Kevin Sterling reflects on the profound personal lessons and inspirations he was able to glean from his grandfather’s long and storied life.
The call came mid-morning on a Wednesday. My only grandfather passed away in his sleep. It was the ON-switch of a generational vacuum, pulling the men in my family one more rung up the ladder of mortality. If all things flow in normal order, my Dad will go next, my older brother and I after that—a sobering thought.
It was one of the most profound catalysts I’ve experienced in life.
My grandfather and I had a great relationship and I have no regrets about how we parted ways. I attribute this to one of our last conversations, where I specifically thanked him for teaching, guiding and supporting me through my entire life. He also met my son, and I told him I would raise him in a way that he would approve. I wanted him to know that his work was done in my generation and would continue in the next.
Rather than mourning his death, my focus shifted towards how I might continue his legacy. To chart the course, I wanted to thoroughly and honestly examine what I knew of my Grandfather’s life and begin to apply it towards my own.
He was a diligent and hard worker
Like so many of his Depression-Era brethren, having a job was the foundational element to everything in life—literally “you don’t work, you don’t eat.” (That’s in the Bible.)
Mid-way in his career, before my time, he was fired from a job for “insubordination” and suspiciously replaced with a younger, cheaper employee.
My Mom told me he came home, didn’t say anything to anyone, and laid face down on the living room floor, staying the entire night, on to morning.
I’ve never heard another story like this in my entire life. Even though I didn’t witness it, the image burned into my mind as the pinnacle of how a man should revere his work.
As the family breadwinner, I keep a humble understanding that my performance is symbiotic to the quality of my family’s life. I’m grateful for opportunity and am deeply committed to bringing value to every single client and customer.
His recreation was fruitful
I never played catch with my grandfather, went to a movie, or did anything that didn’t ultimately produce something of value for the rest of the family.
He gardened, he fished, he hunted, and, on a random evening, he might have watched a baseball game–with the family. As a kid, my brothers and I at times hated going to visit my grandparents because we knew it would mean labor in the hot sun without Nintendo, air conditioning, or my WWF action figures.
In retrospect, cutting asparagus in a field all day and then eating it for dinner that same night is something that a well-heeled urbanite would pay to do as a bleeding-edge food experiment.
Before I was married and had a kid, I played the occasional video game, saw movies, and sought fruitless entertainment as my recreation. Nowadays my recreation looks like: industry or non-fiction reading, house projects or new side ventures—like writing my first book. Every pursuit is tied to a tangible purpose.
He was financially responsible and incredibly generous
Remember the company that fired him? He stayed in touch with them for the rest of his life and would occasionally give them extra fish he caught or garden surplus. It didn’t make much sense to the rest of the family, but the simple fact that they had once given him a job established a loyalty that he wasn’t ever willing to dismiss.
He was frugal, but valued celebration. I have no idea how much money my grandfather made in his life, but I know that over the years he gave and/or loaned multiple family members money, and that I never had a birthday, Easter, or Christmas where he didn’t give me or any other grandchild a present. His generation didn’t believe in debt, everything was paid in full, in cash. They also believed that abundance was to be shared.
In his last years I saw the tumultuous convergence of old-school money principles with the modern medical system. His generation didn’t have long term care insurance because they died long before it would be needed. His life savings slowly drained to pay for full time at-home care, the remainder was left hopefully to be enough for my widowed grandmother.
My takeaway is that a lifetime of hard work and frugality can be eradicated in an instant without proper estate planning. His example also encouraged me to get our family out of debt as soon as possible, easier said than done.
He loved his wife until the day he died
My grandparents got married when my grandmother was 17 and he was 18. Her parents had to sign a permission form for her. Even though things were drastically different back then, it’s a hell of a leap of faith for parents to consent to marrying their 17-year-old daughter off to an 18-year-old kid. When I was 18, I was definitely not marriage material.
Whatever the case, my grandparents stayed happily married for over 60 years. Some may say that their generation didn’t know any better, or that they were otherwise socially entwined, but I perceive, however, a deeper affection with an emotional wake still rippling past his death. When he died, my grandmother asked to be removed from the room they shared and refuses to even glance at the room one year since.
If you want to extrapolate their relationship out of romantic dedication, you could simply say that my grandfather was a man of his word. When he vowed to “forsake all others” and stay together “richer or poorer, in sickness and in health,” he freaking meant it.
This might sound weird, but I’m lucky that I’ve always been wildly in love with my wife. What I gain from his legacy is simply to keep going, and realize that your family should be treated like a tree. Work hard to take care of it and give it what it needs.
He loved his family with an iron fist
Before my parents’ divorce, my Mom took a night job while my Dad was overseas with the National Guard for Gulf I. One night, my Mom met my grandfather at a rest stop so my brothers and I could stay with him and my grandmother while she worked.
Perhaps suffering from teen angst and a Dad at war, my older brother decided at the first stoplight to jump out of my grandfather’s truck and run down the highway to jump back into my Mom’s car. Like most grandfathers, mine was a slow, slow… slow driver. However, after this stunt, he drove like a maniac to intercept my Mom and reclaim the black sheep.
The entire 30 minute ride to his house, he gripped my brother by the scruff of his neck like a mangy dog, pinning him down to the floorwell of the truck. Choice words were exchanged. It was the most aggressive force I ever saw my grandfather display, but it was also easy to understand a ferociousness born out of love, to protect my brother from himself.
You can’t be afraid to respect and love your children enough to prevent them from destroying their lives with ignorance, arrogance, and naivety.
Every man leaves a legacy
I want my grandfather’s legacy to live on in my family in a real and meaningful way. In true pragmatist fashion, I took action: I’m getting our family out of debt, staying happily married, and raising hard-working and competent children that understand that like any other tree, a family tree is to be nourished, trained, protected, and, at times, pruned.
On the bus ride home after that morning call, I started a eulogy outlining many of these qualities as both a standard and a warning for everyone who would hear it. My Dad read it for me, because I didn’t stay long enough for the funeral. The day it happened, I chose to go on a photo shoot with my company, Bush Smarts. My work provides for my family, and it’s my responsibility to keep at it, no matter what. I think my grandfather would’ve done the same.