Mentored by Grandpa

Jana Miller

When I try to explain how I became interested in intergenerational and environmental learning, I come to the general conclusion that I grew up with it.  The following post was first written as the prologue for my master's thesis on intergenerational learning (2010). It is the most meaningful piece I've written to date, and I wanted to share a condensed version of it here.  

Grandpa didn’t play with us on the farm the way I often see grandparents in the city playing with their grandkids in parks or swimming pools.  Our interactions were framed in the context of outdoor work.  This may not seem ideal for a grandparent-grandchild relationship in the 21st century, but I believe my involvement in his day-to-day tasks working around the farm yard opened opportunities to develop in me a sense of groundedness to the land where I grew up.  In trying to keep step with Grandpa I learned a familiarity with using tools and growing vegetables, a lived understanding of the concept of planning for provisions, and the mentality of pitching-in until the job is done.  He let me be a part of his “adult” day.  This meant a lot to me as a child—the responsibility to share in the work that had to be done.  He didn’t lose patience because I was too little or too slow.  We were doing important work, and he made me feel a part of it. By integrating his outdoor work with childcare, I think he was creating a relationship based on core values and skills he wanted us to grow up with.  In a way, even as young as three, I began my informal apprenticeship with him. This is what I remember about working alongside Grandpa: 

The way Grandpa touched in the garden was about reading the Earth.  We didn’t talk much- but he would show with his hands, and then ask “see?” He seemed to think you should know what to do by doing it—paying attention was important.  He was the sort of man who measured baking powder in the crevices of his hands.  But, being a child, my attention span was better for some things than others. Helping him dig up the potatoes, I liked to dig my fingers down to where the Earth was cool, moist and I could squeeze clumps into spiny dinosaur bodies in my fist.  This must be where the worms go.   Dry clumps of dirt that the Roto-tiller churned up imprint my knees.   Mom had me change into my ‘outdoor clothes’- my brother’s old shorts.  I liked to sit in the dirt—to lift up dirt platelets and see what scurried out.   Iridescent beetle backs.  Magic in the dust.  In the fall and winter grandpa wore his big green outdoor work coat. Sometimes, when I got tuckered out, he’d cover me with it as a blanket weighing heavy with the smell of his pipe and leaves turning to Earth.

Spending the day with grandpa could mean helping with any number of tasks.   There always seemed some small role for us to take part in such as flouring the counter for baking or looking for trains on our walks to get groceries.  Where other caregivers could have easily plunked us down in front of the TV, grandpa would get upset if he thought we were spending too much time inside. Grandpa loved to walk, and although we grandchildren slowed him down, I think he enjoyed our company.  When we visited him in the city, he thought nothing of taking us on hour-long walks at his brisk ‘going somewhere efficiently’ pace to buy groceries downtown.  I think he viewed it as a chance to show us how to get around and look after our basic needs. 

The experiences I shared with my grandfather tended to be centered on physical work rather than play or recreation.  Even though he didn’t exactly play with us or plan activities with our learning or entertainment in mind, he provided opportunities for us to learn and play outdoors. Our time together was often a result of tagging along to help with the yard work my Grandpa was doing at our house.  Through my outdoor experiences with him I developed a sense of comfort and capability working with plants, tools and soil.  From my parents’ perspective, he was supervising me while they were busy with other things.  From our perspective we were doing important and necessary seasonal work. 

Although Grandpa was adamant that we help out with the work, he was not against my ‘playing on the job’.  Being an imaginative child, I would make games out of stacking branches, catching rides in the wheelbarrow or making bug swimming pools at the base of the tomatoes plants when watering them.  The garden was a maze of plant rows to dig in and hop over.  In this way I also played in the presence of grandpa’s work.  We each related in our own ways but his being out there, with his quiet presence and gruff approval created space for me to learn about the place I lived.  It wasn't just me who was excited to see how many potatoes we would dig up in the next hill of potatoes. 

It is difficult as an adult to point my finger at specific childhood experiences and say “this is what he taught me”.  However, because he was such a prominent figure in my life, I can generally attribute some of my values to my early apprenticeship with him, and the values and beliefs he modelled.  These are living simply, working hard, growing, cooking and preserving your own food, giving thanks for and appreciating what you’ve got, repairing before buying new, and not being wasteful or frivolous.  I think he mentored me in learning practical skills embedded in an appreciation for the natural world. 

Jana Miller

Dedicated to Grandpa Miller.  You remain a mentor in my life.