Taking photos of sunset, no filters, for Papa in his last days.

The Grand-dad Filter

Once, when my husband was a hotshot young teen who knew everything, his grandfather took him out in the field beyond Camp to teach him to shoot. My husband made the case that he knew what he was doing, and I’m sure his granddad had had it with this youngster from the city, and handed him the 10-gauge. My husband lifted it to his shoulder, set his sights, and pulled the trigger. The recoil knocked him flat back on his backside, and when he was done seeing stars and his head cleared, what greeted him was the sight of his granddad collapsing in laughter, hands on knees, shaking his head and trying not to pee his overalls. Whenever the story is told, it ends with Grandpa claiming, “guess you’re not so smart after all…”, and a possible stream of expletives, depending on who’s telling it.

My own grandfather was a surgeon, and even invented some surgical tools still in use today. He was pretty driven. I never saw him not in a jacket, be it a dinner jacket or snappy sportcoat. For decades, he wrote a monthly letter to his fellow surgeons, which seems a little pretentious perhaps, but left a terrific trail of personal history. For over forty years, he created a family Christmas card in a darkroom in his basement, way ahead of Shutterfly, mailing it to his patients. As a teen working in the neighborhood where he practiced, I was often stopped and asked if I was his granddaughter, recognized from the holiday greetings. There is a classic story of my dad being sent home from his private high school for some infraction, and being told to return only with a letter from his father explaining why he should be readmitted. My dad approached his father who was shaving in the bathroom, and after my dad explained, my grandfather told him, essentially, that in about an hour he was going to be performing a surgery that would save a man’s life, and he did not have the time or desire to write a letter pardoning my father from some ridiculousness, BUT my dad could certainly write the letter himself, and IF my grandfather found it agreeable, he would sign it and my dad could return to school. My dad had less than an hour, so get cracking. So here’s the deal: grandparents took no sh!t. Not all lore passed down needs to cast only a beautifully filtered afterglow. My husband can shoot just fine, and my dad graduated from that high school, despite the brushback from their elders. Those elders told it like it was, and yet still managed to hold some things close to the vest.

We are born of flaws, and we can tell our stories with lessons and laughter, but also with, as my badass girlfriends say, the grit and the sh!t that makes them real. This is my approach to the mommy-wars, or competitive parenting, or whatever the underlying “you’re doing it wrong” message of the day is: here’s the deal, sometimes it is a mess, and yet, here we still are. If we don’t believe our forebearers faced daily challenges, how can we believe we can bear forth on our own? It’s a disservice to us all to paint our ancestors in the gloss of accomplishments without the sheen of sweat. At day’s end, perhaps granddad did sit with his feet up and sip whiskey in front of the marble fireplace. But more likely, he fell asleep in the chair, as the television watched him snore. Some granddads traded on the margins, or gambled in excess, or had an impressive tab at the pub, ran liquor or ponies, or snacked on sticks of butter, or had a secret lady friend, or a collection of dresses, or gardened sans overalls. I’m of the age where cleaning out our parents’ or grandparents’ closets or computer history or bank accounts is often more revealing that we were prepared for. Not for the first time, I’ve had friends confess they cannot believe what they’ve just uncovered while packing up after a deceased loved one. Hey, we don’t need the full reveal all the time, but we do need to understand that our history is filtered, and when the lens shifts, there may be some issues that were just out of frame. We are foolish to believe we are ever looking at the whole picture.

My grandfather, pretty gruff and not prone to smiling in photos or hugging the grandchildren teeming through his house and yard, was ahead of the curve on living out loud: he regularly self-published personal updates and distributed them, he created annual holiday photo collages, he was his own social media before it was a thing. It’s naturally fulfilling to earn approval and accolades; now our online profiles can make that a full-time job, or obsession. And the persona we put forth often hides not just our real self, but our reality. It’s no wonder we are a little warped in thinking we could appear more attractive, the pizza could look more appealing, the dog could be more adorable, the sunrise could be prettier, if we just apply the right filter. If you are not certain this search for perfection could manifest itself with a profoundly tragic outcome, I recommend you look up ESPN’s “Split Image” report, the story of University of Pennsylvania’s Maddy Holleran.

One of my colleagues like to ask, “what surprises people about you?” as an icebreaker question. It’s a great question. So many of us have carefully-presented, meticulously-orchestrated social media profiles, flattering photos at just the right angle with just the right filter. Living out loud, we think — but really, we all have surprises. Even answering that question doesn’t have to reveal anything; we choose to share what surprises others about us. My answer was that I met my college boyfriend at a Grateful Dead concert (which actually did surprise my colleague just a little), then also added that I was a cancer survivor, that I don’t eat ketchup, that I love baseball. None of those others are surprising, he said. Even revealing what surprises others is carefully orchestrated. Look up the Cleveland Clinic Human Connection empathy video, then take a few minutes to watch it. Everyone has an invisible pressing issue, or two, or ten, following behind them like a thought-bubble that weighs a ton (or two, or ten).

You know what a real surprise would be? “Hello, I’m kind of a mess.” Truly, I sort problems for a living, and days are chaotic and harried, or slow and measured, and rarely anything in the middle. The best we can hope for is the company of family and friends, who we may still surprise but hopefully will not shock. Instead of #blessed, I’m going with #mess, which is perfectly okay. And, hey, that sunrise is already astounding, no filter needed.

Two different grand-dads go hunting: (top) bear and elk and deer in the Upper Peninsula of MI, circa early 1960’s, (lower) in Sunday best, facing down a deer in rural Ohio, late 1960’s. I’m not kidding: I never saw my grandfather not in a jacket.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store