10 life-defining lessons I learned from my grandparents
In September, it will be four years since my grandfather died and I still think about him every single day. He was my hero. His presence in my life and the impact that he had on me will stay with me forever.
At his funeral, my brother and I were given the distinct honor of delivering the eulogy. My sister and our cousin were on stage with us as we struggled through our words. To say that he was loved by his grandchildren would be a drastic understatement. And as I think about it, it is probably somewhat unusual to have the grandchildren be the primary speakers at a funeral. But it was a special case.
As parents, raising our children to become productive and caring adults could be viewed as an obligation. But as grandparents, you are given a unique opportunity to mentor your grandchildren. Given my age, I obviously have no experience being a grandparent, but I do have the perspective of a grandchild that has been blessed with grandparents that made an enormous impact on my life. Given my story, I think a lot of grandparents drastically underestimate the impact they can have on their grandchildren.
The idea of a legacy
As a retirement planner, I spend an awful lot of time talking about money and sharing ideas to make that money last as long as possible. In some cases, we’re talking about multigenerational wealth. But retirement is about far more than just money.
Ask retirees what being truly wealthy means to them and rarely will you hear answers about net worth. It’s typically about making a difference in the lives of the people around them, namely family and friends. Sometimes “leaving a legacy” is discussed in terms of making large bequests to various organizations or making sure your family will be OK financially upon your passing.
Those are certainly noble goals. But I want to challenge you to think bigger. Mainly about your time.
My grandfather’s name was James Ashby Daniels. I am named after him, though few called him Ashby. Those who knew him best called him Jimmy or J.A. To me, he was Gaga.
As a young child, I would spend at least a week with my grandparents every summer and saw them regularly throughout the year. I grew up in a lower-middle-class home. My parents worked hard, but there wasn’t much there beyond making ends meet.
So, during my time with them each summer, my grandparents would buy my “new school clothes” for the year. This was a real treat for me. And every day during those weeks, my grandfather took me everywhere he went. To the post office to get the mail and daily newspaper and occasionally out to eat together. He shared stories from his childhood and about life in general.
Before my junior year in high school, my brother Shelton and I went to live with my grandparents. My grandmother (who is quite possibly the most loving and generous individual on the planet) has told me many times that we (my brother and I) saved them. I’m still not sure I understand why, but our decision to live with them was the best thing that could have happened to them. At a time in their life that we could have been viewed as an inconvenience, we were viewed as a blessing.
I am lucky that my grandparents chose to have an active role in my life. At the time, they might not have known the level of impact that they would have, but they contributed without reservation or regard to how we might inconvenience their life and their well-earned retirement.
My grandparents invested in me, both personally and financially. And while I’ll admit that I’m enormously grateful for the college education that they paid for, it is the time that we spent together and the lessons learned as a result that is their legacy.
I want to share just a few lessons that I learned from my grandparents to hopefully provide some perspective on the impact that a grandparent can have by investing real time with their grandchildren.
To tell the truth: While my parents certainly taught me the value of telling the truth, the version of “the truth” that my grandfather told seemed to be a more unvarnished version. And people loved him for it. You knew whatever he told you was the truth, not a softer version of the subject with shades of gray. The truth doesn’t change based on somebody else’s ability to stomach it. I am often accused of calling things as I see it, and this no doubt is a result of hanging with my grandfather.
The value of compromise in marriage: OK, this one is much more my grandmother. My parents divorced when I was 7, but both sets of my grandparents had long marriages. One was over 50 years and the other over 60 years. When I think of my grandfather and grandmother, I think of their friendship. I observed firsthand their marriage and love for one another. While not perfect, the loyalty and willingness to overlook each other’s shortcomings impacts my own marriage today. This is mainly thanks to my grandmother who is a selfless individual. In reality, she always seemed willing to compromise on the small things but knew how to put her foot down when it mattered. Marriage is not always easy, but it’s worth all the effort that it requires. If you want to stay married, understanding the value of compromise can’t be overstated.
How to handle disappointment in others: I was not a perfect grandchild to say the least. But the few times that I found myself in a bind, they didn’t come down on me. They let me suffer the consequences of my actions without piling on. Eventually, after the dust settled, we had discussions to ensure the lessons were learned. These discussions were never accusatory or heated, but informative and helpful. Even in my darkest moments, they were dependable. There are so few people in this world that you can depend on when the going gets tough, and they were there for me no matter the problem. Maybe that’s the touch of a grandparent, being able to see the forest for the trees. My children will be much better for that experience.
I was never an inconvenience: Family was more important to them than anything else. It was their purpose. In many cases, showing up is more than half the battle. My grandfather made it to most of my high school baseball games and to my brother’s wrestling matches. Sometimes just showing up is all it takes to show that you care.
