Amy Choate-Nielsen: Meaningful family relationships are forged in life's 'village'
I’ve always loved that saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.”
It speaks to me of optimism, of unity and hope. As a child, it reassured me to think that so many were interested in my well-being. And as an adult, it encourages me to think of my village’s many willing, outstretched hands as antidote to the enormity of life’s responsibilities and the wicked things of this world.
But today, that phrase has a new nuance for me. It makes me think of the members of my family who aren’t actually my relatives.
Today, that phrase makes me think of my Grandpa Ted.
I never really knew my biological grandfathers. My dad’s father, Irvan, died before I was born. And my mother’s father, Homer, died when I was young. I have memories of Homer feeding me Twinkies when I was little, and I remember him to be kind and loving. But he died before I ever registered what a grandfather was. I didn’t even know what I was missing.
But then I med Ted.
Edward Willmoth is as British as they come. He was born in 1923 and grew up drinking black English tea practically from the time he was a baby. He’s lived in London his whole life, and fought with the British special forces in Burma during World War II. He cared for his ailing wife until the day she died, even breaking his back twice lifting her into bed.
His life has been hard and, at times, he is still haunted by the traumatic experiences he endured both as a child and a soldier. But he always balances life’s pain with a positive eye toward the future, and a poetic understanding and acceptance of his past.
When I first met Ted in his little flat just off the Bayswater tube stop, north of Kensington Gardens in London, he was 79. He gave me a Pink Lady apple and a chunky Kit Kat every time I came to see him. He was thoughtful and stubborn and kind and personal. He made observations about me in the first few months I knew him that few have iterated in the course of years.
I started calling him my Grandpa Ted shortly after I realized I felt a kindred connection to him beyond mere acquaintanceship. We were born worlds away and generations apart, but he was my mentor, motivator and my beloved friend.
“Let it be said that from where I am standing you are doing a great job, and I think you are probably expecting too much of yourself,” he told me once during a particularly difficult time after I had my second child. “Having children and running a home in addition to all of the other things that scream for attention, it is no wonder that the old nerves get strung up like the strings of a harp sometimes.”
He told me more than once I was a little high-strung.
But hearing Ted’s analysis of me was never offensive. It was always from a place of love and direction. And I take stock in his words as spoken by a person more caring and wiser than I. He is the closest I can imagine a grandfather could be to me.
One time, after a series of maladies and misfortunes, he wrote me a letter that inspired me and summed up his attitude of life perfectly.
“'How the mighty have fallen!’ ” he said, speaking about himself. “Does one good sometimes to have a good laugh at one’s self and take the ‘mickey’ at the same time. Very early in my long and chequered life I learned three very important words. They were — never give up. And if you go down, go down fighting!”
I’ve been back to visit my Grandpa Ted, but not enough. And we have kept in touch through phone calls, letters and emails, but not enough. And now, as my dear Ted is approaching his 91st birthday, he is again facing medical difficulties. His memory, too, is fading.
Fortunately, the village that first brought him to me is now reaching out to lift him. I’m told he has daily visitors at his hospital bedside and he’s cheered to hear the kind notes from those who care.
Well, Ted, this one’s for you.
Thank you for lifting me up and filling me with hope. You will always be a part of my family. I love you.
Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her extended family.
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