Virtue & Mischief: Of hearing aids and Sudoku puzzles


Were you fortunate enough to spend time with grandparents who loved and cherished you? What do you remember about them? If I asked you to tell me just one thing about the grandparents you possess a memory of, what would you say?

I was fairly close to each of my four grandparents, and particularly so with my maternal ones. They lived an hour away, so we visited them often when I was growing up. We drove down to their house every Thanksgiving, for example, and my baby sister Barbie and I regularly spent a week with them in the summer when we were kids. They drove up each Christmas Eve and spent the night with us throughout my youth; indeed, from roughly 1965-1973 they were always the first to greet Barbie and me in the wee hours of Christmas morning and express as much awe at Santa’s beneficence as we did.

Granny and Grandpa Gaines were outgoing and effervescent, salt-of-the-earth folks from southern Kentucky. Granny was a tremendous cook and had a gentle air about her; Grandpa told jokes, guffawed frequently, and played a fiddle. He was Foghorn Leghorn (google it) in human form. They had an impressive stash of old comic books my four sisters and I wore out over the years, and a huge back and side yard with lots of trees and other nooks and crannies that made it a perfect locale for epic games of hide-n-seek.

My dad’s parents lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and later southern Florida as I was growing up, so we didn’t see them as frequently. Moreover, they were more formal, strict, and reserved, so it took me longer to fully appreciate and develop a comfort level with them. I did so somewhere in my teen years. I sense this change in attitude had something to do with my dawning adolescent “I don’t give a fig what you think” mindset that “blossomed” (my parents probably think “metastasized” would be the more accurate verb) between years 14-16.

I simply ceased caring much if they were annoyed with me and did as I pleased, their disgusted looks and harrumphing be damned. I believe I always maintained a proper level of respect (again, the adults involved might hold a different opinion), but confess there were a few occasions when I annoyed them on purpose for the sheer entertainment value of the enterprise. Over the years I learned to value their patience with me, their intelligence and wisdom, and their very sharp sense of humor. I played many a game of Scrabble with my polymathic Granny Swensen (one of the first female graduates of West Virginia University) and fished in the ocean with Grandpa Swensen, who approached everything with an engineer’s eye for precision and preparation.

I thought of my now departed grandparents this weekend—Evelyn, Lloyd, Edith, and Clifford—as I watched the amigos spending time with their aging paternal grandparents. When we venture up and over to West Lafayette, Indiana, where my mom and dad live, the kids stay with them in their cramped-but-cozy two bedroom apartment at University Place Retirement Community. Krista and I sleep in a nearby hotel. Our visits, from my perspective, are a fascinating soup of human and other dynamics: three children who’ve entered a stage where electronic devices and books can, and sometimes do, keep them contented for hours at a time; a middle-aged couple who desire nothing more out of life than a decent night’s sleep, a couple of days’ respite from job-and-parenting-related sources of stress, and an opportunity to reconnect a little with their parents/parents-in-law; and an elderly couple who shuffle (or limp) along at a snail’s pace, set the thermostat at a stifling 74 degrees, neglect to throw anything out (including foodstuffs with clearly stated and sometimes critical expiration dates; just ask Luke about the black ketchup he almost consumed with his French fries one evening), converse habitually about acquaintances who’ve died recently, and require almost every utterance by others to be repeated.

Most conversations with my parents involve a barrage of “WHAT?” or “HUH?” or “COME AGAIN?,” with squeaky, tinny interjections by my father’s hearing aid thrown in for good measure. (These interactions call to mind the old saw about three elderly chaps playing golf on a blustery day. “Sure is windy today,” says one. “No it’s not,” says the second, “it’s Thursday.” The third fellow chimes in, “Yeah, me too. Let’s get a beer.”)

As we sped down the highway on our return to Darke County, my wife asked the children what they’ll remember about this visit with far-far (Norwegian for “father’s father,” my dad) and far-mor (“father’s mother.” my mom). I was pleasantly surprised that their responses were positive and tender-hearted. They demonstrated a reality-based-and-positive view of what they enjoy about my parents (e.g., Luke: “Playing dominoes with them;” Daniel: “They’re sweet to me;” Abby: “It’s funny how far-far listens to classical music and does Sudoku puzzles all the time”), as well as a sweet inclination to minimize/excuse/disregard the equally reality-based-and-not-so-positive stuff.

Perhaps they were trying to spare my feelings, too. That would also represent a pleasant surprise. And I wonder: if, Lord willing, the amigos’ children have the opportunity to spend time with Krista and me in the years to come, what will their memories entail? Classical music, maybe. Card games and laughter and patience and lessons learned? I hope so. Sudoku puzzles, never.

By Timothy Swensen

Timothy Swensen is the author of the weekly column series Virtue and Mischief that is published every Tuesday in The Daily Advocate. He can be reached at [email protected]. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.

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