We can learn what love is even from the imperfect people in our lives

My grandparents retired in about 1970 to an acre on a small lake in rural southwestern Michigan. Grandpa liked to watch the sun rise over the lake while he sipped his coffee. They wheeled a mobile home onto their lot and angled it so he could do just that from his breakfast table.

But this isn’t about my grandpa, it’s about my grandma. She was just the kind of woman to make sure Grandpa’s home was placed perfectly for Michigan lake sunrises. She bought his cars. She chose his clothes and laid them out every night so next morning he need only put them on. No matter how hung over Grandpa was she made sure he was up, fed, shaved, dressed, and to work on time.

She adored that man. She would have moved a mountain for him had she thought he might want it. If he were then to wrinkle up his face and say, “What did you do that for?” she’d move it right back.

I’m lucky to have made a few photos of her when I was young. I can thank my dad for it. The summer I turned 10 we went to visit and on the way we stopped at K-Mart for something. Dad dashed in and we waited in the car. It was very unlike my extremely frugal father, but he came back out with gifts for my brother and for me: an inexpensive 126 camera kit, one for each of us, complete with film and flash cubes.

Here’s a profile I made of Grandma that day. We were down by the shore, sitting around and talking. Yes, Grandma smoked. All of the adults in the family did.

My grandparents smoked too much. They also drank too much and swore too much. They were codependent with their youngest son, who was lost to alcoholism and drug abuse. In part because they kept paying to fix the messes that son made, they constantly robbed Peter to pay Paul to keep up with their bills. They vocally didn’t like Mexicans or African-Americans, although those would not have been the names they used for them.

But our time at the lake set the standard for me on how to be with your family, and how good simple family times can be. We often sat at the shore and talked for hours, we kids drinking pop and running around, and the adults drinking beer and wine.

They bought a pontoon boat so we could putter around the lake doing much the same, except with our fishing poles along, lines cast lazily into the water. The lake was full of bluegill and sunfish, easy to catch by the dozen.

In the evenings Grandma would make a big pot of something and we’d eat as we were hungry. We’d all squeeze in around their big dining room table and play penny-ante poker or Kismet, which is a dice game similar to Yahtzee. When the whole extended family was over we’d have ten or twelve people in each game, with other family members waiting for someone to be dealt out so they could be dealt in.

Grandma was up a lot filling everybody’s drinks. Some evenings she’d get out the hard liquor and make screwdrivers or Harvey Wallbangers. If she was really feeling it she’d get out the blender and make minty Grasshoppers. We kids would stick to pop, of course.

Then Grandma would be up with the sun to fillet the fish we caught and fry them all up for our breakfast. She always fried some potatoes too, and made toast, and served applesauce. We’d all sit around the table and eat until we were stuffed. To this day I sometimes crave fried fish for breakfast.

From about the time I made this photograph my brother and I spent a week or two at the lake each summer, just us with our grandparents. Grandpa had gone back to work as a draftsman for a small company in the nearest town. We’d all pile into their Bronco in the morning to drop Grandpa off, and then we’d go running around. We mostly did mundane things like shop for groceries or pick up mail at the post office, but Grandma liked the back roads and the long ways and these errands often filled our days. We usually stopped at some out-of-the-way tavern for lunch. Grandma knew all the taverns with good cheeseburgers in five counties.

After we picked Grandpa up we’d go back to the lake and Grandma would make dinner. As we sat around the table, Grandma and Grandpa would tell their stories of days gone by, often late into the evening. They told the same stories over and over again, sometimes adding new details of the 1950s when Grandpa was building his career and they were raising their family, and of tough times during the Great Depression. They lived in great fear of another depression, and were resolute that if another one came they would figure out how the whole family, all the sons and daughters and grandchildren, could live together on their acre at the lake and make it through.

My grandparents were far from perfect. But I felt deeply connected to my family through them. I belonged with them, I belonged at the lake. It created a foundational security in me that continues to serve me well.

Eventually childhood passed, I went off to college, and I saw my grandparents infrequently. Grandma wrote me from time to time and always slipped five or ten dollars into the envelope. Whenever I felt a little lost or lonely I’d call her. Long distance was expensive so we didn’t talk for more than a few minutes, but she was always so happy to hear from me and spoke to me as if nothing I wanted was beyond my grasp. It was like taking a long drink from a deep well.

I didn’t make it through college before both of my grandparents died, both in 1987, both aged just 71. Grandpa passed in January after a long illness and Grandma died suddenly in December. I still miss them both, but I especially miss Grandma.

When I had my own family, I tried to create good family times in the same ways my grandmother did: over food and conversation and simple shared experiences. As much as I could, I had my sons’ grandparents and their uncle over. We had no lake, no smoking, and far less alcohol — but, I hope, the same firm foundation of belonging and love and connection for my children.

I wrote a remembrance of my grandfather here.

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26 responses to “We can learn what love is even from the imperfect people in our lives”

  1. brandib1977 Avatar

    Thanks for sharing this lovely remembrance. You make me miss my own grandparents.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      My pleasure.

  2. Nancy Stewart Avatar
    Nancy Stewart

    I only remember my grandma on my dad’s side, and we would go every summer to visit her in southern Illinois. I loved her dearly. My mother’s parents had both died when I was 2 years old and my Illinois grandfather passed away when I was 5. My dad had seven living brothers and sisters, and they would try and go visit grandma around the same time, so it was all great fun when we were all together. I remember going to see grandma with my parents, when I was an young adult. She was in her 80’s by then, and had developed Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. I remember pulling away from her home, her standing there waving goodbye to us and knowing we would never see her alive again. I wondered how my dad kept it together as we left. But that generation was very stoic with emotions. They didn’t say “ I Love You “ much, but we knew they did.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m sure those big family gatherings were great! How sad that you had only your grandmother, and that she lived so far away.

