Wisdom of Old

I’ve been putzing around the house all day. I’m a putzer, it’s just what I do. I got it from my Nonna and I intend to never, ever give up on the silly habit. While my putzing usually occurs when I’m feeling particularly creative yet unable to commit to a particular outlet, hers would happen just because she was awake. Maybe she had a constant stream of creativity flowing through her, at all times, whereas I’m only limited to it for a couple hours a day. I digress! Back to why I brought it up, and to use the word just once more. Today, my putzing led to something that I had never seen before.

I found a box full of letters that my Nonna and Papa had written each other. In 1953.

A couple of years ago, she and I were going through a lot of old paperwork and letters (all, of which, made her grin from ear to ear and left me with stars in my eyes when she would give me the background story for a particular document) so I knew that stuff like this existed. But, today, I found a box that we didn’t go through back then. Or, at least, I didn’t. From the wear of the paper and the notes in the margins, written with fresh ink and older hands, I can tell that she went through them. Not just once or twice but many times since they were written over 60 years ago.

I began reading. Letter after letter, I started realizing that she held these in her hands, maybe even as recently as a few weeks ago. I figured that there’s probably wisdom in here that she hadn’t gotten around to sharing with me. I was right. You see, the more I read, the more I realized how much wisdom, intelligence, and beauty she and my grandfather, her most beloved, shared. I read her letters but I also read his and it was in one of his that I gleaned some of the best pieces of wisdom that I’ve come across in quite some time.

In September of 1953, my grandfather opened a love note with this:

Hi Hon,

It’s about 3:30, Sunday afternoon, and I am in the park like I said I’d be. It was fun pretending that I was actually with you for awhile.

Thus began one of the most poignant four pages of writing I have ever laid my eyes on. These letters were exchanged over a period of time when my grandfather had moved to California for business and my grandmother had yet to leave Chicago to join him. They had been married for 7 years, at this point, and they had a young son, Mike, and their only family was in Chicago. Through their exchanges, it’s very apparent the hesitation my fearless Nonna experienced about uprooting and heading west. That was never the picture that I had of her, though. No! She was brave and beautiful and could do anything she wanted. It isn’t that those things weren’t true of her; it’s just that they weren’t without insecurity. And that was a card that I never believed her to hold. To me, she was a royal flush. In reality, she was the first four cards of a flush in hearts plus a five of spades.

But, if life was a game of five-card draw, then Nonna bluffed her way to the jackpot. She had a knack for making happen that which she wanted to happen. And, after reading the letter that my grandfather wrote her on that day in September, very much like the day I find myself in now, I understand why that was such a knack for her.

This letter, in particular, addresses some of her deepest insecurities. Two, of which, stand out to me. The first, she felt like she had fallen into a state of existence. She was just going through the motions, aimlessly living. The second, she feared that she would fare poorly amongst the educated, wealthy people with whom she would regularly interact once joining my grandfather in California. His response to these two items is the exact type of life advice everyone needs to hear. Or read. Whatever.

To address the first, these were his words:

Tell me, did you think real hard about me? Because I thought about you. I closed my eyes and cleared my mind of everything else but you. Then something terrible happened. I remembered in one of your letters that you felt like you were just existing and that life didn’t mean as much without me there… No matter what, your life is more than keeping house and loving your husband and children. No matter where you live—life is all around you. Take this! The grass—why is it green? Why is the snow white and what makes it fall? How can you plant a tiny seed and in a few years there’s a giant, beautiful tree? See what I mean? God asks us to do more than to merely take care of our own lives. We are supposed to get interested in our communities and contribute our time and efforts in helping other people… So honey, we must never feel as though we are “just existing.” It’s our own fault for just sitting around and gossiping about things that have no importance. Take interest in the life around you.

My grandfather. Man alive, I wish I could’ve spent more of his life with him. But, after reading his words? I realize that the past 20 years I’ve spent with Nonna were years spent with Pop. I didn’t get to live his life with him but I’ve certainly gotten to live mine with him because his zeal and passion and wisdom were fused with Nonna’s. As I read his words, I felt like I was reading something Nonna would’ve written to me. This was how she lived her life! It never occurred to me that she could’ve picked up that particular wisdom at the ripe old age of 26; the age that I am now. I guess I just assumed that she was born with the white hair and wisdom. It never occurred to me that she went through a journey of development and learning, much like me in my current state. It also never occurred to me that my grandfather had such a crucial role in her development, as she had in his. He kept her safe; she kept him wild. And what resulted was the kind of love that one only dreams of.

