How My Grandmother’s Shocking Story and an Aboriginal Saying Can Help You

This week, I turn 50-years-old. That means I’m entering my sixth decade of life.

It’s times like these that cause me to reflect on what I’ve learned and what is before me.

Perhaps you are in a similar place as you celebrate a birthday, complete a project, finish a degree, start or end a relationship, etc.

Milestones are numerous. We all hit them.

I invite you to let my moment of reflection serve as one for you as well.


I never met my grandparents.

That’s not fully true. One of them, my mother’s mom, lived until I was two-years-old. So, we did meet. I just have no memory of the interaction.

Throughout my life, I’ve had friends, classmates, and coworkers with very different grandparent experiences. Many grew up knowing and spending time with their grandparents. Some benefited from having grandparents in their lives for many years.

When conversation turned to grandparents, I would simply say that mine had passed years earlier and that I didn’t know them.

Many would respond, “I’m sorry.” The more inquisitive would dig deeper and ask additional questions. I had no answers as I knew very little about my grandparents. The subject of their lives rarely came up in my childhood.

The grandparent who I knew least about was my father’s mom.

For most of my life, I didn’t know her name, when or where she was born, or when she died. I had no knowledge of her story.

To me, her life was mostly a mystery.

At some point, I learned that she had died in childbirth. Neither she, nor the baby survived. My dad and his twin sister were toddlers at the time.

Knowing of my grandmother’s death framed my view of her as she moved from full-blown mystery to a bit of a tragic figure. She had immigrated to the United States as a young adult, had five children, and died, along with her sixth baby.

The story is tragic. How could I see her as anything other than as a tragic figure?

I felt sorry for her.

Recently, my aunt provided me more information about my family. She showed me photos and told stories of those who had long since passed away. I benefited from my aunt’s interest in our family’s past and willingness to share.

The most surprising thing I learned was that that although the death of my grandmother was a tragedy, she wasn’t tragic. My grandmother was opinionated and outspoken. I learned that she was strong. Injustices bothered her and she took action in a world that didn’t welcome nonconformity, especially from a woman.

She came to the United States to escape the threat of violence and her journey was one of strength, courage, conviction, and action. 

I found her story shocking. I had no idea.

Two Lessons

There are two lessons that I’ve learned from discovering my grandmother’s story. My hope is that I will put the lesson into practice and that you might do the same.

Lesson #1: Don’t fill-in-the-blanks for others

Learning my grandmother’s story forced me to consider how my assumptions missed the mark. With very little knowledge of her, I managed to create an entire backstory. I filled-in-the-blanks and got so much of it wrong.

Perhaps you have been trained in the subjects of unconscious bias and culture competence. Maybe you’ve grown aware of your own assumptions about people and mastered the ability to hit ‘pause’ and learn before making snap judgements. I have been trained and I believe I’ve learned to hit ‘pause,’ yet I didn’t do it in this instance.

Why? Probably because learning my grandmother’s story would take time and require effort. And, I didn’t understand the value of learning it.

A few questions to consider:

  • What assumptions do you make about other people (e.g., team members, peers, customers, etc.) that might be missing the mark?
  • How do your erroneous assumptions hurt you and them?
  • How might you better learn someone else’s story? What might you do, say, ask?
  • Is getting to learn another’s story worth the effort?

Lesson #2: Think About Your Ancestors

I recently attended a presentation by Dr. Ted Fischer on happiness and well being. Dr. Fischer is an anthropologist at Vanderbilt University. He focuses on research and anthropological observations about economics, politics, and daily life in a wide-range of settings.

When I sat down to watch the presentation, I had just finished writing this post about my grandmother and the lesson it taught me (see lesson #1 above), then I realized I was missing the bigger lesson.

One of Dr. Fischer’s comments jumped out at me. He explained that many Aboriginal people see the purpose of life different than many of us. Their perspective is captured in this question, “What type of ancestor will I be?”

The question made me sit back in my seat. I think plenty about my goals and what I hope to accomplish. I put effort into my relationships and making a difference, but the Aboriginal expression made me think about my and my grandmother’s lives from a different perspective.

Consider the young Aboriginal child in this photo. How will she look at her ancestors? How will future generations seeker?

My grandmother’s story revealed one that made me proud to be her ancestor. That leaves me with the question of, “What type of ancestor will I be?”

A few questions to consider:

  • When you picture yourself at your 90th birthday party, what do you envision those around the table saying about you?
  • What do you want people to say 90 years after you pass?
  • Dr. Fischer explained the importance of open and willing to give yourself over earnestly to an important purpose. What important purpose has gained your commitment?


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