

    Gosh, Ben, just when I think the post Calvin is getting tiresome and a little too self-involved somebody comes up with something that resonates like a forty foot wind chime. You are so lucky to have come to this realization about your grandparents’ lives while they are still here. I wasn’t so fortunate. My last grandparent left this earthly plain before I was out of college, and it never occurred to me to quiz any of them. You are exactly right about mistaking the part of their lives that overlapped with your own for their lives. That’s an insight I won’t soon forget.

    In my case, it took Ancestry.com for me to learn about my maternal Grandmother’s life, sixty years after she passed. I knew her as a sweet old soul who made a killer raisin cake. More recently, I visited her grave in Chicago, a place I hadn’t been to since the eleven-year-old me attended her funeral. Only this year did I learn that she had more than the four siblings I knew of. There were nine children in her family. The four younger ones, born in the Netherlands in the 1880’s and 90’s, didn’t live to see two years of age. When she was fourteen she got on a boat and came to Chicago and found work cleaning houses. The stories she could have shared! I’m at the point where my last living Aunt/Uncle passed at 94 back before COVID, so all I have are the hazy recollections of older cousins, some of whom are already gone.

    Here’s what to do with those notes: Sit down with your children, or at least nephews and nieces, and tell them in no uncertain terms that you are saving them from deep future regret by forcing these stories into their phone and video game-addled heads.

    Reply
    • Ben DeVries

      Thanks for the generous comment, Paul (though, for the record, some days I definitely count myself among the phone- and video-game-addled haha).

      I’m glad to hear you found out as much as you did about your family. Since that conversation with my grandparents, I’ve also considered doing research along those lines you mention (Ancestry.com, archival research, etc.)–and that’s a surprising thing, at least for me. If you’d asked me even three years ago whether I had any interest in that sort of research, the answer would have been an emphatic no. Hard to say what’s changed, but I’m glad it did.

      Reply
  3. Chad Westra

    I resonate, Ben. Another layer can be which family line to follow, or which one’s are available to follow at all. For instance, I don’t know much about my Westra line after my great grandfather, and from there it shifts to my great grandmother’s Syswerda line. So my knowledge and engagement with family history is more like a web of sputtering lines that go out in many directions in fits and starts.

    Reply
    • Ben DeVries

      Hard agree. And “sputtering” is, I think, the right word for describing that network, insofar as it gets at how fragmented and inconsistent those lines of connection can be.

      Reply
  4. Kyric Koning

    Ah yes, the desire to know, especially when applied to a person is a beautiful thing. Wanting to connect with someone, or finding out exactly what a preexisting connection means or meant is a blessing. Some things won’t be known or won’t be shared. Take heart of what is.

    You have certainly done a lot more than most. I can definitely resonate with a lot of what you’re saying here. Sometimes it feels like I don’t even know my parents that well, let alone my grandparents and those further along my ancestral line.

    Reply

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