Over the last few weekends I visited my three living grandparents and my 99 year old great-great-aunt. Doing so revealed lessons in how the world changes, how elder relatives teach us about ourselves, and what it’s like to grow old.
Like a lot of American families, we Ferdigs are interested in our ancestors—their countries of origin, what each mother’s maiden name was going back through the generations (It’s easy to forget I’m just as much a Beighley, Kranz, and Freyholtz, the surnames of the my other three grandparents), and the experiences, personalities, and even a couple legends of those who came before us in the family tree. We identify with these histories.
In fact, my most-commented article to date, was last summer’s interview of my then 98 year old great-great-aunt, Olive Hendrickson. My great-grandpa Clarence Ferdig’s sister, she was able to tell me all about him and their father (my great-great-grandfather, William Ferdig). Commenters included people from Montana to Texas with relation to Olive, expressing appreciation for the write-up of her life and the photos from her 98th birthday celebration.
In addition to interest in the family tree, are my curiosities about the worlds my older relatives knew. Over this 4th of July weekend, I visited my Grandpa Ferdig, 81. Sitting with him and his wife at their kitchen table in their rural home, we picked at a bowl of trail mix while my easy-going, bearded grandpa told me about living 12 miles outside of Blackduck, MN in the 40s. During spring breakup their driveway got so muddy they had to take a tractor to the car parked half a mile away on better ground. He recalled once going to a wedding as a boy, their large family dressed in their Sunday best and hanging on to the tractor making its way through the mud.
Not too many years prior, there weren’t any cars and tractors in this land.
Grandpa’s dad’s generation made the switch from horses, and his mother’s dad was an original homesteader there in the early 1900s. I asked about relations with the Native Americans in these days, these settlers being the first whites living where the Ojibwe previously had free reign. Grandpa recalled no issues, and in fact (it being the weekend of the 4th), was reminded of the time they drove up to the Red Lake Reservation when he was 8 or 9 for the Reservation’s annual 4th of July celebration complete with powwow and a tug-o-war of Whites vs. Indians. He remembers the Indians cheering “like school boys” when they won that year.
Things change. Life is malleable. Our elders dispense this truth as living testaments to prior worlds.
Because these elders also happen to be relatives, speaking to them (and learning about passed ones) helps enrich one’s understanding of themselves. Grandpa Ferdig also shared a story his father told him about his father’s father coming out from underneath the porch upon hearing great-grandpa Clarence shooting the family 12 gauge as a boy. his heavy drinking father was sleeping off another drunk. Great-great grandpa’s drinking got him in barroom fights, and his unsettled nature had him moving his family repeatedly about the upper Midwest. And this means something to me, because of my own propensity to move fairly often; because he’s the only ancestor I know of who might share in my own alcoholic past.
These personal identifiers extend to both sides of my family tree.
Over the 4th I also met with my mother’s father, Grandpa Freyholtz. Since my grandma, his wife for 56 years, passed last November, Grandpa and I have grown closer. This day, this clean-shaven, skinny man and I sat at his kitchen table of their farm house. He offered me a chocolate chip cookie he made from Grandma’s recipe. It was chewy and quite good. Sitting down himself, and after some pleasantries, he opened up about his interests in life: simple things like a tree, complex topics like religion and morality, and every day matters like relationships. He described himself as a lover of knowledge, an observer of the world. I always hunched this lifetime farmer was a man of ideas, but only now discuss it with him.
It would be appropriate for him to share his thoughts on paper. He declared this, but will not be writing anything as his shaky hands barely allow him to sign a check. These hands were once steady, but aging changed that.
Getting old is hard. At their kitchen table, I asked Grandpa Ferdig and my step-grandma a question I thought was fairly obvious, yet had never come right out and asked: are a lot of people they know dying? They said they can’t make it to all the funerals. Grandpa talked about the foursome of guys who took the first of many annual trips out to Colorado for elk hunting in 1958. Today, my grandpa is the last one alive.
On the other hand, one can look down from their perch in the family tree to recognize all the life below. During our visit, Grandpa Freyholtz proudly showed me a book of the family tree descended from his great-grandpa Freyholtz who arrived in the U.S. from Pomerania (then in Prussia, now Germany) in 1876. Listing all the descendants and assigning each a number, I was impressed as this book revealed that this one couple–Johan Fredrick Wilhelm Amandus Freyholtz and wife Florentine Fredericke Henrietta Zastrow (Freyholtz)—has been responsible for over 400 lives and counting.
My grandparents today are blessed to see their grandkids now having families. My great-great-aunt Olive has great-grandchildren having children.
The weekend before the 4th, I visited Olive having missed her 99th birthday celebration a couple weeks prior. I arrived to her apartment in her senior facility in South St. Paul, and the short old woman happily opened the door. After the “Hi, how are yous” and the standard offering of snacks and drink, we sat. Time to visit. But what do you talk about?
I think a lot of people avoid visiting older relatives because of these potentially awkward moments. I understand their concern. Olive doesn’t keep up with the latest events or trends. As she had been last year, she repeated her surprise at how my camera can create an image instantly displayed on the back.
Here was that image:
But I didn’t come to talk gadgets. I didn’t come to talk history as I was already honored to be able to interview her in depth last year. I came for Olive–because her husband’s gone; because her kids (and grandkids and some great-grandkids) are grown and have lives of their own; because she doesn’t like to leave her apartment. So we talked about her hobbies and also about the past when it came up. She talks about family. She was nervous about her great-granddaughter going to Japan for a month this summer. “Will the Japanese let her leave?” she wondered aloud.
While there, her daughter and son-in-law arrived. After getting reacquainted with son-in-law, he started speaking about politics.
I saw Olive tune us out.
When I watched her sitting there I saw a woman who at 99 is sharp as a tack, but nonetheless doesn’t take an active role in the world any longer. Her time is spent in thought or on activities like crocheting and crosswords. Her mind adrift, I changed the topic by asking her about her hobbies, meals, or neighbors. She was eager to show me her latest made handbag and tissue box cover.
I realized you don’t visit such a relative for typical social purposes, you go into it acknowledging and appreciating where this person is in their stage in life and honoring this because it will one day be part of our lives. Plus, the history stuff is awesome. This day she shared that her husband and her bought their house in South St. Paul in the 1950s for $8,900.
All this talk of change and past years and mortality is powerful and true, but not the whole picture. For Christmas last year, many kids/grandkids bought Grandma Ferdig, 77, her first computer. Some family were skeptical of buying her something she’d doubtless have countless questions about. All the familiarity with, and the multi-step tasks we perform on, computers is taken for granted. Could Grandma even turn one on–let alone open programs, surf the Internet, and send an email? But I was inspired one day to get one for her when seeing her look at them in a store the summer before. Plus, her job at a school got her somewhat familiar by watching the kids.
She was shocked to open it that Christmas morning. And since then (and yes, through some trying over-the-phone tutorials) she’s become comfortable using it. I visited her as well over the 4th in her humble double-wide, and while showing her a couple more things, she said to me expressing her confidence with the laptop, “You know, you just have to get to know your computer.” Indeed, that’s how I learn on my computer, too. Just dive in and learn from experience and experimenting. Seven months after opening it she now surfs the web, receives and sends email, and even shuts the computer down correctly.
Grandma shows me that of all the things growing old is, it isn’t an end to learning new things.