We Stand on the Shoulders of Giants

Grandpa turns 96 today. On their 72nd wedding anniversary last March, he woke up and asked my grandmother if they were married.

“No,” she told him. “We’ve just been living together all these years.”

Grandpa’s memory isn’t what it used to be. He searches my face and tries to remember who I am. He asks me how many children I have. And then he asks me again. (On the other hand, maybe his memory is fine, and he’s asking in rhetorical surprise that anyone would voluntarily choose to have four kids.)

During my visits with him, infrequent because he lives in California, I wondered if he remembers playing soccer with me in their backyard, the laundry line poles our goal posts. I think about the afternoons Grandpa met me when school let out, carried my lunch box and sweater for me, and walked me to their home a half mile away. He’d fix an after school snack for me of cheese toast—his own concoction of eggs beaten with grated cheese and toasted until it formed a golden puff on top of a slice of bread. It was either cheese toast or toast with Marmite, that salty spread Grandpa discovered while he studied in Australia for a period of time.

I wish I saved the postcards I used to send Grandpa as a child. I’d write my grandparents from our vacations to Hawaii asking about my dogs. Grandpa strongly disliked animals, but he dutifully cared for my beloved pets whenever we were away. Dad traveled frequently for business, so I’d mail postcards from whatever city we landed in—Denver, Boston, Atlanta.

Grandpa saved my notes. He’d mark up my postcards, noting my spelling errors and punctuation problems, and go over them with me when I got home. I don’t remember being bothered by his editing. It was our routine. I expected it, and from a child’s perspective, I guess I was just pleased he had taken the time to read my missives and respond!

Although he was two units shy of a college degree, (it was his lifelong lament that he hadn’t finished college) Grandpa taught high school English in Singapore. He was invaluable when I had to diagram sentences. He could readily spot a misplaced modifier or explain a hanging participle. And he loved the Bard.

My Grandma sighs in exasperation when she recounts how Grandpa insisted on shipping crates of books, mostly Shakespeare, from Singapore to the U.S. instead of the heirloom bone china dishes imprinted with our family’s name. When their goods arrived months later by boat, the books were a soggy mess from the voyage.

Grandpa got a part-time job at Loma Linda University’s library after he “retired” in the United States. When I started to write research papers, I’d spend my after school hours with Grandpa in the library where he’d help me find an article in the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, track down the microfilm, and show me how to operate the microfiche machines. (Ahhh, for the love of Google!)

When I think about how and why I opted into a career in journalism, I’m pretty sure that some seeds were planted and watered by Grandpa’s own appreciation for language and syntax and verse. Or perhaps I wanted to wield my own red pen one day. Whatever the causal factors, I am indebted to the gifts of ancestors and others, who formed and shaped my world largely through their natural inclinations to instruct or through the gift of time to play.

I wade through my day of meetings and budget projections; story pitches and freelance contracts. At home there are bills to be paid, school lunches to be made, laundry and dishes. And kids. A gaggle of kids making special requests for dinner, sighing over what they didn’t want to eat. Squabbling over who gets to sit at my right hand. Fighting for air space to tell me about what they read, what their teacher said, or to ask me what something means. And sometimes I do think, What does this all mean!? This day-to-day crossing off of “to-dos.”

On Tuesday, I watched our nation swear in the 44th President—the first man of African-American descent to hold the highest office in the land. And I thought about the legions of people who came before this man. People who opted to sit when they were supposed to stand. People who marched while others merely watched. President Obama took an oath of office because others before him offered their own lives in order to see justice flow like a river. It strikes me that decades rolled by before some ever saw the evidence of their efforts. Others never witnessed change in their lifetime.

And I think it’s true that we stand on the shoulders of giants. We see further, we reach higher because of those who have gone before us and paved the way. We celebrate monumental sacrifices of lives lost for a grand cause. But just as significant are those who are just there on a daily basis to feed, clothe, and care for us as they leave indelible imprints on our lives.

Today is Grandpa’s birthday. His shoulders are not as square and strong as they used to be. But across the years and the miles, I celebrate him, grateful for the overlap of his lifetime with mine.

Tonight my kids will have cheese toast for supper.

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