Learn about business: My grandfather, in particular, was the first one to get me interested in the financial world. He showed me how to track stocks in the newspaper and how they worked. In short, he taught me that the business world is a big place and that opportunities abound for people who are willing to work for it. Even into his 70s and 80s, he continued to educate himself, which was not lost on me. Seeing him read the business section to glean insights made me strive to get better each day.
Work hard: It was legend that he never missed a day of work except for a time he was hospitalized because he tried to work through a severe illness. Anything less than full effort was unacceptable. It doesn’t take talent to work hard. This may have been the Marine in him, but he believed that whatever you do, you should do it to the best of your ability. Simple in theory, hard in application.
Be financially responsible: As a result of my grandfather’s business acumen, my grandparents were able to have a comfortable retirement and pay for my college to which I’ll maintain to the end of my life that it was the greatest financial gift and head start anyone could have ever given me. He taught me how to be frugal. He drove an old truck and wore old clothes. If you were to meet him, you might think he was he hadn’t attained any financial success whatsoever. He felt that “things” will never make you happy. And he was right.
Be generous: While he never had the nicest cars or clothes, he made sure we had whatever we needed. Every time I’d come home from college, he would ask if I needed anything for school or if I just needed some spending money. For someone as frugal as he was, he was always generous with me and was generous when it came to those he loved. They were worth far more than any thing he could buy.
Have faith in yourself: Before I decided to leave my prior firm and basically start over, I replayed words he spoke to me a thousand times. Always the woodsman, he told me to “cut my own path through life.” He encouraged me to have faith in myself because he had faith in me. He truly believed I could do anything. His confidence in me is one of a few reasons that I decided to take the leap to go out on my own.
Humility: He wasn’t quite able to care for himself in the waning days. In one experience over the long Labor Day weekend in 2014, I went down to help care for him. What was occurring with him is what most people fear most about the later stages of life. It was the stage where he was unable to care for himself. He must have apologized to me dozens of times that I had to help care for him. Each time he apologized, I told him it was an honor to do it for him. For a man that was larger than life, he was humbled and likely felt humiliated despite my best efforts and kind words.
That stage of his life left an indelible impression on me. My time with him came full circle. He cared for me until I had to care for him. I’ll never forget those times lying next to him in their bed just listening to old stories and getting a few extra bits of parting wisdom between his bouts of restlessness. He was truly my hero.
Would I have been willing to serve him in that way if he hadn’t taken the time with me? I’d like to think I would have, but I’ll never know because he did take the time to invest in me.
When I think back on my time with my grandparents, I don’t think about the college they paid for (though I’m eternally grateful), or the stuff they bought for me. I think of the time that we spent together and the lessons that came as a result of our time together. It was him sharing his 86 years of wisdom with me. It was coffee on the porch every afternoon once I was an adult listening to the same stories over and over again told with the same humor that he told me the first time. It was their inquiring about my own life and listening with genuine interest.
My grandparent’s legacy is firmly entrenched in my life. If you truly want to make a difference in the lives of the people you love most, having a plan for how you spend your time in retirement is at least as important as what you will do with your money.
Actionable ideas from a grandchild’s perspective
When your grandchildren come over to visit or you go to visit them, take them out for ice cream. Ask them questions about their life. What excites them, what concerns do they have? Ask what’s going on in their lives, offer the wisdom of your life on how they might tackle a certain issue. How should they respond to certain struggles? Take the time to sit with them and listen. You have an opportunity to be a mentor to them.
If you can detach them from their phones, give your grandchildren an opportunity to hear the stories of your life. You may be surprised how much they’ll be interested to hear your stories if you listen to their stories. Call your children. Call your grandchildren. Go visit them. Spend time with them.
Invest your time (and your well-earned retirement) in the people that you love. They will be so thankful that you did.
Knowing that life is short, we have two choices. We could invest our lives in our family and friends with the time that we have left, or we can let it roll by watching the news.
Your legacy is the output of that choice. The legacy of your life doesn’t suddenly begin when you die. How you choose to spend the years we have left is the great difference maker in how our lives will be recounted once we pass. Just like with your finances, the life lessons that you pass along can be multigenerational in nature, with the potential for even greater impact. In short, your legacy is defined by what you contribute to people’s lives.
Because at the end of the day, legacies are not about money. They are about people.
On the off chance that anyone is interested in reading my grandfather’s obituary (written by my father), here is the link.
This column originally appeared on Retirement Field Guide, it was adapted and published with permission.
Ashby Daniels, CFP, writes the blog Retirement Field Guide, which focuses on income distribution, taxes, health care and investing. He works for Shorebridge Wealth Management.
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