Not much went the way we hoped this summer. The recession meant our youngest son returned from his first year of university and spent a month looking for work before he was hired.
It was a well-paying job with lots of physical effort - a nice change from studying. But it didn't last. He was laid off after a month. In spite of spreading résumés everywhere, he never found another job.
He was down about it, knowing the financial hit his parents would absorb if he returned to the University of Alberta, where he's studying earth sciences. We tried to assure him that we were a team. We would do what he couldn't, because that's what families do. Although my husband and I were nervous about taking on more debt, we were also sure that there isn't anything else to invest in if you don't invest in your children.
Newly sensitive to pitching in, our unemployed son picked up slack around the house, doing some long-overdue painting, ripping up old carpet and sanding down the subfloor so it could be painted. We did what thousands of families across Canada did. We made the best of it. We worked together. We kept moving forward.
Grandma called to inquire whether she could hire her grandson to type her handwritten stories into a computer and print out copies for her. Our son agreed to take a stab at it. Grandma sent her first few stories over.
And that's when the summer began to turn a corner, although no one realized it at the time.
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Grandma is 87, and her stories reached back into her childhood days in Ontario. They included tales of visiting her own grandparents at their farmhouse. She recalled how her grandma used to sit in a rocking chair playing her concertina. Our son was surprised when I mentioned it was the same rocking chair sitting in our living room.
Grandma talked about her fiancé, who had volunteered for the Air Force during the Second World War and was killed in a training accident. The story of that day was hard for him to read, but he also read how, on the same day, Grandma discovered that her Wedgwood jug, a precious gift from her grandma, had cracked. She carried the jug with her all her life as a reminder that even when your heart was broken, you could still love again.
When he gave her back the printed version of that story, she showed him the cracked jug in her china cabinet. His eyes grew round and wide.
Grandma also wrote about raising my brother and me, and how far we travelled around Port Credit, Ont., with my mother pulling us in our little red wagon. We went to the library, the swimming pool, the grocery store and more. After reading that story our son told me it was one of his favourites. I used to pull him and his brother around the east end of Toronto in a red wagon, too. I had forgotten about that.
One of Grandma's stories was about waving good-bye - how it is one of the first things we teach our babies to do, and how important it becomes as we reach all the endings in our lives. She wrote about waving good-bye when you left family and when people went on a journey. On our wedding day, my husband and I waved from our hotel balcony in Toronto after the day's events were over, catching my parents as they got into their cars to go home.
She wrote about all the good-byes we don't get to have in life, and how much the memory of the last good-bye then matters more. I noticed how purposefully and tenderly our son hugged my husband and me when we departed for Ontario for a month this summer. He said he loved us. And he waved.
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Our son was troubled by the stories that carried an edge of sadness - like the hard Christmas of my teenage years when our family relationships were strained and money was tight. The holiday was saved by my mother's discovery of a nest in our Christmas tree. How could we not feel special after such a secret gift came to our family? Still, he couldn't quite believe the life lesson that one good thing can have far more impact than all the rotten things.
When he had finished typing all the stories and made corrections as Grandma requested, he printed three copies of each and took them to her apartment. She gave him $200. A fair price, but hardly a drop in the tuition bucket. Still, something bigger had happened. Our son was different. That was clear when I talked to him about the work he had done for Grandma and everything he'd learned about his family's lives.
When we named our two sons, we gave each a family name and a name of his own. Our youngest never liked his middle name, and his friends made fun of it. It was a family surname coming from my mother's grandmother, whom he had met in his grandma's stories. I asked if he appreciated his name now that he knew some of the people behind it. He did, and was proud of being charged with the responsibility of carrying it into the future. Such a wise grandma my sons have, I thought.
Not much went the way we hoped this summer. But then again, one good thing happened, and that just might be enough.
Diane J. Strickland lives in Calgary.
Illustration by Sophie Casson.