Annie's Micro-Museum

A walk and talk with Grandpa George

“I try to never over eat,” he said.

Grandpa and I were on a walk after a huge meal we just ate that Grandma had prepared. I was feeling full. Forget taking a nap, he told me a good walk was exactly what we needed. My family was staying at their house in Brookfield, Wisconsin for the weekend.

Grandpa loved to walk. He walked everyday. He was really very fit, had skinny legs with very little if any hair on ’em. My sisters and I’d tease that they looked liked he’d shaved! We thought it was hilarious, he didn’t seem to mind too much. Guess that was having granddaughters.

Here’s a picture of us with him. (I’m in the pink shorts.)

My sisters and I with Grandpa George
My sisters and I with Grandpa George

But on this walk, he was starting one of his more serious conversations he’d have with me every once in a while. It was just me and him and I remember we walked along the side of the road in his neighborhood. There were no sidewalks, so we walked on the left side close to the grass.

He looked up every so often and would point out some houses he knew the people in. It was a nice neighborhood. All the yards were super green and mowed beautifully, not covered in dandelions like by our house. Grandpa and Grandma had done well for themselves. The houses were big and well kept and he called it a “subdivision,” which seemed fancy to me at the time. I was probably in middle school, so mid to late 1990s.

“You know I went to the dentist and he told me I should exercise more. Guess you can tell a lot from a person’s gums about their health,” he said.

I nodded.

His mom Rose, who I wrote about in Sunday Brunch with Rose ended up with dentures in her forties. She was born in 1896 and lived to almost 104. So more than half her life she had to live with that. Story goes she went in for a tooth ache one day and the dentist said the tooth was no good, and that the one next to that wasn’t either. Then he just started pulling all her teeth!

Can you imagine?

He told me about his decision to start taking better care of himself, which mainly had to do with staying active, walking a lot, and not over eating. I found that last one hard because Grandma always kept a candy dish out at her house. How’d he have such self control?

The inspiration for this story comes from a few different items I kept of my Grandpa George’s.

Here they are:

Grandpa's Bow Tie, Telephone Pencil Sharpener and Liberty Bell
Grandpa’s Bow Tie, Telephone Pencil Sharpener and Liberty Bell

The combination of things really describes his “down-to-business” side of him. I’ll go through one of them at a time below. But first, I’ll just say… Grandpa worked really hard to get to where he was financially, and in life in general.

Grandpa didn’t want to be a farmer.

I’ve heard the story twenty times or more. My Grandpa really didn’t want to be a farmer, synonymous in his mind, as he made known, to being poor.

His Dad was a farmer.

I remember driving by the house my Grandpa was born in. That house has been updated but is still there on the corner of Sprecher and Cottage Grove Road in Madison, Wisconsin.

When my Grandpa was ten they moved to another farm a few miles away. That land is where a church called St. Dennis, that we used to go to, was later built on. I remember telling the priest that one day.

After eighth grade, my Grandpa’s Dad told him that he would have to work on the farm. My Grandpa didn’t want to. He wanted to go to high school instead. His Dad made him pay him $18 a week, what it would cost him to hire out help, in order for him to go to school. So my Grandpa walked all the way to Oscar Mayer foods, a meat supply factory, to work at night to make enough money to go to school in the day. I’m not sure how many miles away it was, but it was a long ways. He made an extra $2 a week that he saved. I remember hearing that he used to fall asleep in Spanish class too, not surprising.

Now I feel like every movie you ever see with an old grandpa telling their grandchildren about walking “x” amount of miles to school with “bread bags” on their feet to stay dry… is what this sounds like. But I know this one’s true.

He made up his mind he didn’t want to be stuck on the farm, which he hated, and to him the only way out was getting an education.

My Dad tells me his Dad’s biggest regret was that, later after my Grandpa had been drafted into World War II, he hadn’t taken the GI money to get a college education. Guess he really would have loved to go to college.

I wrote about how Grandpa hated baked potatoes in Where I hid a penny because he had so many on the farm. But not living on “The farm” meant more to him than avoiding eating too many potatoes, it was avoiding a lifestyle altogether. He wanted to make money. He wanted to make a lot of it.

Grandpa invested aggressively to earn his savings.

He wasn’t in the norm I’d learn. Grandpa invested his money really aggressively and because of it did really well for himself and my Grandma. But contrary to what a lot of people think about people who are financially considered “well off” they really worked hard for it. It wasn’t handed to them. They were also generous with their money as well. He helped my sisters and I get our own college savings accounts set up, and stressed the importance of saving for retirement as soon as possible too.