    2. ziddiparekh Avatar

      I am so lucky i have my grandparents alive it was a nice remembering

  3. Tony Gomez Avatar
    Tony Gomez

    Thank you for your story on your grandparents and family gatherings. Made me think back a bit.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You’re quite welcome! I write these things mostly to gather and record my own thoughts and memories and I’m always happy when they connect with others.

  4. Robyn Weber Avatar
    Robyn Weber

    I presume these are your Mom’s parents? The color in these 1970’s photos is fabulous. I love her sun hat and her purple slacks. Looks like these photos could have been taken last summer! I always say that the 2 most influential people in my life were my 2 grandmothers — equally. Next week I will visit Danville, Illinois, where I spent many a summer with my Grandparents and many of my Dieu relatives. There is nothing like a trip to Danville to transport me back to my childhood and to engender those feelings of security and belonging. Whatever fear or uncertainty I felt in the Lancaster Drive house was blocked out whenever I hit Batestown Road. Your story of your Grandma put me in mind of my own. I loved them both very deeply, flaws and all. Thank you for writing this.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yes. I never knew my dad’s parents; they died before I was born. These were shot on good old Kodacolor II film. I scanned the negatives on this cheap scanner I bought that can handle the old 126 film and it supersaturated the colors.

      I remember back on Rabbit Hill how excited you and Sally got when you were anticipating a trip to Danville. I had no idea of course that there was any fear or uncertainty in your home, not until long after we moved off the Hill.

  5. Peggy Avatar

    I like reading about your family. I am rarely personal about others on my site, I think you are brave to do it.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Peggy. I guess I have a lower need for privacy than most. I walk a fine line telling these stories because they involve others who might not like having their stories told. But I find that when I write these stories, the common humanness of them connects with many readers. I find that gratifying.

  6. Photography Journal Blog Avatar

    This is a lovely memorial post. My family is far from perfect as well, part of the reason I feel that I can relate to this.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I don’t know a soul who got a perfect family. Most of us got garden-variety brokenness in our families, as I did!

  7. DougD Avatar

    Nice story. That reminds me of my wife’s grandmother, the kind of Michigan woman who could casually field dress a deer and held similar opinions to your grandmother.

    When she was a child in the 70’s her grandparents had a trailer at Houghton Lake. When our kids were small we spent a week vacation visiting in Michigan, she was rather incensed that there were all these fun things to do in MI. All her parents had ever done all those years was sit & talk at the house or the trailer.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      That’s hilarious. I used to joke that there was so much alcoholism in the part of Michigan my grandparents lived in was because there wasn’t anything else to do but sit around drink and talk!

  8. J P Avatar

    I loved reading this. I also loved the candid pictures that avoided the “hey while we’re all together let’s pose for a picture” thing. I have one of my grandma wearing a plain old house dress and sitting in her favorite rocker. Mom said I shouldn’t have taken it because grandma didn’t look her best but it is the only one I have that shows her as she was when I visited.

    I miss the days when the families got together and I was one of the kids. Now I’m on the verge of being one of the old folks.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’ve never been one to pose people – however, the second shot, on the pier, was posed. I asked Grandma out there so I could take her portrait!

      I look forward to being one of the older generation. It begins with my granddaughter in a few weeks!

  9. John Holt Avatar

    Yes, Grandparents, aunts & uncles — most life formative family.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      When we’re fortunate enough in childhood to get to spend lots of time with them!

  10. Ric Bell Avatar
    Ric Bell

    Thank You! Your article created a very warm feeling inside as I remember our family gatherings at my maternal grandparents farm. Oh, the memories! The funniest was when I went to stay with my brand new wagon to roar up and down the driveway. A major bolt disappeared mysteriously and for the rest of my visit I searched for it and just as I was ready to return home it reappeared just as mysteriously.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Ric, you’re very welcome. None of us comes through childhood without a little trauma, but if we have warm memories of family gatherings then we probably know what love looks like and can pass it forward through the generations.

  11. Dan James Avatar

    Lovely post Jim, you obviously shared some wonderful times at the lake.

    I have some similar, but fewer, memories of my maternal grandparents, and also have only two or three photos from that era. They lived on a farm, and I have recolletions of sitting in tractors and picking tomates and cucumbers for tea in the garden greenhouse…

    On a related note I picked up a book in a charity shop last weekend called “I’m Bored!”, full of simple activities to do as a family that don’t involve great expense or technology. We’ve really enjoyed a few of them already, and like you found, hopefully this simple old fashioned kind of fun will be remembered and passed down the generations.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Dan. It’s great when we have good memories of extended family. It helps us feel like we have a meaningful place in the world.

      1. Dan James Avatar

        Since having kids myself (our oldest is 10 now), wow does it unlock a ton of childhood memories I’d forgotten about…

  12. Dave Jenkins Avatar

    Reminds me of my own (paternal) grandmother, who was very much a character, although she lived in town rather than in the country.

    When we bought our small farm in the North Georgia mountains more than 30 years ago, it was our conscious intent to create a place to which our sons would want to bring their families. We built a pond with a dock and have many happy memories of our grandchildren swimming and diving and fishing. For many. many years it has been a family tradition to gather at the farm for Christmas and the Fourth of July.

    Now, as we are growing older and must face the inevitable downsizing, our oldest granddaughter and her husband want to buy the property. It is our hope that what we have begun will carry on through future generations of our family.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I think that’s part of why my grandparents retired to the lake: to create a place for the family to visit. My wife and I are at the age now where we’re thinking about where we’d like to live next, as our nest empties, and some of the same thoughts are occurring to us.

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