This is a story about finding an old photo of a family member you never knew, and what happens you start to trace their life.
You know that feeling when, late at night, you catch yourself leafing through old family photo albums? Sentimentality, maybe; reminiscing, sometimes; curiosity, always. Whatever it was, I found myself leafing through old albums during a trip to my parent’s house and stumbled across this picture of my grandfather, Donald Winston.
Forever stuck in his twenties, he stares out with sharp eyes. Taken somewhere in Germany on a U.S. military base in the 1950’s, he sits holding his newly born son, Jonathan (my uncle).
He never held me, though; he passed away at 55, a few years before I was born. I only know of him through the stories my father told. He was rumored to have been an American spy in Soviet Russia in the 60s and that fueled my imagination as a child.
But this isn’t the story of Donald Winston. This is a story about finding an old photograph of an old family member you never knew at 11:30 at night and trying to trace the lines of your own face, your own life, in theirs. This is about looking at someone without whom you wouldn’t exist and uncovering lessons from beyond the grave.
Armed with only family stories to guide me, here are five lessons I discovered as I gazed down at that picture of my grandfather.
A little back-story: my grandfather grew up in Brooklyn and, filled with a desire to get as far away from home as possible, he went to university in Colorado – no small feat for a teenager in 1950. Every summer while he was there, he would pack up his car and drive to Alaska to work on a commercial fishing boat. And this was long before the Trans Alaska Highway was modernized. Dirt roads, infrequent gas stations, and forget AAA if something went wrong. For a guy raised in Brooklyn, talk about being adventurous.
I’d like to think I’ve taken this lesson to heart. This past summer I traveled to Chengdu, China (an adventure in and of itself, I assure you). Just to give you a taste of what life’s like in Chengdu, imagine this: motorcyclists driving at 40 to 50 miles per hour on the sidewalks. Never mind the streets themselves.
The lesson here? No matter if you’re driving to Alaska or trying to cross a sidewalk in China or even just walking down the street, always be adventurous. Take a wrong turn on purpose and see where you wind up.
Do Anything for Love.
Here’s an endearing family tale: faced with the choice to buy an engagement ring or fly his girlfriend out to California, where he was studying for his Masters, my grandfather chose to buy her a plane ticket. When he proposed, he was forced to use his Phi Beta Kappa ring as a makeshift engagement ring. She said yes (and thank God or I wouldn’t be here) and, even years after, refused to exchange that ring for another.
This image – and story – have always played clear in my mind and left me with lesson number two: no matter what you do or don’t have, do anything for love and things will (probably) work out. That’s a rule I’ve tried to live by and, even if it seems overly romantic, it’s led me to some genuinely amazing relationships.
Make Your Work Exciting.
From being a fisherman in Alaska, to writing for Forbes and Life magazine in Soviet Russia, to traipsing around Europe as a journalist, he seemed to do it all and do it well.
The bottom line? Your work should always be an adventure. Even if you don’t leave the office, your city, state, or country for that matter, do what you love and treat what you do as a pathway to who you want to be. His passion was traveling and he always made sure to get a job that would let him do just that.
And here I am, walking in his footsteps. I’ve found exciting work that I’m passionate about and I’ve already asked my boss for those travel funds… She laughed but perhaps it was a bit much on my first day of work.
Don’t Let Your Past Control Your Present.
He was constantly reinventing himself. From Brooklyn kid, to international journalist, to independent finance reporter, to VP at a major bank to novelist…and I’m probably leaving a bunch out. While he could very well have remained in Brooklyn his entire life, he went out and took on a variety of jobs, constantly reworking himself as he, and the times, changed. How very 2014 of him!
The lesson here is universal: don’t be afraid to try new things. Simple enough to say but, trust me, this one’s harder than you think to do and do right. Sometimes fear of the unknown keeps you from working to change the things you don’t like, whether jobs or otherwise.
I took my own advice recently when I bought a one way plane ticket from New Jersey to Austin, Texas. Armed with one checked bag, a backpack, a guitar, a resume and no apartment or car, I stand before you (still car-less) but with shelter, food, and work.
Always Look to the Future.
One more story: called back by his alma mater to speak about the future of computers in the 1970’s, he predicted the mouse and things like copying and pasting to a disbelieving audience. No matter what others said, he was a freethinker.
So here’s the lesson: be imaginative and always think about what’s coming next. Be content in the present but eagerly anticipate the future.
Such family stories and lessons are more than simply a collection of random memories – they help weave a story of ‘who’ we are and why we are. Your story isn’t yours alone; its roots stretch long before you begin, and grow into the future. Your story unfolds together with all of the people with whom you interact, especially your family. By paying attention to the stories of those who were once here and those who are here now, you’re discovering yourself at a much deeper level.
I leave you you with a picture of myself, set in black and white just like my grandfather before me. Who knows, maybe a grandchild of mine will find it one day and uncover some of their own lessons.
Photos courtesy of the author
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