Platitudes

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.

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6 thoughts on “Platitudes

  1. Wow. That’s an amazing story. It made me cry. My grandpa, who is going through brain cancer treatment, has become sarcastic and critical which is really unusual for him. It’s very hard on my mom who is the one helping my grandpa and grandma out when they need it. She also usually visits every Tuesday. It’s difficult because these are his last days. We don’t know how many he has left, it could be days, weeks, months, even years. No one knows. But it’s the fact that he’s 78, almost 79 in the first place, never mind that in the last year he’s had open heart surgery, lung cancer, and now brain cancer. It’s difficult to hear that my grandpa, always the shining example of good nature, positive outlook, friendly, and kind (not to mention a killer sense of humor) has become something different. Great, now I’m writing a blog post in your comments section.

    Anyway, I really loved you sharing this and it’s a very special story because it gives us all reason to hope for the best in others. It also teaches us to be brave. Your mother was brave to send him that letter full of honesty and hard truths. Your grandpa was brave to read it and not get defensive. Honesty with our families – it’s hard and it requires bravery. Your fortunate to have such amazing examples of lives well lead in your family. And I’m glad for you that your grandpa was willing to return to his true self.

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  2. What an amazing change and what strength your mother showed for expressing her feelings. So many people would have just walked away convinced that no one can change. What a great story – thanks for sharing!

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  3. Thanks for sharing that. . . . I have been struggling with being able to change some of the things I do…..that gives me hope and makes me feel more confident that I can make the changes I want to see in my life happen. Thanks again!

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  4. I really do need to pay attention to my friends’ blogs more often. This was simply beautiful.

    As I was reading it, I had so many thoughts and concepts going through my mind; things we’ve had late-night discussions about, I’m sure!

    Your talking about people rarely changed brought to mind the revelation I’ve had that acceptance is half the battle when faced with a difficult person or situation. Then the letter your mom wrote that affected the change in your grandpa hit on the importance being honest about your feelings and daring to crawl out there on that limb and say what you suspect everyone else is thinking.

    I admire your family, and I think it’s just incredible that your mother was able to find just the right words that your grandpa needed to hear in order to find the strength and willingness to change.

    Thank you for sharing all of this! I adore you, Jen!! You are a smart and beautiful woman, and I’m proud to be your friend! ❤

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