Lucky for me, I was always taught that to be a dreamer is to believe there are no such things as dreams… Only realities that are yet to be grasped. I am a dreamer. And now I have the antidote for the poison that is existence: life. If I cannot find the life in me then I need to recognize it in everything else. We must recognize the life outside of ourselves in order that we may let it pour into our souls, reigniting the flame that has gone out. Your life, my friend, is your fault. For better or worse, you and I are where we are because of who we’ve been, what we’ve done, and how willing we were to work for what we wanted. Let that be an encouragement! For it is just as easy to take pity on one’s self as it is to take pride and get back up. You and I were not made for mere existence. Neither was my grandmother. She figured out how to live! I mean, a beloved grandchild of hers went her entire life believing that she could do anything. That was the woman I knew. That was the reality that she grasped. I was one of the people that she would eventually take an interest in and help and I can put my finger on about a million of those moments. Thank God for Lou Caradonna, right?

To address her second insecurity, the one she held regarding how she would do in a society unlike the one she was accustomed, and this is perhaps even better of a lesson than the previous, he said this:

The only reason, not the only but a very good one, for being afraid of something is that you don’t know enough about it. Once you start getting out and start investigating, you soon learn that people and things are on an equal standing. Imagine me talking and arguing with shrewd lawyers and doctors! I was scared to death when I started here. But I got out there. When you get acquainted with things, it’s not so bad. There is one thing you should always remember: truly intelligent people very seldom try to impress you with their intelligence. They just like to talk to a person who is willing to listen and learn. So Bessala, if I can keep up then so can you. Life becomes more interesting this way. A lot of new things open up for you. Your mind becomes more inquisitive. You begin to ask why to a lot of questions instead of just the question itself. Never be afraid to admit your ignorance about something. Always be willing to learn.

Just like that, my grandfather started the unraveling of the tightly wound web of fear that I’ve spun for myself. Knowledge is the enemy of fear. If we are always willing to learn, always willing to ask questions, then we’ll never have a need to fear. Because the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. And when you know your enemy, you know how to beat him. Or at least how he will try to beat you. Even better, when we get to know our perceived enemy we will sometimes find that he wasn’t the enemy, at all. He was just an unknown.

The bit about how truly intelligent people behave is my favorite part. Here, my grandfather suggests that a truly intelligent person ought also to be humble. This is such a beautiful sentiment that is lost on so many of the pseudo-brilliant minds of my generation and generations past. The second you have to stand on a box and shout, “I’m smart!” is the second that everyone stops believing you. I would argue that if knowing is the enemy of fear then being known is, as well. And the best way to be known is to simply be you. To speak your mind when your voice is necessary, not just to remind yourself and the world of how it sounds. Only the humble allow others to know them. The humble are the only ones who don’t build walls to keep the world out and their selves shut in. You cannot possess true intelligence without being humble. Scratch that—you cannot possess true intelligence worth learning from without being humble.

Today, I learned that my grandmother had the kind of partner, companion, and husband that every man should strive to be. He wasn’t a particular set of characteristics. No, he took the time to learn her. Not every woman needs a lion of a man and not every man needs a woman who is unbreakable. That’s what they were and what I want to be. But that’s not what love is. It’s about learning what the needs are of your partner and assessing whether or not you can meet those needs and then working, tirelessly, to do that. Shortly after this exchange, my grandmother packed up and left all familiarity and moved with her young son to be with my grandfather. She left Chicago, leaving behind the old self and taking on the new one that built two businesses while her husband had his own career, raised four children with the love of her life, instilled in all those who knew her the virtue that she and her husband had learned together, and endured the pains of every day life in order to find joy up until her dying breath.

These lessons are great. 62 years ago a young man wrote to his young wife, comforting her about her worries of the future. 62 years later, a young woman reads those very words and finds herself changed. Now you’ve read them. It’s your turn, my friend.

Will we pursue life outside of ourselves when we feel our flame dying? Will we put ourselves out there and make the unknown known? Will we expel fear from the ranks of our hearts by employing humility and vulnerability? Will we stomp our feet until the world notices how intelligent, funny, beautiful, or talented we are? Or will we just be intelligent, funny, beautiful, and talented, regardless of what they think?

Moving forward, what will we do?

P.S. “Life is more than keeping house and loving your husband and children.” Papa had his priorities straight. He saw his wife as an equal human. My mind is blown. Not because I didn’t think that’s how he was but just because now I have confirmation. What a man.

P.P.S. I’m a little ignorant to how to format using this blog. I tried everything to properly indent the quotes but it was to no avail, thus the italics. Look at that, I’m already admitting things that I don’t know. Stay tuned, there’s plenty more.

P.P.P.S. I listened to Ol’ Blue Eyes and Dino and the Glen Miller Orchestra while reading their letters. I’m officially nostalgic for a time that I never even experienced. I mourn the fact that, in 60 years, my granddaughter might read letters that I wrote while listening to Maroon 5 and find herself thankful that she didn’t have to listen to that junk. (Unless its Songs About Jane, that album is ok.)

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