My Grandma is 93 years old and lives in a small town in Minnesota. She is relentlessly upbeat and passionate about the things she loves, which are mainly her family and the Minnesota Twins baseball team. She never finished her high school education, having had to drop out of school to help support her family, but she is a lifelong learner who reads the paper every day and is more in touch with current events than many younger people I know. She remains curious and engaged. She has also seen a big chunk of the world.
Grandma and I solve the world’s problems during our weekly phone calls. The calls typically consist of three main questions: 1) How was your day? 2) Have you talked to your Mom lately? and 3) What are you eating for supper? But my favorite part of our chats is when I discover that our travel paths have crossed, usually with Grandma casually saying “Oh, yeah. I’ve been there.” Most of the places aren’t that unexpected – Chicago for a wedding or Wisconsin to visit House on the Rock. Other times she has caught me completely off guard – Paris, New York City, Mexico. I really shouldn’t be surprised – she’s been to every US state except Hawaii.
It started when my grandparents used to take road trips with a group of friends. They’d pack a cooler and picnic along the way at rest stops or parks. My Mom fondly remembers being shipped off to a favorite aunt and uncle’s while my grandparents drove to California. In a time when many women stayed home and took care of their kids, my grandmother not only worked outside the home, but recognized the value of time for herself and having fun independently of her kids.
Grandma remembers New York City as stinky and crowded with lots of garbage. When we speak of Paris, she recalls how her tour bus got stuck in a narrow, cobblestone alley, but doesn’t quite remember how the driver got the bus free. On an Amtrak train journey from Minnesota to San Francisco and up the Pacific Coast through Alaska, a tour guide dubbed her group the “Minnesota Nine,” a name that stuck for the rest of the trip. Her memory of Tijuana is of how vendors selling leather purses weaved their way in and out of traffic. Her exasperated retelling didn’t hide a half-century of annoyance at my Grandpa, who refused to roll down the window despite the pleas of the ladies in the back seat, ladies who were always in the market for some fine leather goods.
And when they came to visit my family in rural South Carolina, random relatives in tow, it was an excuse for us to visit Edisto Beach and Charleston and Savannah, destinations usually deemed too far to visit without a special reason.
My grandparents brought my brothers and me Haribo gummy bears from Germany before they were available in the US, t-shirts from Las Vegas, Nevada and Frankenmuth, Michigan, and pennants from Walt Disney World, along with giant pencils that we could never figure out how to sharpen.
Grandma hasn’t traveled for a few years, and when I ask her specific questions about her trips from 40 or 50 years ago, she can’t always recall the details. But she is always genuinely interested in my travels, asking who I met and what I saw. She is nothing but encouraging and positive, never telling me that a place is too dangerous, that I’m wasting my money, or that travel is a frivolous endeavor. And, unlike a big swath of society, she never makes me feel any less valued or special for choosing a different path from the traditional spouse/mortgage/kids track that my siblings and cousins have pursued.
Learning about my Grandma’s travels helps inspire my own. What would you like to learn about the older people in your life? Over Thanksgiving weekend, StoryCorps is encouraging people to record the stories of those age 65 and older as part of The Great Thanksgiving Listen. You simply download the app (available here), record your story, and submit it. Stories are then archived in the Library of Congress. What are you waiting for? We’re not getting any younger.
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