All my life, I’ve believed the old adage that “People don’t change.” I think it’s generally true that habits die hard, and certainly that people do not just spontaneously change…they really have to want to. I do believe change is possible, but that it’s generally hard work, and most people just aren’t willing to put in the effort. I know I’m usually not.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, in reference to my relationships with people who are close to me in one way or another. In some instances, it’s helped me not to be disappointed–I’m a fairly optimistic person when it comes to most things, but I’ve found if I don’t expect my relationships with certain people to improve–if I don’t expect those people to someday wake up and realize how their behavior affects others–then I won’t be nearly so hurt when the same-old happens.
But there is one instance in my life that’s proven that sometimes, conventional wisdom doesn’t apply.
I have always loved my grandfather. I was the first grandchild on my dad’s side, and consequently I’m the only grandchild who remembers when my grandparents were married. I have a very few, but very vivid memories of spending time in their home before things were–or I was aware they were–bad: Grandpa pretending to be the donkey to my Mary in a family nativity, complete with a hairpiece stuck in his pants for a tail. Sitting in the back of one of his many Buicks, going who-knows-where, while Grandpa played the good sport and let me brush what very little hair he still had left, making jokes about how he went bald. Sitting in the chilly basement, warming myself by the woodburning stove and watching in wonder while Grandpa threw what I now know was a mix of baking soda and metal powders on the fire, turning the flames into blues and greens and purples. The grandpa of my youth was magical.
My grandparents divorced when I was about seven years old, and he remarried soon after, right around my eighth birthday. As I grew up, and began to see my grandfather as both human and therefore flawed, our relationship changed some. It was never truly strained–he was always kind and good to me, but I was well aware of his quick temper with others, and the general bossiness and extreme nosiness he inflicted on my parents, and I assume his other children as well. It was hard not to roll my eyes when he’d call and try to relay through me that my parents needed to do his bidding, and hop to it. And it was impossible to be unaware of the boorish manner he often used with strangers. In short, it was awkward. But it was who he was, and I knew it wasn’t likely to change.
And then, it did.
Not long after I got married, my mom decided she’d finally had enough. She’d had several full-bore screaming matches with my Grandpa over the years, but it was the constant undercurrent of “need to control” in their relationship, and especially his relationship with my dad, that made her snap. She decided the only thing to be done was to tell him, but she also knew that any one-on-one conversation would lead to a blowout, so she sent him a letter. She expressed her frustrations with his behavior and with the way he’d tried to overly involve himself in the day-to-day workings of their lives. She let Dad read it, and then she sent it.
A few weeks later, Grandpa called my dad. He told Dad about the letter, but the real reason he was calling was to know the truth: was that really how they felt? Did he really behave like that? Did he really make the whole family feel the same way? Dad was honest with him, and then Grandpa proceeded to call his daughters and feel them out in the same way.
Now, my intention in sharing all of this isn’t to air the family’s dirty laundry. The point is: he changed. Something about that letter, or the timing of it, or maybe just actually hearing the real consequences of his behavior, made a difference. And from that day on, my grandfather became a different person. Truly. He’s never since exhibited any of the kinds of behaviors that were so frustrating to all of us. He was willing to make the effort, and to change himself, simply because he loved his family. I admire him for that more than I can express.
I got a phone call from my grandpa today. He’d heard I was having some problems being comfortable with this pregnancy, and he wanted to let me know he was thinking of me, and that he wants to help if he can. I burst into tears. I’m just so truly in awe of the person my grandfather’s become. And really, I suspect that’s who he was all along.