“You want to let your money work for you,” he said.

We sat in his office. It was the room down the hall from the family room. Grandma had recently redone it in a golf theme. There was a golf scene that repeated on a wall paper border halfway up the wall, and curtains and pillows to match. He was sitting at his big oak desk rocking back in his desk chair with wheels. I was on the couch across from him.

On the shelf behind me, just above the couch, was both the telephone pencil sharpener and bell pictured above. Here’s a few pictures of the telephone first.

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The telephone was fun to touch and play with while he talked because it was miniature and you could remove the receiver. Grandma loved miniatures! Maybe she had got it for him. It makes a lot of sense that he had this because he worked for a telephone company for years. Ever hear of Bell?

Which is why the bell was also probably there. It’s a little replica of the Liberty Bell, but also just that… a bell. Since he worked for Bell Telephone company I’m guessing it was also a work related gift.

In the war he worked with communication and that also involved telephone operations.

Here’s some pictures of the bell:

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I loved to pick it up and ring it. Sometimes my sisters and I’d play school and use it like an old-time school bell, or ring it if Grandma told us dinner was done.

Although I was probably a tad young when Grandpa was trying to have a financial talk with me, I do remember him saying this:

“The secret is to always live at least within, and if you can, below your means.”

This meant not spending everything you have, but saving.

Wow, right? Great advice. I recently heard a webinar with a guy talking about the same thing. It’s not rocket science, but seriously works. It did for them, and Grandpa made sure I knew it could for me too.

He also mentioned something called “compound interest” and the fabulous way saving early can literally make you a ton of money come the time you are his age. It was simple math, he explained.

Our on-going “Saint George” joke

My Grandpa, as much as I’ve talked about some great stuff about him, and what he taught me… was no saint. But hey, saints are kinda hard to come by anyway. He used to say “You mean, Saint George!” if my sisters or I’d call him by his first name to tease him.

There is actually a Saint George, and he made sure we knew it.

He had some really stubborn moments and at times he could be really difficult to be around. But I like to choose to remember the Grandpa I walked with that evening, and the Grandpa that I sat with in his office discussing life.

This bow tie reminds me of that Grandpa.

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Yes, it’s a clip on.

He was on a quest to be classy his whole life. We bought him this bow tie one year.

He loved to dress well, and take care of himself. He wasn’t perfect at it at all. But he kept trying and kept moving forward, taking walks, and drives, and not complaining too much about what he couldn’t change.

I guess that’s something I learned from him, the value of hard work and do diligence.

He’d be saying… “Say….” in this picture below.

Me and Grandpa 1983
Me and Grandpa 1983

Teaching Grandpa a thing or two.

I remember years later walking through a grocery store with Grandpa. My Grandma had just had her stroke and he was having to learn how to make all the meals after she had done it for 50 some years. I pointed out pre-made pizza crust he could top with a can of sauce and cheese, and how you could now buy rice in a bag you just had to steam in a microwave!

He didn’t complain. He told me they were just having to “start over.” He seemed thankful for the tips and determined to figure it out. He did hope I’d write it all down for him, which I did.

It’s funny how I felt like I started to teach him something in his old age. After all the years thinking that he’d never change, I started to see a softer side of him. He still didn’t like baked potatoes, but all his and her hard work and savings had allowed him and my Grandma a much more comfortable life that they could slow down in. They didn’t have to worry about what type of care they’d need and how to cover it. That is absolutely what I wish for all people, but since they were my grandparents and I loved them I thought they really deserved it too.

His story inspires me to try saving more and to remember that hard work can really pay off long term. It also makes me think that his generation knew a thing or two more about certain things than they’ve often been given credit for. Thinking that things are just gonna go our way or be handed to us is far from reality. I’m so glad I took the time to remember these couple of conversations we had and apply it to my life currently.

I’ve re-learned something in a way. and I’m thankful for that.

I’ll end with a picture of us from 2002. He came up to the Twin Cities to see me in a theatre show I was in at the time. Him and Grandma drove all the way from Milwaukee to see me. It’s a fabulous memory, and I love this picture.

Grandpa and I out to lunch in the Twin Cities in 2002
Grandpa and I out to lunch in the Twin Cities in 2002

Did your parents or grandparents ever tell you how they felt about school or money? I’d love to hear your story. Leave a comment below.

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