Sharing the Wisdom: What I Learned from My Grandfather About Courage and Nature

Sharing the Wisdom: What I Learned from an Elder - a series at IgnatianSpirituality.comWhen I was a child, my brother and I spent long summers with my grandparents on their retirement farm outside of Cornwall, Ontario. My grandparents were both immigrants from Latvia and often offered perspective or advice from their old country. Most of what I learned from them came in the form of storytelling. In 1944, my grandmother gave birth in a hospital with bombed-out windows and little heat in the December cold. After recovering from pneumonia with the assistance of a cousin and wrapping my mother in a multicolored wool blanket, she escaped the Russian and Nazi invaders and waited in Germany for my grandfather. My grandfather then escaped from a Russian POW camp and walked all the way to Germany to meet them.

My grandfather always reminded me that we were a family of survivors. No matter how much adversity life might offer up, he did not want me to forget that our family had made it, and that I could make it too. My grandfather died in 2008 at the age of 98, but he is always with me. At times in my own life when I have struggled with various difficulties, I have often thought back to these stories of courage and resilience.

Not all of my grandfather’s influence had to do with such serious matters, though. Much later in my life, shortly before my wedding, my grandfather offered up the following aphorism: “If you hold your nose too high up in the rain you’ll drown.” Although he did not explain this metaphor, I am pretty sure he was cautioning me against being too proud, good advice for any marriage.

One of the most influential aspects of my grandfather’s wisdom, however, was not what he said but how he modeled a way of relating to the natural world. My grandfather talked to animals. Out loud. For example, if a woodchuck was digging up some plant in his garden, he’d go talk with it, perhaps saying in a warm, yet chiding voice, “What are you doing in my garden? This is not for you. Go find yourself some other food to eat. There’s a nice bunch of blackberries on the rock wall for you to visit.” My grandfather kept chickens and geese and would talk with them as he walked them out to the pond and back. He had no illusions that the animals understood his words, but he treated animals with friendship rather than as objects to be used. All of the natural world was his friend.

I recently realized that my love of nature and my connection to God through contemplation of the natural world is rooted in my grandfather’s care for the same. For example, I often think of certain beloved trees at the local park or at my workplace as akin to “friends” that I witness change and grow over the years. My grandfather’s influence made this friendship with the natural world feel as natural as breathing air. Like him, I also chat with the animals and even my garden plants. Although, so far, they do not talk back, God does speak to me through the way they reflect the possibility of friendship with all of creation.

Editor’s Note: This week here at, we’re sharing stories of wisdom learned from our elders, in honor of Sharing the Wisdom of Time by Pope Francis and Friends. The book inspired the Netflix series Stories of a Generation with Pope Francis.


  1. I loved the grandparent’s wisdom stories very much. I was raised by my grandmother, after she had had 4 sons. She often told me “she loved every hair on my head and wouldn’t swap me for a curly haired pup”.

  2. My husband has always lovingly made fun of me for talking to animals and my garden plants….you have helped me get the positive out of my quirkiness. Thank You!!

  3. I have always found it amazing how immigrants who usually have little or no education have found wisdom without the benefit of a formal education.
    As a first generation Italian American the one pearl I remember that my dad passed on to me when moaning and groaning about the hardships and sacrifices in my college years.
    He simply said, with a very strong accent, “if everyone were to throw all of their problems in the middle of the street, for everyone to see, I would be the first to take mine back.”

  4. What a lovely and inspiring reflection. I have benefited from learning about my grandparents’ joys, struggles, and little ways of being in the world that made them unique and special. And I see traces of their ways in me and even in my daughters. These noticings ground me and comfort me. And are often sources of strength.


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