My grandpa passed away last night at age 100.
He squeezed more out of that 100 years than most people would ever even think of attempting. One of the most quintessentially Grandpa moments was when, on his 100th birthday, he was still worried about some old, broken-down machines in the basement he had yet to tinker with. His active mind just wasn’t ready to rest yet.
I’ve learned three big lessons from him. The first is to take on big challenges and to do it for the right reasons. Not because when you beat it, you’ll be satisfied and then you can be happy. That won’t happen. You’ll beat it, you’ll be glad it didn’t best you, and you’ll move on to the next thing to challenge yourself with. It will never define you and it will never be enough. If it’s the right challenge, the happiness will come from pushing yourself, from tackling something that’s truly difficult and tests your limits, from learning and failing and growing. That’s what matters.
The second is to value the work of your heart as much as the work of your hands. Grandpa got to see his products touch millions of people, though he never spoke of that with any sense of pride or boastfulness. I didn’t know he made the die for a Morton salt spout and the dash of an Oldsmobile until others told me. I think he cared more about solving the problem than what came out of the machines he built. Instead, he was proud of the time he gave a friend a turntable cabinet he’d restored. Or the time he fixed a friend’s borrowed car on a long trip. Or the time he and my grandma drove to Iowa in a blizzard to help out when my brother was born. He was proud of his sons and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Though he never said it to me in this way, I think he was most proud of the love he had given and received in his life. That legacy is something that will live on.
The third thing he taught me is to understand your place in the universe. In the last year of his life, he and Charlotte both told me “People try to do too much when they need to just give it up to God.” This was surprising to hear from two of the most capable people I’ve ever met. I’m not religious in the same way they are, and yet I believe there’s a higher power out there watching out for our greatest good. But if we get too dug in on exactly how we believe things should go, we’ll miss out on what could be. I remember him talking about the unsteady nature of working for the big automakers and knowing he’d get laid off every summer. And yet, the right work always came along at just the moment he needed it to. And one of those “filler” jobs ended up being the next step in his career. He taught me to lift my eyes up from the next step directly in front of me, and look around. If it’s not happening in the way we want right now, it’s because there is something bigger and better in store for us. Often it’s just to the side of the path we thought we would follow. We need to trust that the right things will show up in our lives at the right time to bring about our highest good.
No matter how long we live, most of us will leave something on the table when we go, our own rusty machines in the basement. I doubt my grandpa knew as a young man all of the twists and turns his life would take. But he woke up each day and did the best he could and loved his family and managed to make some amazing things along the way. In the end, I hope he’d agree that he did it right. He may not have checked off everything on his list, but he got the ones that mattered most. We love you, Grandpa. Rest in peace.